Cover Story

ONWARD, compassionate soldiers

With the Senate back in Republican hands, President Bush's highly touted "Armies of Compassion" may finally receive their marching orders on a whole host of issues, from mentoring to homelessness. Look to the State of the Union address for a hint of the commander in chief's commitment to this particular battle

Issue: "State of the Union 2003," Jan. 25, 2003

THERE'S NO DRESS CODE IN the west Orlando neighborhood of Washington Shores, but there's a uniform nonetheless: baggy jeans, jersey from a favorite sports team, and often a stocking cap, despite the warm Florida winters. Every day the young men in uniform gather on the crumbling steps of low-rise apartment buildings or shuffle aimlessly past the liquor stores and check-cashing joints. There's really nowhere to go, and certainly no hurry to get there.

On Tuesdays, however, a different kind of uniform invades Washington Shores. The pinstripe-and-wingtip crowd doesn't exactly blend in around here, and neighbors at first must have been perplexed. Was someone in trouble? Who could afford such high-priced lawyers? Was some secret development deal going down?

The lawyers from the downtown firm of Holland & Knight are here for development, all right, but not the bricks-and-mortar kind. They're volunteering with Read to Succeed, a mentoring program sponsored by Frontline Outreach. "We're focusing primarily on urban children who need opportunities," says Arto Woodley Jr., Frontline's president. "They don't have a lot of people who care about them or see their potential."

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Mr. Woodley sees potential where others see only problems. He's the kind of upbeat personality who hoards old pages from his Quote-A-Day desk calendar and leaves inspirational messages on his voicemail. ("Remember, every day presents a host of opportunities disguised as impossibilities.")

Driving through the neighborhood, he sees not only the gangs of listless, hostile-looking young men, but also their younger brothers who come to Frontline for sports and mentoring. He doesn't try to hide block after block of public housing-still grim-looking despite a coat of tropical-colored paint-but he also points out block after block with at least one church offering hope in the hopeless landscape.

Indeed, it's in those churches that Mr. Woodley sees the hope of transforming dozens of Florida neighborhoods like Washington Shores. Instead of importing mentors from downtown skyscrapers, he wants to recruit them from local congregations. Thanks to a four-year push by Gov. Jeb Bush, the state already has 130,000 mentors drawn from the ranks of government and business. Why not more of them from local churches, which have arguably the greatest stake in failing neighborhoods?

The answer is simple, according to Mr. Woodley. "People from faith communities have never felt welcome" in Florida's public-school mentoring programs, he says. "All this talk of church-state separation has fragmented our communities."

With an $80,000 state grant announced in late December, Mr. Woodley wants to help put those fragmented communities back together again. Using powerful GIS mapping software, he is identifying the state's 50 neediest neighborhoods, based on factors like juvenile delinquency, school dropout rates, and illiteracy. He'll then go to nearby churches and synagogues, asking for volunteers willing to mentor kids in the communities' failing public schools.

"If you look at the mentors across the state, most of them probably already attend services anyway," he says. "So it's not like we're recruiting a radical new kind of volunteer. We're just issuing a special invitation to people of faith. We're saying, 'We value your involvement. Lock arms with us in addressing this need in your community.'"

Before long, Mr. Woodley and the state of Florida may not be alone in issuing that "special invitation." As President Bush puts the finishing touches on his 2003 State of the Union address, sources say he'll call for a national mentoring program to help at-risk youth. If so, it would mark a return to the compassionate conservative agenda that did so much to define the Bush candidacy in 2000.

It's an agenda that hasn't fared too well in the first two years of his administration. There were minor victories, of course: Mr. Bush increased the adoption tax credit and earmarked some $30 million to help educate religious charities on winning a slice of the government social-services pie. Yet the vast majority of his compassionate conservative ideas stalled in the face of intense opposition in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

If Mr. Bush hopes to build on his very modest successes, 2003 could be a make-or-break year. In the House, where faith-based initiatives have already fared well, Republicans this year will enjoy a stronger majority after several years of declining numbers. New Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a fiery Southern Baptist, is eager to deliver everything the president could ask for on the faith-based front.

In the Senate, meanwhile, the newly ascendant GOP is itching for some legislative wins. Bill Frist, the incoming Senate majority leader, is widely viewed as Mr. Bush's ideological soul mate, and the message of compassionate conservatism perfectly suits his low-key, nonconfrontational style. With support from key Democrats like Connecticut's Joseph Lieberman, he may find it easier to pass the faith-based initiative than permanent tax cuts, the president's other major goal on the domestic-policy front.

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