Diplomatic Pouch / August 13, 2009
By Larry Luxner
High-school student Brissa Flores of El Paso, Texas, was violently molested by her uncle. Victoria George of Cordova, Tenn., watched in shock as her brother was shot to death by gang members. And Gonzalo Oquendo of Harrisburg, Pa., will never forget the day he smashed a beer bottle over his father’s head to stop him beating his mother.
The three youths were among 60 young “student ambassadors” honored last month during a dinner at Washington’s National Press Club for writing about their painful experiences.
“Do The Write Thing,” a project sponsored by the Kuwait-America Foundation, is a successful program aimed at reducing violence in schools and communities across the United States.
Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball” and master of ceremonies at the July 21 event, gave special recognition to Kuwaiti Ambassador Salem Abdullah Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and his wife Rima for supporting the program over the past 15 years.
“Over 150,000 students in 30 jurisdictions participated in classroom discussions about violence this year, and nearly 55,000 students chose to accept the challenge by writing about their experiences and pledging not to engage in violent acts,” said Matthews. “Through the power of these students’ words, we learn how violence has impacted their lives — and their words shed light on problems that need to be addressed in our communities.”
Some 300 people dined on crab and gazpacho salad, Peruvian roasted chicken and fresh berry shortcake as Matthews thanked the Kuwait-America Foundation as well as Southwest Airlines for donating airfare for the kids and their families to attend the event — which also featured fancy footwork by Buckets Blakes and Special K Daley of the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.
“After the first Gulf War, the foundation created the National Campaign to Stop Violence in order to express gratitude for America’s sacrifice, and to strengthen ties among the people of Kuwait and the United States,” Matthews explained. “Since then, more than 900,000 students have participated in Do The Write Thing, and 300,000 of them have made a personal commitment not to engage in violence.”
The campaign, now in its 15th year, has also been endorsed by former President Bill Clinton, who offered warm greetings in a letter distributed at the dinner. In the letter, Clinton said that “some of the darkest days of my presidency involved youth violence” — from school shootings in Paducah, Ky., and Jonesboro in his home state of Arkansas, to the tragedy of Columbine in Littleton, Colo.
“Listening to those amazing stories of young kids standing up against their drunken father, I can tell you Bill Clinton had to do that as a young boy too,” said Matthews. “His father was beating up his mother on a regular basis, and he stood up to him one time and scared the hell out of the old man. His father never came at his mother again. That’s our former president, and he knows what he’s talking about.”
The evening also honored Bill Milliken, who founded the Communities In Schools network in the 1970s, led the organization as president for more than 25 years, and currently serves as its vice chairman.
“I’m here tonight and I’m alive because someone cared enough to come into my neighborhood in Pittsburgh after I was dismissed from school. They said I was dumb, and I ended up hanging out with people on the wrong side of the tracks. Out of my group of friends, only five of us made it to 30 without ending up in prison or dead.”
Milliken eventually went on to become a successful educator, and his organization now serves more than 1.4 million students and their families each year in more than 3,400 schools in 27 states and the District of Columbia. He’s advised five U.S. presidents of both parties and has written three books: “The Last Dropout,” “Tough Love” and “So Long, Sweet Jesus.”
“So many times, I’ve been asked what programs are changing people out there are really changing people,” he said. “I still tell them that I haven’t seen one program that’s changed kids’ lives. What changes them is relationships.”