WASHINGTON -- A 15-year-old youth had been arrested repeatedly for shoplifting some food that was meant for his hungry and impoverished mother. He also became addicted to alcohol, because drinking seemed to ease his mind. Everyone wrote him off as a failure, except for one quiet but impassioned 23-year-old named Loc Truong.
As a volunteer for AmeriCorps, President Clinton's national service program, Truong has spent five months prodding and mentoring a handful of such adrift youths in San Luis Obispo, a small coastal town in California. He has directed them to food shelters, escorted them to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and persuaded them to attend school. And his persistence and optimism earned him a seat last night in Hillary Rodham Clinton's section during the State of the Union address.
Truong was joined by Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, civil rights activist Rosa Parks and a handful of other guests who, in the words of the White House, "exhibit what is best about America."
In addition to inviting well-knowns like Sosa and Parks, first ladies in recent years have often surrounded themselves with guests associated with the initiatives highlighted by the president in his speech. Last night, that effort took on added urgency, as the White House sought to shift attention away from Clinton's impeachment trial and showcase the work of the nation that is still getting done.
Truong, whose sense of hope and commitment to educating the disadvantaged seemed a perfect symbol of some of the administration's favorite themes, came clad in a trademark gray AmeriCorps sweat shirt. In an interview before the speech, he explained that he mentors eight teen-age boys, all of whom are thought to be at high risk of dropping out. He wears a pager, responding often to calls for help from them when they are drunk, arrested, or driven out of the house by family squabbles.
He spoke at length about the 15-year-old youth, who, he says, is showing early signs of a turnaround. The hardest part, Truong said, was getting the youth to face his alcohol problem.
"I got the topic out by just casually asking him, 'How do you feel about drinking, and people who drink?' " Truong said. "He was like, 'Well, I think it's cool, you can get all the problems you have away, and you don't have to deal with it.' I told him it's going to be your self-determination to change and quit the habit. These kids need a lot of time. And I'll be there to compliment him, and to help him along the way."
Truong said he joined AmeriCorps to give back to a country that gave so much to him. When he was 4 years old, Truong and his family fled Vietnam as political refugees and arrived in the United States with little money. Food and clothing donated by citizens in Stockton, Calif., kept the family alive, he said.
Truong and another AmeriCorps volunteer, Ashley Dumas, 22, were contacted by the program's Washington headquarters Friday after the White House asked AmeriCorps to identify two "heroes" who would sit near the first lady last night.
Dumas works in Dorchester, a downtrodden neighborhood in Boston, where she helps single mothers on welfare obtain high school equivalency diplomas, find housing, food and jobs.
"I can't tell you how many women want their [diplomas], so they can have the knowledge to be able to help their children with their homework," Dumas said.
Yesterday, the young woman raced across Capitol Hill with Truong, as both visited members of Congress before preparing for Clinton's address.
Also seated with the first lady were Rita R. Colwell, the first woman to head the National Science Foundation and the former president of the University of Maryland's biotechnology research center; Elam Hill, 15, of Atlanta, who developed a system that helps homeless adults transfer the student records of their children when they seek shelter in new locations; Joanna Quintana Barroso, a third-grade teacher from Miami involved in a curriculum-based gun-safety program; and Suzann Wilson, whose 8-year-old daughter and four of her peers were killed in a school shooting in Jonesboro, Ark.
Also, Chris Lonsford, a community police officer from Fontana, Calif., who was recognized for bravery in the arrest of three armed robbers; Maurice Lim Miller, executive director of Asian Neighborhood Design, a community development agency; Capt. Jeffrey B. Taliaferro, chief of wing weapons for a squadron during Operation Desert Fox; and Wellington E. Webb, the mayor of Denver, who has been recognized for projects that prepare America's children for the next century.
Pub Date: 1/20/99