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Campaign for Human Development funds often a first step in turning lives around.

In November 1991, the state of Michigan cut off all general assistance welfare funds. Two weeks later the Hard Times Cafe opened in Harrison, a small town in Clare County, a rural area some 200 miles north of Detroit. It had the highest rate of child abuse and the second-highest child poverty rate in the state.

Hard Times really isn't a cafe but an extremely unorthodox survival system that seems to be gradually evolving into a quasi-social agency.

The nucleus of the program is a free weekly dinner at a local church regularly attended by 100 or more. There the "patrons," most of them unemployed, take part in a meeting in which everyone has a voice and all decisions are made by consensus.

Those on hand volunteer for chores - cooking, serving, finding clothes, food or accommodations for the homeless. Others sign up for a variety of local jobs in the week ahead: staffing a used-clothing store, serving at the local animal shelter, working on the county roads, assisting with Habitat for Humanity projects. Still others are into job training and setting up a series of small businesses in the community.

What keeps this all going is "an alternative economic system." Everyone who volunteers gets "points of improvement" - one point for speaking up creatively at a meeting, one point for an hour of volunteer work, a half for dressing neatly, and so on. The points can be traded in for toothpaste, toilet paper cleansers and other items not available at stores in exchange for food stamps.

Keeping track of all this would appear an impossible task, but Bob Van Oosterhout, 45, a high-energy motivator who started all this, said it's working wonders. "It's simple," he said. "People can help themselves if they're encouraged, if they make decisions, contribute, get a sense of cooperating with others, if they feel like they're making some progress."

Gradually, he said, county agencies are getting out the word on Hard Times, referring people to it for help. And the patrons, in the process, are becoming productive citizens.

"It worked for me," said Tina Kozma, a 29-year-old mother whose husband has had two heart attacks. "I had been an ADC (Aid to Dependent Children) rat all my life - no education, no confidence, a total-loser self-image." Since she's become involved at Hard Times, Kozma said she's gotten off welfare, earned an education and is in line for a social worker position with the state.

Despite its unique, on-the-edge mode of operation, Hard Times Cafe obtained a Campaign for Human Development grant its first year and has received a grant every year since. "They had confidence in us and I can testify it's made a lot of difference for a lot of us," said Kozma.

Indian land recovered

The White Earth Reservation in northwest Minnesota encompasses 827,000 acres of white pine forests, stands of hardwood and great tracts of primeval prairie land. It is a highly desirable area for hunting, fishing, hiking - and logging.

Families have built summer cabins there for decades, sportsmen have purchased sizable patches as their private hunting preserves, little towns have cropped up here and there, and the logging companies have claimed thousands of acres for cutting. The only trouble, said Robert Shimek, is the land doesn't belong to any of those people; it belongs to the Anishinabe Indians, about 4,000 of whom live on the reservation.

In 1885 the U.S. government set up the reservation as a trust for the Anishinabes, but through a bizarre series of revisions, reinterpretations and private arrangements - in which the Indians had no say - the land was meted out to local governmental entities, private interests and corporations. It was sold and resold, so that true titles of ownership became a very murky subject.

"But it is our position," said Shimek, 41, environmental affairs coordinator for the White Earth Land Reclamation Project, "that stolen property remains stolen property no matter how man times it's passed from hand to hand." Since the early 1980s, the Land Reclamation Project and a predecessor organization have been at work on several fronts, aided from the start by grant from the Campaign for Human Development.

Through repurchase of land, negotiation with present owners and pressure on the federal government - still the largest landholder on the reservation - the Indians have reclaimed 11,000 acres. Discussions are ongoing with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for reappropriation of another 43,000 acres. The goal, said Shimek, is to recover one-third of the lost land.

But, he noted, "we are struggling against the sacred cow of the hunting lobby. The great white hunter wants to come here as he wishes to blast the little white-tailed deer." In addition, he noted, the project is struggling against great white paper companies, which refer to keep their control of the forests uncomplicated.

Shimek said the Anishinabes are trying now to persuade the government that "we have the capacity to carefully tend the infrastructure of the land and the waterways based on our thousands of years of faithful stewardship" before the Europeans arrived.

CHD, he said, "is a partner in our struggle for justice. Without it, our accomplishments would have been impossible."

Victory for children

By 1984, Geraldine Jensen, a 31-year-old Toledo, Ohio, divorcee with two children, 8 and 10 years old, was down to her last $12. Her husband had provided child support for the first six months after the divorce, then disappeared and paid nothing for the next six years.

All that time Jensen was in and out of school, in and out of jobs, on and off welfare in a struggle to make it on her own, but nothing worked. Repeatedly, she appealed to the local child support enforcement agency. First they told her nothing could done without his address. When she finally found his whereabouts, in Omaha, they told her nothing could be done without his place of work. And when she discovered that, they told her it was an interstate problem and they didn't have jurisdiction.

"I was so mad I went back to the office and demanded they do something," said Jensen. She said an agency official said losers like her should quit moaning and go solve their own problems.

Seething, Jensen paid $8.63 out of her last $12 for an ad in The Toledo Blade inviting other frustrated single parents to a meeting. "I had no idea what we'd do," she said, "but we had to do something."

Ten others met at her house, and the little group made contacts with legal aid attorneys and community organizations, which offered practical ideas. Jensen had heard of the Campaign for Human Development and applied for a grant. "I got $2,500," she said. "It was like a gold mine, like the most money I'd ever seen. I set up an office in my house and went to work on this full time," The organization, which came to be known as ACES, Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, simply exploded, as mothers - and fathers who make up about 10 percent of the membership - came forth to learn how to force child support agencies to do their job and, more important, how to work with legislators at every level of government in changing toothless enforcement laws.

By the end of its first year, ACES had chapters in 13 Ohio counties and was responsible for several reform bills in the legislature.

In 1985 an Ann Landers column about the group generated 10,000 letters of inquiry and ACES went national. Today it claims 30,000 members and may be the largest child support advocacy group in the country. Jensen said the collective legal and legislative efforts have recovered more than $900 million in overdue support payments. Eighty-eight percent of its members have gotten off welfare, she said.

"Our motto is a law a year," said Jensen, though ACES appears to be well ahead of that schedule. It was given major credit for the federal 1988 Family Support Act, and continues to tighten the grip on delinquent child support payers in dozens of states.

There's work ahead, said Jensen. When ABC-TV ran a movie on her and ACES last March, she got 75,000 more letters of inquiry. She estimates about 23 million single parents are still owed a whopping $34 billion. The Campaign for Human Development support has continued every year. "More than anything else," Jensen said, "it shows the Catholic church is committed to children.
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Title Annotation:Hard Times Cafe, Harrison, Michigan; includes information about other organizations
Author:McClory, Robert
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Sep 8, 1995
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