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Bushes tout plan to save kids

| Tuesday, March 8, 2005

President Bush and first lady Laura Bush teamed up yesterday in Pittsburgh to promote a key element of the president's second term: enhanced support of community efforts, including faith-based programs, that help at-risk young people.

The president said he and his wife share a “passion that we've got to make sure that the great strength of our country — that is the hearts and souls of our citizens — are directed in such a way that every child can be saved.”

In their first joint appearance to push the “Helping America's Youth” initiative, the Bushes visited the Providence Family Support Center on the North Side and spoke at the North Side campus of the Community College of Allegheny County.

Their visit was geared toward highlighting the good work done by faith-based organizations, from their stop at the after-school program on the North Side run by the Sisters of Divine Providence to the president's singling out Bishop Donald Wuerl of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh during his speech at CCAC.

“Every time I'm with him, he talks about education,” Bush said of Wuerl. “He loves education, and when you talk about a hopeful America, it's important to always keep in mind the cornerstone and foundation of a hopeful America is an education system which makes sure that every single child can read, write” and use basic math skills.

The visit marked Bush's first return to Pittsburgh since city voters tried to replace him in November, but few places would have better received the president and first lady's promotion of faith-based programs, said a local Democrat.

“We're a community of churches,” said William Robinson, a member of the community college's board of directors and an Allegheny County councilman.

Though there were about 20 students gathered outside the gymnasium in protest, the president's faith-based message didn't draw their ire. Some toted signs that said “No Blood For Oil,” “No More Lies” and “How Many Children Left Behind.” Occasionally, motorists honked their approval at a sign that said, “Honk If You Didn't Vote For Bush.”

Jason Giulieri, 21, a business student originally from Gympie, Australia, complained that campus and city police had moved the protesters twice. “When we asked the head of security if he would move us if we had pro-Bush signs, he refused to answer the question,” Giulieri said.

Inside the gymnasium, the president deferred the spotlight to his wife. “I'm just here as the introducer,” he said, leaving her to announce plans for a White House summit later this year on responsible parenting and the problems facing children.

“Some trends among youth are heading in the right direction, but others are not,” said the first lady, whom the president tapped in his recent State of the Union address to lead the three-year, $150 million initiative. “Risky behaviors, including illegal drug use, alcohol and tobacco use, violence and early sexual activities are still among the top causes of disease and early deaths among young people.”

Also, more children in the United States are growing up without fathers in their lives, she said.

“Studies show that an overwhelming number of violent criminals in the United States are males who grew up without a father. Helping America's Youth will help children and teenagers by emphasizing three key areas: family, school and community.”

The president commended the Providence Family Support Center for “filling its space with love and compassion, trying to save souls one person at a time and advancing a goal we all want: That's for America to be the most hopeful country in the world for every single citizen.”

U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Bradford Woods, a community college board member who attended the event at the North Side campus, said the president's visit bolstered the youth initiative and underscored his support of the community college system across the nation.

“He got to see first-hand a wonderful faith-based organization that I've worked with, the Providence Family Support Center. They are kind of a one-stop shop to help keep families together,” she said.

Hart said Bush's visit “showcased what he wants to see happen on a larger scale.”

During his State of the Union speech in February, Bush announced the youth initiative as a program to shepherd young people — particularly inner-city boys who are most at risk of gang involvement — into productive lives.

The first lady made several appearances in February to promote the idea, including speeches at the Community College National Legislative Summit in Washington, D.C., and the Germantown Boys and Girls Club of Philadelphia.

In Pittsburgh, the Bushes visited about 25 children in the Providence Family Support Center, operated through Providence Connections Inc., which also runs a child care center in Castle Shannon and a safe house in Clarion County for victims of domestic violence.

The president has been a strong supporter of funding social services provided by religious groups.

The Providence center, however, has never qualified for any funding from the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives because the center never fit into its funding categories.

The center hopes it can now qualify for federal funding because it has added a program to help youngsters ages 12 to 16 from low-income families by focusing on academics, drug avoidance and preventing teen pregnancy, officials at the center say.

David M. Brown and Mike Wereschagin are staff writers for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Zlatos, a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, also contributed to this report.

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