2 Do-Gooders, A Chalice, and 12 Hearts A’Thirsting

[This column by Kays Gary was published originally by The Charlotte Observer, July 26, 1964.]

Yes, they are “do-gooders.”
I went over to West Ninth Street to watch them do good.
It was only fair.

Some people say the “War Against Poverty” is political propaganda.

It is a “phony,” they say, and the North Carolina Volunteers—these young college people—are rather amusing idealists.

This may depend on whether you’re arguing the point from behind a desk in an air-conditioned office, over cocktails on the patio, or in the paint-peeled precinct of West Ninth.

It may depend on what result is expected.

If the expectation is that the children of hovels will grow up to become downtown captains of industry, the expectation is wrong.

If there is expectation that the smallest spark of self-respect will be struck, it should not fall short.
I found them in one of the forlorn, rotting houses which crowd against each other between Graham and Pine.

Starling Walter, an open-faced blonde with blue laughing eyes and Janet Cooper, a petite brunette with brown, caring eyes, were in there.

And there were 12 pre-school children, white and Negro.
They were singing a song about “Old MacDonald.”

And in a few minutes Starling had led them outside, side-stepping between the houses, over mud puddles and into the cinder-covered grime of a small opening behind the houses.
There, in the angry traffic’s roar and in a garbage-can bordered lot, they played “The Farmer in the Dell.”

There was no neighborhood playground.

“We took them to a farm yesterday,” Starling explained. “Only one of them had ever seen a farm before. The poor chickens…the way the children chased them they may not lay an egg for a week. And they couldn’t get over the bull with a ring in his nose.”

Another 30 minutes and they were back inside, drawing pictures of what they saw on the farm.
“I can’t draw a chicken,” giggled 5-year-old Grady. “All I can draw is an aig!”
“Oh, you can, too! Now let’s see…” said Starling, bending over him.

“I am drawing me a bull,” announced Pete with a determined and solemn nod of his head. “I made the ring in his nose already.”

The house wasn’t really so forlorn, now. Community volunteers had painted it inside and out in the last few days since the college girls came.

“We went door-to-door telling mothers what we wanted to do,” Starling said. “Two bakery shops gave me cookies every day. The Goodfellows Club gives me milk. I got crayons and scissors from First Ward School…”

And that is all they have. At first mothers could scarcely believe the morning nursery would be free.
Now the children come, starched and scrubbed, at 8:30 a.m., a half-hour early.
Janet tells stories while Starling gets milk and cookies ready. The children put their heads on the tables for “quiet time” while the girls clean up.

“We could use so many things, Starling said. Picture books. Books with simple words. We haven’t got even one book. Sets of blocks. Simple games and puzzles. Poster paper to make a big clock to teach them how to tell time. Poster paper for posters. Straws. Construction paper…”

“Next week we’ll take the children to the airport. Then Freedom Park…Oh-oh, excuse me.”
Willie, a frail little Negro girl was standing in the hall, silent tears coursing down her cheeks.
Janet Cooper was already with her.

The two of them, holding hands, walked into another room where the child lay down on a pallet.
She’s a sensitive one,” Starling explained. “Not homesick. She lives just down the street and she won’t go home until we go home.”

I looked through the door. The child, lying on the pallet, was looking at an old, fly-specked picture of Christ held tightly in her hands. He was surrounded by children. White children.
Do you know who He is?” I heard Janet say.

Willie nodded.

“Have you ever been to Sunday School?”
Willie sadly wagged her head from side to side.
“Do you want me to leave” Janet said.

The head said no.

“Do you want me to stay?”
The head said yes.

At that moment a photographer would have captured immortality on film. There was no camera. I shall never forget it. It told the story of the War on Poverty and the North Carolina Volunteers as words never can.
Young, beautiful Janet Cooper with the brown, caring eyes, leaned over on the pallet with her head beside Willie’s.

The child, clutching the picture, lay on her side.

Their faces, one tear-stained, were only inches apart. Silently their eyes searched and cared. That was it.
The nursery is a Baptist mission house hidden in the teeming, streaming sameness of West Ninth.
Nursery founder-director, Starling Walter, North Carolina Volunteer, is a Catholic.

[The reader can be certain that before the sun set on the day this column ran, Starling Walter, Janet Cooper, and the children they cared for on West Ninth had many books, puzzles, games and supplies, with much more on its way. Deborah Alicen]