SOCIAL ALIENATION. A lack of connection. No community ties.
These are the images Harvard professor Robert Putnam used to describe the 30-year decline of civic participation by Americans in his book, "Bowling Alone.''
Has anything changed since it was published in 2000? It's hard to know, but a new book authored by Putnam and co-author Lewis Feldstein offers a glass- is-half-full view of what happens when ordinary Americans reach out and help each other.
"Better Together: Restoring the American Community'' (Simon & Schuster, 2003), is a series of stories about people -- in big cities, suburbs and small rural towns -- who are working to revive their community life. One of the examples described in the book is the Bay Area's "virtual community," which offers mutual assistance for jobs and apartments on www.craigslist.org, a popular Web site.
The city of Berkeley is clearly on Putnam's wave length. To help "at- risk" kids, Mayor Tom Bates has proposed a new program called "Berkeley Champions for Kids." The idea is to permit city employees to spend 40 (paid) hours a year to mentor, tutor, coach and counsel kids in and out of the city's schools. In order to qualify, employees would have to volunteer an additional 40 hours of their own personal time on the same project.
On Nov. 4, the Berkeley City Council agreed, in principle, to support the new program, which now needs to be fleshed out by the city manager.
Bates was inspired by two earlier programs -- President Bill Clinton's effort to engage federal employees in community service and Gov. Gray Davis' Mentor Initiative Program, which was a model for the Berkeley program.
What would such volunteers do? To find out, I asked a state employee, Rachelle Maricq, who is a regional coordinator of the mentoring program for the state Department of Toxic Substance Control. Fifteen office colleagues decided to mentor students at Berkeley's Malcolm X Elementary School. Once a week, each person had lunch at school with the same student.
For the kids, says Maricq, it has meant a lot. "Now I have someone to talk to," was how one grateful boy put it. Many of the mentors also taught the kids new skills or sports.
Some Berkeley police officers have already used their personal time to mentor boys by playing basketball, followed by rap sessions. Such close contact helped break down barriers between kids and the police.
New volunteers might join the "Writer's Room" at Berkeley High School, a program that trains volunteers to help students improve their writing skills.
Such programs often spur a wave of volunteerism in the community. "We hope this program will help us build an army of mentors and volunteers for Berkeley's kids," Bates told me. "We all know that these kinds of positive interactions between 'at-risk' youth and adults reduce drop-out and crime rates."
They also help employees, argues Bates, by "building ties to our community, improving morale and improving retention rates." What once was an abstraction becomes quite real when an employee spends 80 hours tutoring or mentoring a young person. State-sponsored volunteers, for example, ended up spending extra personal time with kids who already trusted and appreciated their efforts.
Here's hoping that Berkeley creates a model program that will be widely copied by other cities. The numbers of kids who need, but don't get, adult mentoring and tutoring is huge.
Maybe we will never again join bowling leagues, but helping one person at a time is a wonderful way to create the ties that bind us together.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle