Pop superstar Michael Jackson on Tuesday announced a $1.25-million program to provide drug prevention, health and counseling services to thousands of inner-city Los Angeles children who were among those most deeply stricken by last spring's civil unrest.
Amid the glittering surroundings of a Century Plaza Hotel ballroom, and flanked by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and a bevy of youngsters from local youth programs, Jackson said the Los Angeles effort is the first in a series of projects aimed at improving conditions for children in urban centers throughout the United States.
The national effort, sponsored by Jackson's Heal the World Foundation and the International Youth Foundation, will be co-chaired by the slender pop icon and former President Jimmy Carter, who will help raise funds and establish programs in other U.S. cities.
Jackson said the program was inspired by President Clinton's call for the nation to unite in recognition that "we must care for each other."
"I know that all of you share my concern for the inner-city children who are suffering all around us," Jackson told more than 300 community leaders, sports figures and a huge contingent of world press who gathered for the news conference.
The main components of the Los Angeles project include:
* Drug education and prevention. The Best Foundation for a Drug Free America has pledged $500,000 to implement a drug prevention and education curriculum in Los Angeles schools that will reach 72,000 children during 1993.
* Immunization. In conjunction with the Los Angeles Immunization Coalition, the program hopes to provide 15,000 children with vaccinations for childhood diseases by year's end.
* Mentoring. Established national youth mentoring organizations such as Big Brother/Big Sisters and the One to One Partnership will work with the Los Angeles Unified School District to develop 3,000 new mentoring relationships over the next year.
"Students from disadvantaged areas have been dealt severe blows over the last year and I think the program that Michael Jackson is bringing to the city will help," Jefferson High School Principal Phillip Salazar said at the news conference.
The Heal L.A. project will get national exposure in a 30-second commercial during Sunday's Super Bowl, where Jackson is scheduled to appear during halftime festivities that will feature more than 3,500 child performers.
In lieu of an appearance fee, the National Football League and halftime sponsor Frito-Lay are providing $100,000 each in start-up contributions for the Heal L.A. effort.
Beyond the hoopla of Tuesday's announcement, experts generally praised the Los Angeles effort as an encouraging sign of a new attentiveness to children's issues at a time of rampant child poverty.
Moreover, the Los Angeles project is likely to focus badly needed attention on the special needs of children living in South-Central Los Angeles, the heavily Latino Pico-Union district and other areas most severely impacted by rioting, said children's advocates.
"We clearly have not done enough to focus attention on the post-riot needs of children in Los Angeles, which is in a crisis state," said James Steyer, president and founder of the California child advocacy group, Children Now.
According to the group's yearly report card, children in Los Angeles endure more violent crime than any other area in the state.
In addition, the county ranks next to last in terms of eighth-grade achievement and 55th out of 58 in terms of high school dropout rate. Nearly one of three children in the county between the ages of 1 and 3 is not covered by health insurance.
A recent national survey by the Children's Defense Fund found that 28% of children in the city are impoverished. The survey treated East Los Angeles as a separate entity and determined that the child poverty rate there was 32%.
Local children's advocates cited the Heal L.A. immunization program as potentially filling a critical gap in child health care coverage.
Of Los Angeles County's more than 600,000 preschool-age children, more than 50% have not received vaccinations to prevent such diseases as measles, diphtheria, hepatitis, meningitis, tetanus and polio, said Charles Alexander, immunization program director for the County of Los Angeles.
Alexander said the Heal L.A. goal of vaccinating 15,000 children in the next year is reachable if the private and public sectors work together.
"One program is not going to resolve all health problems, but we do need more programs from the private sector and attention that a Michael Jackson can bring to help promote immunizations," Alexander said.
Other local advocates said the Heal L.A. program will also be a meaningful addition to Los Angeles' social welfare network if the program seeks advice from and is willing to work with existing service providers.
"There is such a tremendous need for services for kids in Los Angeles that the last thing we need is duplication of services," said Pam Mohr, director of the newly formed Alliance for Children's Rights.
"I would also hope that the program would grow and focus on other equally important needs, such as career counseling, family preservation and housing. But from what I hear, I'm very excited and encouraged. It's been very worrisome at the lack of attention on children's issues because what we do to our children now will determine what they do to us later."