UNICEF helps our kids, too


FOR ALL the talk about suburban sprawl and urban crime breaking down bonds of community, two-thirds of Americans say they're very satisfied with their neighborhoods, according to a recent survey by the Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

From this we can surmise at least two things:

1) People lie to pollsters.

2) They've forgotten when many youths used to yell "trick-or-treat for UNICEF," on Halloween in a bid for coins to help poor children around the world.

Teachers didn't think twice then of distributing the orange boxes to students to collect for the United Nations Children's Fund.

And, many parents didn't think twice about letting their children go door-to-door to solicit money. Generally, you knew many of your neighbors and fears were minimal that little kids would get rolled for their collection boxes.

UNICEF still operates, only in a much different form in its 49th year.

It's more corporate now, more sophisticated, more high-tech. Kids pick up the trademarked cartons at CVS pharmacies, Universal Studios theme parks and other corporate sponsors. Automated change-sorters found in many supermarkets count the tally. Pop celebrities such as singer Brandy and basketball star Penny Hardaway (good name for this campaign) promote the campaign on cable TV.

About $3 million was raised last year. That's about the same as in the '70s when student participation peaked at 1 million. The volunteer effort reaches more broadly across the United States than in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was better recognized on the East Coast than in the West.

Maryland contributed about $60,000 last year. Two private schools, Key in Annapolis and Gilman in Baltimore, led the way, raising about $1,800 each.

The results aren't much different than they used to be. But while the program's good works continue, something intangible has been lost.

The practice of collecting coins in a collapsible box to feed someone who's hungry telegraphed an invaluable message to we kids while we were in the process of hoarding Halloween candy. It was a small, selfless, memorable act that helped shape an idealistic generation.

Kids are still asked to do plenty of fund raising these days, but it's largely to benefit their own pursuits: cookies for a scout troop, wrapping paper to pay for a field trip, pizza kits to upgrade the school computer lab. The top collectors often win special prizes for themselves. It's an apprenticeship for little salespeople in training, not a lesson in civics.

President Clinton years ago criticized the Reagan '80s as the "decade of greed." But one failure of his presidency is that he did nothing to shift the nation in a more altruistic direction.

Everyone wants to say they're "better off," just as during President Reagan's "morning in America" campaign, because to admit otherwise suggests they've missed the gravy train their neighbors have boarded. That's why so many people respond to the pollster that they're delighted with their neighborhoods (where they've probably lived all of the past 5 minutes).

Either they're putting on a happy face or all the hand-wringing about the breakdown of community that was heard in the wake of Columbine and similar tragedies is hogwash.

And if that's so, good: Let's pass out those UNICEF boxes next Halloween.

Andrew Ratner is a deputy editorial page editor.

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