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The Citizen Senator

Wednesday, January 1, 1997

Members of Congress have traditionally defined compassion by how much of other people's money they spend on their favorite causes. Perhaps it's time for a new definition: How senators and representatives use their own time and leadership skills to help organizations that aid the needy. Here are the stories of four legislators who, without relying on government tax collectors, are making an extraordinary difference in people's lives:

Rep. Mark Neumann

Mark Neumann, a sophomore congressman from Wisconsin, is a risk-taker. In 1980, he started a homebuilding company that promptly lost money. He pressed on. By 1991, he had established a thriving construction firm, Neumann Developments, that employs several hundred workers.

But if you ask Neumann about success and overcoming the odds, he'll tell you to talk to Eileen McCaffrey. As head of the Orphan Foundation of America (OFA), she works with a lot of children who find the odds stacked against them. The OFA is a scholarship and grant program that offers college tuition to kids who have bounced around foster homes their whole lives. "Kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds need help on three fronts if they are going to succeed," McCaffrey says. "They need to know they belong in a community, they need to develop some life skills, and they need opportunity. And that's where we and our scholarship program come in."

Some members of Congress are helping the needy the old-fashioned way -- one on one.

That's where Neumann comes in as well. Though he sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Neumann -- if pressed -- might tell you raising money for the OFA is the most significant thing he does in Washington.

Neumann rarely passes up an opportunity to ask his colleagues to support the charity. "Sometimes when we are assembled on the House floor for a vote, I'll go up to other members and ask them if they could help out the foundation," he says. "In my Christmas cards, I've included donation slips in case people want to send the OFA some money." He, along with several congressional colleagues, belongs to a ragtag rock band called "The Amendments," which performs benefit concerts for the Orphan Foundation. His efforts have translated into thousands of dollars in scholarship money for needy kids. In June, the congressman announced that five new scholarships worth $500 each were available for foster children in his Wisconsin congressional district.

In most states, foster-care assistance runs out when a recipient hits his 20th birthday. Once foster care ends, those in the system are immediately left to their own devices, which makes it difficult for them to escape the cycle of dependency. More than 40 percent of homeless adults spent time in foster care as children, McCaffrey says. Only 50 percent of children in foster care ever graduate from high school. Those who do typically have trouble getting into college, for both economic and academic reasons.

"All too often these kids have been in four or five different schools and maybe they don't have a lot of extra-curriculars," McCaffrey says. "They aren't too attractive to the traditional scholarship sources."

The OFA targets at-risk youngsters and helps them gain access to universities, community colleges, and trade and technical schools so they can make the transition from foster care to self-sufficiency. Toward that end, Neumann is helping McCaffrey organize an OLIVER project fund-raiser. OLIVER (an acronym for "Orphan Leadership Initiative: Values, Education, Resources") is a week-long Washington event in which orphans meet with public officials and policymakers, attend career workshops to help them develop the skills needed to look for a job, and set up internships with government officials and businesses.

"Mark has done so much to help us get recognized on Capitol Hill by talking our organization up with his friends," McCaffrey says. Even social workers in Neumann's district -- adversaries when it comes to policy issues -- are taking note. "They may not be sympathetic to what some in the Republican Congress and Mark are trying to do politically," she says, "but they respect what he does for us. They think he's terrific."

Senator Dan Coats

Dan Coats remembers that day in 1985 as if it were yesterday. Standing with his family in an anxious crowd, the music playing softly, he turned to the back of the church as the doors opened. C.J.'s bride made her way down the aisle to greet her groom on the most important day of their lives. Coats was struck at how much the bride reminded him of his wife Marcia on their wedding day 20 years earlier. Dan Coats was immensely proud. C.J., he thought, he's going to make it.

In the early 1970s, when the Hoosier first met C.J. in a Big Brother program in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, he wasn't so sure. C.J. was growing up on some of the toughest streets of Ft. Wayne, where good male role models are hard to find, and it had taken its toll.

