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The Green Team

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But here's the thing: Being anointed a star by Robin Hood, with the video camera rolling and journalists taking notes, is no guarantee of future funding. The board, while it may get out its hankies once a year, is not a sentimental group of people, and it's not embarrassed about turning off the spigot if the heroes turn out to be well-meaning but inept. As Kenneth Langone puts it, "I make a lot of investments that don't work out."

Rocky Robinson and Joe Perez were among Robin Hood's first heroes, honored for starting the Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corporation, in response to the fact that it took forever to get ambulances to respond to 911 calls in their troubled neighborhood. Robin Hood staked the two to more than $300,000 over several years to buy an ambulance and train staff in CPR and other lifesaving techniques. But the foundation cut off their grant three years ago because of bad bookkeeping.

"We were friends," says Saltzman, sounding positively pained by the decision. "But we became concerned about their practices with money. They couldn't do the simplest bookkeeping. We offered to pay for an accountant, but it just never worked." Robinson, who freely admits that his bookkeeping has been "a horrible mess," says he's grateful that the foundation backed him for so long, but adds that the loss of funding has been devastating. "We feel very bad about it," he says, describing laying off staff and cutting back on ambulance calls. "Me and my partner are just barely keeping things going." Wenner regrets that Robin Hood gave up on them. "I spent an incredible amount of time fighting for Rocky and Joe," he says. "The fact they can't observe middle-class business strictures goes along with the territory."

The fate of another "hero," Willie Battle, hung in the balance at the recent board meeting at Binding Together. This magnetic 44-year-old ex-junkie, who now calls himself Brother Battle, started snorting heroin at age 12 and spent four years in prison on drug-dealing charges. He was honored just three years ago by Robin Hood for creating an after-school program in East New York called Imani Altisimo Inc. But since then he has overextended, adding a basketball league, a fitness-training program, conflict-resolution classes, and more, to the point that the entire enterprise has become financially shaky. "He grew too fast and lost his original mission with the kids," says Lisa Smith, Robin Hood's deputy director. "He's not retaining the kids." Battle sounded morose on the phone a few days before the board's meeting. "Robin Hood has been our major funder," said Battle. "We're broke. If they pull out, then our program collapses."

The closed-room board discussion got hot and heavy as members debated whether this program could be saved. "They really went at it," Saltzman reported later. "Nobody wants to throw good money after bad. But we didn't want to just let the kids go into the abyss." The compromise solution: a brief reprieve for Battle, with the board providing a three-month $60,000 grant and instructions to prepare to merge with another neighborhood-kids' program or radically cut operations. He was immensely relieved to get a second chance. "I appreciate their extending their hand to us one more time," said Battle. "I'm glad they didn't walk away."

Perhaps it's not surprising that there has occasionally been a culture gap between Robin Hood's middle-class staff and the people they're trying to help. En route to visit a job-training program in Sunset Park run by a nun, Saltzman tells me, with a wry smile, that Sister Mary Franciscus threw out the first Robin Hood program officer who came to check out the program seven years ago. The problem: The woman's stylish but provocative clothes sent the wrong message to the young adults, many of them school dropouts from welfare families, about appropriate attire in corporate America. "I thought what Sister Mary did was great," Saltzman says, adding that the chastened staffer made a return trip in more conservative garb. "But it was gutsy, since we were there trying to decide whether to give her money."

Sister Mary, a tall, wisecracking woman in a blue habit, teases the students as she sticks her head into classrooms in the airy converted-Catholic-school gymnasium, where African-American and Hispanic teenagers are studying for their GEDs, rehearsing for job interviews, and learning word processing. "Aren't you supposed to be wearing glasses?" she calls out to a girl squinting at a computer. In the hallway, Sister Mary whispers, "I memorize everyone's name. Most of them have never had much personal attention before -- and if they did, it was the wrong kind."

Saltzman has come by today to discuss the possibility of expanding this successful program, called Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow, to another site. Robin Hood is only one of twenty funders of the job effort, kicking in $250,000 of the $1.6 million budget. (A rival foundation official grumbles, off the record, that Robin Hood is often a little too eager to grab credit for good works.) But to give Robin Hood's merry band their due, they've often been the first to contribute vital start-up cash to get new projects rolling, as well as take the unusual step of arranging for top-notch (and free) legal, accounting, and management advice. "I don't think we'd be around without Robin Hood," says Sister Mary, noting that the foundation came to her financial rescue after a government-funding cut several years ago, as well as helping to organize its bookkeeping. "Robin Hood is like a mentor: They give us goals. They push us to think about how we can do better."

Meanwhile, up in Harlem on West 116th Street on a Wednesday afternoon, people are lined up around the block waiting for free oxtail stew at the newly renovated Community Kitchen, which looks more like a cozy restaurant than it does a soup kitchen. The entire gut rehab was courtesy of Robin Hood's Lonni Tanner, whose full-time job consists of badgering companies for donations of everything from books and computers to architectural plans and free electrical work; as she puts it, "I only deal in free." Kathy Goldman, the executive director of the Community Food Resource Center, says, "Lonni got us almost everything -- every tile on the floor, every pot and pan, every chair, even the copper pipes that you can't see."

It's easy to measure the success of a soup kitchen by simply looking at costs and counting up the number of people who get fed every week. But trying to change people's behavior -- say, to stop teenage girls from getting pregnant -- is an infinitely more complicated endeavor. Dr. Michael Carrera, director of the Children's Aid Society' s National Adolescent Sexuality Training Center, received his first $150,000 Robin Hood grant in 1991. The foundation is now backing Carrera to the tune of $700,000, in part to run a controlled three-year social experiment with 600 New York City teens. The goal: To see whether intensive tutoring, sex education, and counseling can keep the kids on the straight and narrow. "The trader mentality is not to take positions for a long time," says Carrera, "so it's good to be supported in this way."

While this week's star-studded celebration represents a social and financial milestone for the Robin Hood Foundation -- and it certainly raises its glamour quotient to new heights -- in some fundamental way the spirit of the core group hasn't changed all that much since the days of those early, clubbier board meetings. Because they all see New York City as a laboratory for social change, this opinionated group, a mixture of Democrats and Republicans, still thrives on arguing and debating over how best to tackle poverty on a block-by-block basis. The only difference between now and then, Jones and his crew would argue, is that the checks they disperse are a lot bigger.

Brushing off the inevitable failures, they take enormous pleasure in the successes. At the foundation's most recent Tavern on the Green breakfast honoring its "hero" community activists, Stan Druckenmiller presented an award to Friends of Island Academy, the group that helps young Rikers Island ex-inmates get educations and jobs. It was the first big Robin Hood event since John F. Kennedy Jr.'s death (the breakfast was renamed in his honor), and the normally low-key trader got downright emotional as he praised the program for dramatically reducing prison recidivism rates, making New York safer, and saving tax dollars -- as well as changing lives for the better. "I don't care whether you're a bleeding-heart liberal like Paul Jones or a coldhearted conservative like myself," Druckenmiller said, bringing a knowing laugh from an audience filled with friends and colleagues. "There's something in this for you."


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