PINE BLUFF, Ark. – If this political season has you feeling down, meet Annette Dove. She’s a salve for our aches and wounds, for she represents the American grass roots’ best.
Dove, 60, is a black woman who dropped out of high school when she became pregnant and who has endured racism and domestic abuse. Drawing on her own experience overcoming difficulties, she now runs a widely admired program for troubled children. Funding the program in part with her own savings – even going into personal bankruptcy to keep it going – she transforms lives.
Dove works seven days a week and struggles month to month to pay the bills with donations, foundation support and a state grant; when the money runs out, she prays.
The poverty and disadvantage that Dove is fighting here in Pine Bluff, a poor, majority-black town of 50,000, are found all across America. But so, too, are people like Dove, battling for progress through churches, schools, Big Brother programs, advocacy efforts.
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These heroes get no headlines, no reward, no glory, and they regularly have their hearts broken, only to soldier on to help the next child. This is the spirit that Tocqueville admired in 19th-century America, and it’s why in a brutal political year, Dove and those like her help restore my faith in America.
Consider Jesse Spencer, a young man who says he was kicked out of his house at age 13 by his mom’s boyfriend. Homeless, he turned to street gangs to survive and missed learning to read.
Spencer had a few run-ins with the police, and then at age 16 he joined with friends in robbing a pizza delivery woman with a pellet gun. He was arrested, charged as an adult and sentenced to 12 years in prison; he ended up serving more than nine years and was released in August.
Dove is helping him get a job and an ID, and here’s one gauge of how marginalized he is: Even the spelling of his name is an issue. He says it’s Jesse, but some police record shows him as Jessie, and because he was arrested at 16, he’s never had a normal adult identification card.
Spencer had brief interactions with Dove’s program as a boy, and he told me ruefully that if he had had more, “it would have made a great difference.” I keep thinking this: Taxpayers spent more than $200,000 imprisoning Spencer, yet we’re unwilling to invest sufficiently in programs like Dove’s that help break the cycle of poverty and keep kids out of trouble.
It’s in places like Pine Bluff that one sees how much federal, state and local policies matter in shaping ordinary lives, and the most heroic charitable efforts can’t make up for failed policies. We wouldn’t build an interstate highway system through charities, and we can’t build a comprehensive program for at-risk kids that way, either. But in difficult times, people like Dove keep their fingers in the dike and avert catastrophe.
Dove is so driven to help these children because this is her world. After becoming pregnant at 16 and dropping out of school, she earned her GED and a college degree, became a star special education teacher, and, after her beloved husband died, she quit her job and started TOPPS, for Targeting Our People’s Priorities with Service.
It evolved into an after-school program that also feeds 600 children a day in the summer and offers mentoring, tutoring and help staying out of jail, off drugs and in school. The first children to go through TOPPS are now in college – 33 of them.
“We have a lot of drug-infested families,” Dove said, and she and her mentors come across as surrogate parents, telling kids how to dress and use birth control, and steering them to college admission tests and applications for scholarships.
The boys learn skills that middle-class children absorb routinely, such as how to tie a necktie or look a job interviewer in the eye. This training doesn’t erase the damage from troubled schools or dangerous neighborhoods, but it helps. In meetings, they discuss politics, sex, AIDS, budgeting and financial literacy, and how to treat girls with respect.
“We teach about holding hands with a lady instead of grabbing hold of her and touching them all over,” explained Mike Dove, Annette’s son, who oversees the boys’ mentoring and precollege programs in his spare time.
I asked several boys in the program what would happen if one made “locker room” comments about girls. They looked aghast. “That’d be push-ups,” said Devonta Brown, who came into the program as a troubled fourth-grader and is now senior class president, aiming for all A’s this year, and headed for college.
Despite all the good work TOPPS does, Dove still struggles constantly to meet its expenses (more information about it and options to donate are at toppsinc.org). She has no regrets.
A month ago, I wrote about a struggling Pine Bluff 13-year-old named Emanuel Laster, a black boy who does well at school but has no books in the home and is in danger of being sucked into the world of gangs and drugs. Dove has now recruited Emanuel to attend her after-school programs and is talking to him about college. She is also giving him books and offering him $5 for each one he reads and writes her a report about.
One afternoon, we stood outside Emanuel’s home and spoke of his tremendous promise – and the enormous risk that he'll be waylaid without achieving it.
“The way we’re going to break the cycle is to give these kids an opportunity and show them how to take it,” Dove told me. By force of will, she creates opportunities for kids who have none – and reminds us that whatever happens in Washington, there are miracle workers at the grass roots.
Nicholas Kristof can be contacted at Facebook.com/Kristof, and on at Twitter.com/NickKristof