Charity at Home

Local benefit show focuses attention on imaginative east Mesa after-school program

The kids are not alright.
That's the message fostered by an endless stream of books and magazine articles during the course of this decade. They tell us that this generation of youth is jaded, nihilistic, apathetic, selfish and easily bored. It's a caricature further propagated by films like Kids, All Over Me and To Die For.

The fact is, this generation simply came along when naivete was no longer an option. All the old illusions had been shattered, all the institutional hypocrisies had been exposed. It doesn't mean that kids don't want to solve problems, it just means that--as Beck has pointed out--they're very conscious of avoiding cliches. What's often mistaken for apathy is more accurately a frustrating search for a new way to make a positive contribution, an approach that isn't tainted by the smell of self-serving politics as usual.

When Kimber Lanning, owner of Stinkweeds Record Exchange, visited the east Mesa home of Bev Tittle-Baker along with her Mesa Community College social-work class, she knew that she was seeing such an approach. The 52-year-old Tittle-Baker had settled in east Mesa in 1992 with the thought of retiring, and doing a little painting as a hobby. But the extreme poverty and crime problems in the area spurred her to take direct action, by creating an after-school program called Area 5 Cares. Lanning not only was motivated to volunteer for the program, but she's organized the first in what should be a series of benefit shows for the program, this Saturday, January 31, at Tempe Bowl.

"She's an amazing example of what social workers can do," Lanning says. "The after-school program is really just one aspect of what she does. She's created this whole bartering system with coupons, where in order to have your child at her house for two hours a day, you have to do two days of volunteer work yourself. She gives you coupons and you can use these to trade with anyone in the neighborhood, like you can trade them with your neighbor for baby-sitting time, and they can use them for their own kid. And she gets clothes and things donated, and you can use the coupons to buy clothes. The depth of how she's gone into this neighborhood and rearranged everything just blew me away."

Tittle-Baker cares for 30 to 60 kids a day, working with them on arts and crafts, helping them with their homework, and feeding them. She says the Area 5 neighborhood has the ninth highest infant-mortality rate in the world, and a population of children accustomed to getting only one meal a day, the free lunch they receive at school.

She says that after two years of living in east Mesa, she had become somewhat desensitized to the problems of the neighborhood, until her brother visited from Ohio and expressed shock at the conditions.

"He just about came unglued," she says. "He said, 'How can you just sit here and not do anything?' I think that was kind of a wake-up call."

Tittle-Baker says she saw firsthand evidence of how crime and poverty went hand in hand, creating "multiple needs" for the children of the neighborhood. From her initial role in a block-watch program, she moved toward what she calls "a more holistic approach" to solving problems in the neighborhood.

The benefit-show idea grew out of a suggestion that Lanning made a few months ago to Unruh guitarist Ryan Butler, who concedes, "Initially, I was hesitant, because we draw kind of a wild crowd."

After touring last summer, the local punk band parted ways with its old bassist and went on hiatus for six months. When the band felt ready to play again, Butler organized a show at Tempe Bowl with friends like Thundercats and Sam the Butcher.

"The show was already set," Butler says, "and then I asked Kimber if she was still interested in doing an Area 5 benefit."

Of course, she was, and Lanning now hopes to follow this show with future benefits every four to six months. She's even considering asking Michael's to donate art supplies for Area 5. What's most satisfying about this merger of music and social consciousness is that it isn't some overblown, abstract fund-raising effort where the funds never reach the intended sources--basically the story of every huge charitable effort in rock, such as Bangladesh and Live Aid. This is an attempt to have a direct impact on a local community, and not merely with money, but by also engaging youth to volunteer.

"I thought maybe if I could do something to make more of these kids aware of what's going on, that we could come up with some volunteers and also be able to get her some arts and crafts supplies, canned food and maybe some money," Lanning says.

"I feel like I'm in a really good position here in dealing with college kids who have a conscience. There are a lot of kids who come in here that are involved with Food Not Bombs, where they cook meals for the homeless. There's a lot of politically active kids here. I thought it would be a good way to tie two things that I'm involved in together."

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