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May 26, 2004

Not Everything is Horrible!

I tend to focus on the horrible aspects of being alive. That's not because I'm pessimistic or morbid, but because it's hard to be funny about nice things. As the great Mark O'Donnell says, "You can't make a joke about something that's perfect." But today I'm going to take a brief break from the awful to focus on something genuinely good.

My mother volunteers with one of several "I Have a Dream" programs in Washington, DC. If you're not familiar with it, "I Have a Dream" was started by a businessman named Eugene Lang in 1981. As explained on the IHAD website,

In 1981, businessman Gene Lang returned to the elementary school he had attended 50 years earlier, to give a speech to a class of graduating sixth graders. He intended to tell them, "Work hard and you'll succeed." But on the way to the podium, P.S. 121's principal told Lang that three-quarters of the school's students would probably never finish high school, prompting Lang to make an extraordinary impromptu change to his speech: he promised college tuition to every sixth grader who stayed in high school and graduated.

According to the website, there are now over 180 IHAD programs nationwide. (There was also a recent, somewhat shallow 60 Minutes program about it.) IHAD programs differ substantially -- the central organization doesn't exert much authority -- but they do have one main thing in common: they all commit to paying college tuition (at the level of local state colleges) for every participant who finishes high school.

This requires a gigantic amount of money, and not only for the eventual tuition. A good IHAD program starts with kids as early as possible in elementary school and provides lots of tutoring and general support until they graduate from high school.

So, while my mother's program has gotten some incredibly generous grants, they're always looking to raise cash. Recently they invited local young families to an old fashioned ice cream social, netting themselves $900. My mother sent me the below pictures.

This IHAD program started with three kindergarten classes. They're mostly finishing ninth grade now. Here are some of the kids, plus one or two siblings:

On the right above is Keith, one of the kids I've met the most. He's been admitted to two prestigious high schools, and now has to choose between them. One is Washington's Ellington School of the Arts, which is particularly difficult to get into. Interesting fact: Dave Chappelle, currently America's funniest human, went to Ellington.

Here's the location, at St. Columba's in Washington, before:

And during. Note the balloons saying "Ice Cream for the Dream -- STEP/IHAD Scooper Sundae." (My mother is not in this or any of the pictures.)

Here's Keith again, painting the hand of one of the tinier attendants. She's already had her face painted. I enjoy how they are both concentrating intently.

Finally, here's another tiny participant, looking tired and just about to drop her bowl of ice cream. I believe her bib says "Mini Pirates Treasure Hunt."


Whenever my mother tells me about this program, I'm reminded that what she does is far more important and useful for the world than what I do. (Whatever that is.) And she doesn't even get paid -- as my father says, you couldn't pay someone to work as hard as she does. I am very proud of and impressed by her.

Of course, you might ask: why should something like this IHAD program be unusual? Shouldn't all American children be able to go to college? Shouldn't all American children have constant support and encouragement?

No, they shouldn't. That kind of thing costs money. And it's much more important that American money be spent blowing up weddings -- ideally weddings in Iraq, but if necessary weddings any place on earth. And perhaps one day in space.

Oh, ha ha ha ha ha. We now return to our regularly scheduled torrent of terrible news.

Posted at May 26, 2004 06:09 PM | TrackBack


Thanks for the kind words. One thing I've learned is each & every one of us knows something worth teaching someone else. I particularly like helping kids move from being non-readers to readers.

So, I challenge each of your readers to do something worth doing in their own backyard. It may be volunteering in a school, helping build a Habitat for Humanity house, repairing bikes or doing taxes with a citizen who needs help decoding our ridiculously complicated system. Risk using what you know to connect with someone in your city or neighborhood. You'll get more in the process than you give.


Posted by: Jody Schwarz at May 27, 2004 07:08 AM

For those who are wondering: yes, my mother and I communicate exclusively via this website. I don't even know what her phone number is.

Also, Rosalie Sherbrooke writes to say: "The "60 Minute" piece on IHAD might have been on the light side, but at least it got the word out to people who might otherwise not be aware of it. If it gets even one more volunteer because of it, it's probably a good thing."

This is certainly true. I wasn't really criticizing the 60 Minutes piece, just pointing out that it (inevitably) missed a lot about the programs.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at May 27, 2004 07:47 AM