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Program’s founders know what works

NCR Staff
Newark, N.J.

“Look around,” said Carolyn Wallace, “does it look like we prospered any? Until we start talking about how drugs have affected the inner city, it’s almost a waste of time.”

Wallace, who’s nearing 70, pressed her point. “We’re trying to combat the American dollar. These kids out there make money, the most valuable piece of paper in the world. We win wars based on the American dollar. Wonder why we’re losing the war against drugs? Because you can’t win a war against yourself.”

“These kids” are the hundreds of inner city youth and young adults of Newark who annually for three decades have passed through the caring hands of Wallace and her husband, James Wallace, founder of the International Youth Organization.

This trip to Newark was another of NCR’s “Other America” visits -- visits to those places in the United States that are virtually untouched by the nation’s recent decade-long economic boom.

More than 26 percent of Newark residents live below the poverty line. Better than half of those don’t even get 50 percent of a poverty level income. The rate of illiteracy grows.

One report describes life in the West Side Park community, for example, as an “intergenerational cycle of dependency, sometimes exacerbated by passivity,” in a neighborhood notable for its “sometimes deplorable living conditions, in bleak buildings often marked by graffiti and surrounded by litter, in areas of crime all too tragically involving drugs, violence, guns and death.”

Downtown Newark is experiencing something of an economic and cultural revival. Sky-high rents in New York City have driven would-be Manhattanites to look at alternative accommodations close-in. Newark is handy.

But it’s a revival that doesn’t touch Newark’s high school dropouts who wander the streets listless, apathetic, devoid of hope.

Thirty years ago the youth organization James Wallace crafted in a back room of a housing complex wasn’t a dream. It was sheer necessity in a city scarred by the riots of the 1960s and short on housing. The city had been chopped into racial enclaves -- deliberately, some community workers contended -- by the interstate highway system.

Despite the odds, some community groups did what they could. One group was the Newark Restoration Project that, with the federal government, put together plans that resulted in two privately managed high-rise housing complexes.

There were immediate problems. Kids rode the elevators all day and night, wrote on walls and generally tore the buildings apart. Wallace, who also worked for the fire department, was hired as a special policeman. But he didn’t think policing was the answer.

The kids needed something to do.

He gathered 13 young people in a back room. The youth group grew, drawing from public housing nearby. It evolved into the International Youth Organization. Wallace’s wife, Carolyn, came to help.

“Soon,” said Carolyn Wallace, “I’m saying to Jim, you’ve got to get some money. You can’t do this on parents cooking dinners. You need a fund of some kind.” The first grant, in 1975, was $5,000.

The focus of one early program was teaching young men to rehab old buildings.

A quarter-century later, with $1.3 million in annual grants, the work has expanded into a community-based family service agency providing the best prevention and personal achievement programs available. The programs are housed in eight rehabbed buildings.

Activities include a national model Youth and Conservation Corps, family problem solving and preservation programs for adolescent and young parents, juvenile crime prevention and youth leadership structures. This is in addition to being one of 16 youth and conservation corps nationwide in the federally funded welfare-to-work project.

Some people accepted for the Youth Corps, said Carolyn Wallace, “come in homeless. Sometimes my first job is just finding them a place to live.” She’s a true believer.

“Youth Corps is a model that’s been most successful because they can study at their own pace,” said Wallace, “as part of a team. If the country would just listen to all of us working in the inner city who know what needs to be done, we’d be better off. We know what programs work.”

Wallace is adamant on another issue, too. “Slavery’s mark has never been removed in this country,” she said. “That mark (of slavery) is ever present with us. At some point we should have come out of this by now. I work with young people, trying to give them a sense of identity. Especially the black males. That’s where the youth corps and the conservation corps really have been most successful.”

She works hard and she’s getting tired. Jim, chairman emeritus, has already retired. Carolyn is looking ahead. She wants to work more closely with her two faith communities, New Life and Redeeming Love Christian Center, and get back to some basics.

“Church,” said Carolyn Wallace, “was where you learned to sit still. Where you learned to govern yourself and not move around. These kids don’t know how to keep still.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 2001