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In Print: 50 ways to help your neighbor

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Two years ago writer Steve Fiffer heard about a successful program for hungry students at Evanston's Orrington School called "books and breakfast." He convinced his wife, Sharon Sloan Fiffer, that they should replicate it at Kingsley School, where their daughter was a second-grader. Evanston has its share of urban problems but as the Fiffers described their plans to others, many people were surprised to learn that hunger was among them. In fact, students had been showing up to school with stomach aches because they hadn't eaten anything at home. "If your kids get fed you just assume everybody's kids are getting fed," Steve says. "Some of them are really, really hungry."

Eventually the Fiffers' project would help nourish not only local kids, but people all over the country hungry for an activist role.

With the help of their friend Judy Groothuis, who also has children at the school, the Fiffers made a promising start: a neighborhood bakery donated 67 loaves of bread, which they farmed out to freezers all over the north shore. Volunteers signed up at a PTA meeting to bake muffins once a month. Sweat equity, individual donations, and funding from the school and a local business kept the program afloat for its inaugural year.

Each morning around 8:30 about 30 kindergarteners and first- and second-graders grab a cup of orange juice and a muffin, a bagel, or a PB&J, and then cluster around a volunteer to hear Dr. Seuss or an African folk tale. Kids arriving on the last bus get a take-out snack before hightailing it to class as the bell sounds. The occasionally rambunctious kids have kept volunteers on their toes, but the Fiffers say teachers have reported improvements in the kids' attention spans and schoolwork. Somehow the food, the stories, and most of all the nurturing attention is good for them.

The Kingsley books and breakfast club, which has now served more than 11,000 meals, provides a good start to the Fiffers' day too. "It gives you a different kind of focus," Sharon says. "You stop thinking about everything else because you need to be giving these kids your attention."

When they started the program, the Fiffers found returning their attention to the community a thrill: they'd given up hands-on volunteering as their lives became busy with a growing family. And in the idealistic atmosphere following Clinton's election, they suspected that others of their generation were looking to renew their commitment to activism too. They just needed a guide.

The couple sought out people around the country who had embarked on similar not-for-profit efforts. They found many of the programs through the White House's Office of National Service and others by calling friends around the country. From an initial list of 125 community projects, they selected 50 programs established by individuals, schools, and businesses that represented the range of activism in the 90s. "What we thought we could do was take our skills as writers and reporters and tell stories," says Steve, who has done sportswriting for the New York Times and Sports Illustrated and has written several books, including two with civil rights lawyer Morris Dees. Sharon is codirector of the literary magazine Other Voices and teaches writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "I guess I'm just corny. I think reading can save your life or change the world," Sharon says.

The result of their work is 50 Ways to Help Your Community: A Handbook for Change (Doubleday), an "inspirational primer" of lively anecdotes geared toward the lapsed activist. Each chapter in the book profiles groups of programs that address a different issue, such as neighborhood safety, education and literacy, or the arts. They write about Pepper Provenzano, who started a tree-planting campaign after Salt Lake City crews began cutting down ash trees thought to be diseased. They profile Lou Ann Freas, who created Grandparents Outreach in San Antonio, an after-school program for latchkey kids staffed by senior citizens.

Besides the Fiffers' own program, three Chicago-area projects made it into the book: Evanston's Noyes Cultural Arts Center; Women Resourcing Women, an outreach organization for HIV-positive women; and Bottomless Closet, an agency offering donated clothing to low-income women looking for work. Media consultant Laurel Baer thought up the idea after she heard a woman on a radio program complain that she had nothing to wear to a job interview.

"So many of the examples in this book are of individuals who observed something and were so moved by it that they really couldn't help but do something," Steve says. "They were all kind of stunned that they have the power to make this kind of a difference in people's lives."

He hopes the book will help others to do the same. "Maybe one of the 50 programs will strike the exact chord with someone, and they'll think, 'This is something I've been thinking about, but I just haven't had a way to do it.'"

It's a lesson the Fiffers learned again. "We kiddingly said this isn't a self-help book; it's a selfless-help book," Sharon says. "It's not selfless in that you don't get anything from [service], because you get tons. It is selfless, I hope, in that you're not looking inward, you're looking outward."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.

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