Big Brothers is a mentoring program that matches fatherless youngsters with responsible, caring men. It has 500 chapters nationwide. "These are kids coming from extremely underprivileged backgrounds," Coats says. "They have suffered an assortment of unfortunate experiences at an early age. They have trouble forming coherent opinions and values about the world in part because they've never had strong male role models to look to for guidance."

Big Brothers is one of the most effective mentoring programs on the map: According to Public/Private Ventures, participation in Big Brothers cuts first-time drug use by 46 percent, reduces school absenteeism by 52 percent, and reduces violent behavior by 33 percent. The numbers, according to the Philadelphia-based research group, are consistent across all races.

Although Coats last year proposed an ambitious legislative package of tax credits and programs to empower needy families, he is quick to acknowledge the limits of government action. Government programs, he says, rarely get at the root causes of social problems.

That's a warning he picked up from a black minister in Macon, Georgia. The minister bluntly told Coats and other politicians at a hearing that "resources and money are not enough. The moral and spiritual sides of the person are more important." The warning has stuck with Coats, and helped cement his commitment to Big Brothers.

In recent years, Coats has served on the National Board of Big Brothers, raising funds and drawing attention to the need for more mentors. With more kids entering the program every year, mentors are being assigned groups of five youngsters, which Coats says dilutes its effectiveness. "Programs such as these can have such a powerful impact because they provide more than just material needs. They are able to address the needs of the whole person, which makes them quite different from government programs."

Senator Thad Cochran

We walked together in the shadow of all the great monuments on the Mall here in Washington, D.C. We even got to see Connie Mack and the Philadelphia Athletics play in Boston against the Red Sox." These were some of Thad Cochran's earliest memories as a Boy Scout in Mississippi.

Cochran was a devoted Scout as a young boy. Later he helped found a new Scout troop at Spring Ridge Methodist Church and served as its first junior assistant Scout master. Of the nearly 100 million scouting alumni of the 86-year-old program, Cochran is among the 2 percent who reached the rank of Eagle Scout, an accomplishment of which he is immensely proud. The senator has hung up his uniform, but still considers himself an "honorary Scout master" as he helps the Boy Scouts of America today by raising funds nationwide and by escorting Scout troops around Capitol Hill for a first-rate civics lesson.

"We cannot sustain a nation," says Senator Thad Cochran, "whose citizens have no sense of obligation to others or their country."

Cochran has for many years been an active spokesman for the Boy Scouts. "Within the Scout troop, young men learn the role of a good citizen," he says. "They learn that there are rules in life that need to be obeyed and that emergencies and dilemmas will confront you that cannot be ignored. These are lessons that need to be learned and at a very young age." Indeed, these are lessons which, when learned early and put into practice, can produce substantial accomplishments. Just ask William Lugg.

An Eagle Scout, William was one of 10 recent winners of the Presidential Environmental Youth Award. Lugg, along with the rest of Scout Post No. 220 from Van Nuys, California, logged more than 9,500 hours of building and maintaining trails in forests, parks, and camps in an effort to "make nature available to everyone." They built access paths to local lakes; developed booklets and signs in various languages, including Braille, for nature trails; and restored the habitats of endangered fish in canyon riverbeds. They also initiated programs to encourage other concerned citizens to do the same. Brought to Washington for a tour of the capital and the presentation of the award by Vice President Gore, Lugg received private grants to continue his environmental restoration projects.

Cochran applauds the Scouts for fostering the work ethic and for expanding children's goals and horizons. "The conferral of merit badges for excellence in achievement and good works reinforces the notion that hard work will be rewarded," he says. "Nothing comes for free." The Boy Scouts confer merit badges for everything from the study of art or atomic energy to excellence in public speaking or wilderness survival. All Scouts are subjected to high standards for demonstrating sufficient ability in each merit field. More than 85 million merit badges have been conferred since the Boy Scouts were founded, in 1910.

