- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2000

Like school districts across America, D.C. Public Schools requires high school seniors to meet a minimum number of

community-service hours to qualify for graduation. At first, I thought it was a ridiculous idea for one simple reason: Students in most of America's large urban school districts lag behind in reading and mathematics. Why, I wondered, would education officials mandate nonacademic "courses" when children aren't even mastering the basics?

But I had forgotten an important lesson I had learned from my parents and elders: We don't learn to live, we live to learn.

That message was sent home on June 6. The occasion was the ninth annual Community Impact awards ceremony. This wasn't any old awards ceremony, like the many held for students during June. You know the kind of which I speak, during which students are rewarded for outstanding academic achievement, athleticism or perfect attendance.

While those are important, too, this event was very special, even heartwarming, because it had nothing to do with government-driven entitlements, and nobody talked about Title IX, Title this or Title that. In fact, the only government-related participants were the public school students, principals and teachers who were honored for their dedication to and positive influence on the city in general and their own communities in particular. Hence the name of the organization Community Impact is oh so apropos. It reinforces the self-help tradition. You know, you are thy neighbor's keeper.

Anyway, the live-to-learn message was brought home by one of the honorees, the evening's "youth speaker." His name is Mario Gonzalez. Mario is a senior at Cardozo High School in Northwest Washington. But while listening to Mario, my husband, Rick, and I and others in the audience could tell Mario was not your typical high school senior. None of the student honorees were, because they all were recognized not only for maintaining their grades, but also for their dedication to community service.

Still, Mario stood out for two simple reasons. Mario immigrated to the United States in 1997, and when he arrived here, he could speak no English. Yet in three short years he not only has mastered our native language but risen to an extraordinary challenge and graduated from high school.

Imagine that. An immigrant, unfamiliar with the language, turf and culture, graduating from high school within 36 months. Now imagine that child standing before a standing-room-only crowd of strangers at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and relaying his story. Imagine the ovation, the joyful tears in the audience and the pride beaming from his family and peers. Unbelievable. Remarkable. Overwhelming.

Now imagine the thousands of other Marios on their way to America, or already settled here, and imagine the hundreds of millions of American-born teens struggling, day in and day out, against all manner of odds. Drug-infested neighborhoods, negligent parents, troubled schools, dead-end English as a Second Language programs, illiteracy, poverty and disease. You get the picture.

Those scenes are played out everywhere in America these days, including the nation's capital. Fortunately for many D.C. residents, there are Marios who overcome, and they overcome because of their inner drive, family support and the support of organizations like Community Impact.

See, Community Impact is one of only a few youth-oriented organizations I know of that doesn't sit and wait for government handouts. It is not a huge organization, and it doesn't seek or receive a lot of media attention, even though a member of its board of directors is a newspaper publisher and longtime friend. Its mission is very focused and clear. It also is very simple: Help people help themselves.

Community Impact reaches out to ordinary citizens in not-so-ordinary neighborhoods, helps them build a steering committee, allows that steering committee to identify the issues it wishes to address, then helps the group address the issues through community service. Of course, that takes a lot of hard work and a lot of resources. To that end, Community Impact and the steering committees develop partnerships with people and other organizations and corporations in their communities such as parent-teacher groups and the Cardozo-Shaw Neighborhood Association and outside their communities such as the Fannie Mae Foundation, Home Depot and Timberland Co. Of course, there are individual benefactors as well.

After helping people help themselves via community services, whether volunteering in a soup kitchen, cleaning up trash and graffiti or mentoring in a literacy program, Community Impact then grants youths another opportunity to learn by rewarding them scholarships.

The awards ceremony, which was held in the Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center, "honors committed individuals who have made a difference in their neighborhoods over the past year," said Greg Taylor, Community Impact's executive director. "The ceremony, 'Action Today, Leaders Tomorrow,' has come to symbolize what is right about the nation's capital, where residents honor residents both young and not-so-young for their tireless efforts to build a stronger, healthier and more vibrant Washington, D.C."

Yeah, self-help today, a payoff tomorrow. That's what I'm talking about.

Deborah Simmons is an editorial writer for The Washington Times. She can be reached by e-mail (simmon@twtmail.com).

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