Budget cuts threaten advocacy work of an agency devoted to at-risk youth.
Gary Hall sits in his office surrounded by piles of paper and pulls out what he calls his "precious pebbles"--mementos from the people he's helped as founder and executive director of Community Advocates' Association for Children and Youth Inc. (CAACY), a local social-service agency.
There's the business card of a SEPTA supervisor stapled to a drug rehab completion document, an honor roll certificate from a boy who used to fail his classes until CAACY diagnosed his learning disability and numerous photographs of smiling graduates once labeled disruptive and incapable of learning.
"No child wants to be a failure," says Hall, 52, who grew up in the city's Nicetown-Tioga section. "Most children want to be a success. We want to empower them with resources, skills and support that will help them be successful in school, in their families and in the community."
Come July 1, CAACY will be facing a 64 percent budget cut that will end one of its prized programs, Social Alternatives for Vocational and Educational Development (SAVED). The program works primarily with schools to provide social services to kids ages 15 to 17 who are facing problems such as poverty, physical and emotional abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, family dysfunction, delinquency and truancy.
"SAVED provides services to children who are in crisis, as well as the parents and the teachers," says Hall. "We try to remove those impediments so children can be successful in an academic setting. But if we get this cut, it will be very difficult for us."
For fiscal year 2004, CAACY's contract with the Department of Human Services will be reduced from $250,000 to $90,000, forcing Hall to eliminate SAVED, along with the jobs of eight employees, former welfare recipients who found independence working at CAACY.
Hall says CAACY will be looking at other funding alternatives to continue its mission. Last week, far from the blight and crime of North Philadelphia, Hall teed off at a golf tournament at the Melrose Country Club in Cheltenham to raise money and awareness for CAACY's mission. "In this time of cutbacks, this allows us to focus on people who are in need, to support people who really need it," says Stanley Washington, Hall's fraternity brother and the tournament chairman.
While working as an administrator at Huntingdon State Prison some 30 years ago, Hall wondered why so many minority youth were being incarcerated. After a three-year stint with the city's Crime Prevention Association at the Nicetown Boys and Girls Club, Hall founded CAACY in 1979 with a modest donation of $25 to try to address the problem.
Through counseling and outreach, CAACY helps communities rise above the overwhelming problems of poverty, unemployment, drug abuse, crime and low self-esteem that plague low-income neighborhoods--specifically, in this case, North Philadelphia.
Hall, a deacon at his church, calls CAACY his ministry. He says it allows him to use his spiritual gifts of teaching and counseling--along with his degrees in law enforcement and education--to get kids moving toward a successful future through programs like in-home counseling, truancy prevention, tutoring, substance-abuse prevention and job readiness.
"This is what I am supposed to be doing," he says, "helping to keep our young people out of prisons, not warehousing them in prison."
As Hall looks out the window of his North Philadelphia office, a converted row house at 23rd and Oxford, he is reminded of the work to be done. On the corner stands a group of kids whose report cards Hall once collected, whose tuition he paid for so they could get their high school diplomas. They are now the neighborhood drug dealers.
Hall remembers the day Joey's mother came to his office, begging for help. Joey, who Hall watched grow up in the Norman Blumberg projects across the street, was being kicked out of high school. Hall made some calls and got him in a private alternative school. When he graduated, Joey's mother gave Hall a plaque as thanks. But today, Hall says Joey is the neighborhood's "big-time" drug dealer.
"He still gives me a hug," says Hall. "I ask him, 'Are you doing the right thing?' He says yes, but I know better."
There are also the letters from prisoners, who tell Hall they wished they had listened to him.
"People say they're criminals, but most are human beings who need direction," says Hall. "You have to give them options for saving their lives. The answer is hope--hope to do and be better things in life."
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