"The Scouts helped me by expanding my world view," says Cochran. "I came from a small, rural community in Mississippi. Our Scout troop went to Washington, D.C.; Valley Forge, Pennsylvania; and New York City. Those trips have a great impact on a young man's horizons. Given my background in Mississippi, I might never have thought of becoming a civil servant on a national level had it not been for my visit to Washington as a Scout." Cochran was one of more than 300 former Scouts in the 104th Congress.

How does Cochran's devotion to the scouting ethic affect his political views as a U.S. Senator? Cochran doubts the wisdom of some recent proposals to remove all incentives for charitable giving or civic action from the tax code. "I had a friend donate some property of his to the Boy Scouts, and I can assure you he wouldn't have done it if it hadn't been for the tax incentive to do so. That's just the way people are. We need to understand the implications of removing [the charitable deduction]. There are other problems that could be created if we're not careful."

The transmission of values from one generation to the next, says Cochran, is the most important obligation adults owe their children, their communities, and their country. No sooner do we forget this than our experiment in liberal democracy is lost. "We cannot sustain a nation whose citizens have no sense of obligation to others or their country. We need to support the groups and associations, like the Boy Scouts, that do a good job in promoting strong citizenship. It's a reciprocal relationship."

Rep. Jim Ramstad

It was the winter of 1982 and Minnesota state senator Jim Ramstad could hardly believe his eyes. When Shemsiya "Mimi" Ayanew arrived at the hospital, her skin was blue. She couldn't walk. She suffered from atrial septal defect -- a hole in her heart. She would not live another month without serious corrective heart surgery.

A few months earlier, Mimi's family had sought help from the Children's Heart Link, a medical charity, as a last, desperate hope for their daughter. Ramstad, having offered his services to Heart Link, sponsored Mimi to fly her from her home in Ethiopia to Minneapolis for corrective surgery.

"When I first saw Mimi, " says Rep. Jim Ramstad, "she was in terrible shape. The next time I saw her she had her life restored."

"I remember it vividly," Ramstad says. "When I first saw Mimi, she was wheeled into the hospital and was in terrible shape. Then the next time I saw her, she had a big smile on her face and she was running up and down the hospital halls. She had her life restored. It is an incredible feeling to know that you've touched someone's life in that way."

The Children's Heart Link is an international medical charity founded in 1969 to treat and help prevent heart disease in children. An American G.I. stationed in Vietnam encountered three village children with heart defects in need of surgery, but the only place with the necessary technology and skills was the United States. He arranged for them to be flown to Minnesota, and the only international heart-care charity of its kind was born.

Today, Heart Link works in conjunction with cardiovascular units located in developing countries throughout the world, providing treatment for needy kids who otherwise might not have access to quality heart care. Sometimes Heart Link sends American doctors overseas -- to places like Costa Rica, Kenya, and Ethiopia -- to perform surgery.

The charity also is establishing clinics and training centers in Central and South America and Africa. American doctors and nurses are sent to teach local medical students and technicians a range of skills, such as giving echocardiographic exams, administering cardiac catheterizations, and performing surgery.

About 1 percent of children around the world are born with some sort of heart condition. Of those, one-third will die without some medical treatment, either in the form of medicine or surgery. The clinics sponsored by Heart Link received 24,000 pediatric patients last year and performed more than 1,500 heart surgeries. And over $200,000 in medical supplies and devices was donated and distributed to developing countries. By establishing clinics overseas and educating and training the local medical caregivers, Heart Link is better able to provide the vital follow-up care that children with heart conditions need.

Heart Link raises funds from private donors by hosting celebrity benefits and auctions. Last year, it held its biggest annual event, a gala in Minneapolis featuring Kirby Puckett, then an all-star outfielder for the Minnesota Twins. Puckett enlisted some fellow sports stars, including the Baltimore Orioles' Cal Ripken, to play in a celebrity billiard tournament to raise money. The remainder of funds come through direct-mail solicitation.

Today, Ramstad is a congressman from Minnesota's Third District. He still helps out his favorite charity as a board member, raising funds for the medical supplies necessary to sustain the operation.