Powers’ Iraq outreach ends up as more hype than help
By Robert J. McCarthy NEWS POLITICAL REPORTER
Updated: 08/05/08 8:26 AM
If there is a single basis for Jon Powers’ Democratic candidacy for Congress, it’s the influence of Iraq on his young life.
His tour of duty there as an Army captain dominates his resume. So does the War Kids Relief nonprofit organization he started to shield Iraq’s youth from the influence of Islamic radicals.
Now, on the campaign trail, Powers continually touts stories in Newsweek, the New York Times, The Buffalo News and NBC News about his plan to raise as much as $7 million for Iraqi orphanages and youth centers.
But while Powers’ Web site highlights War Kids Relief as “quickly recognized for its path breaking work,” critics say it accomplished little beyond shipping a few soccer balls and backpacks to Iraq –and paying Powers about $77,000 worth of salary over 18 months.
They also say that while the good intentions even of congressional candidates are entitled to fail, Powers never mentions that War Kids Relief fell far short of accomplishing its goal.
Luke Vaughn, spokesman for rival Democratic candidate Jack Davis in the 26th Congressional District, said, “The bottom line is that Powers ran War Kids Relief off a cliff.”
“He made big promises,” Vaughn added, “but all he did was pay himself a fat salary and grab headlines without serving the children he promised to help.”
Powers, 30, acknowledges that War Kids Relief never accomplished many of its goals, mainly because Congress declined to fund the program. He also said he is not required until Aug. 15 to file Form 990 to the Internal Revenue Service to account for receipts and expenditures. He acknowledged that the organization raised between $150,000 and $250,000 over the course of its existence, with a substantial percentage dedicated to his salary.
Still, Powers — a former substitute teacher — will not accept that War Kids Relief “failed,” insisting that it raised critical awareness of Iraq’s forgotten youth.
“We brought the issue of the challenges facing the kids to the cover of Newsweek,” he said, “and I briefed Marine commanders on its importance — because nobody else was. We became the leading voice in Washington for the kids. I’m very, very proud of that.”
The genesis of War Kids Relief stems from Powers’ experience as an artillery platoon leader in the Army’s 1st Armored Division and later as the battalion commander’s adjutant in Baghdad and Najaf. The young graduate of Clarence High School and John Carroll University found himself moved by the plight of kids there and the influence of extremists over them.
He recalls how the relationship of soldiers and civilians deteriorated rapidly as the American occupation wore on, to the point where one young Iraqi was recruited to attack U. S. soldiers for a pack of cigarettes.
His “darkest day” in Iraq, Powers said, was when a nun warned him outside an orphanage that its residents would be killed by insurgents if they were recipients of U. S. aid.
By the time he came home and hooked up with the Vietnam Veterans of America, he said, he was committed to altering U. S. foreign policy to help Iraq’s street kids.
“Billions of dollars were being spent on reconstruction,” he said, “but nothing on youth development in a country where 40 percent of the population is under the age of 14.”
In June of 2005, Powers started War Kids Relief as a program of Vietnam Veterans of America. He worked for the veterans group, raised $14,000 at a Clarence picnic, returned to the war zone and began lobbying officials for programs centered around the network of youth centers left over from the era of dictator Saddam Hussein.
Powers set out to persuade Congress to fund as much as $7 million for Iraqi youth, with the idea that youths engaged in soccer or cleanup and maintenance programs — maybe even being paid for it — would be steered from the clutches of radicals recruiting them for violence against American troops. “The whole purpose was to help them help themselves,” he said.
Indeed, Powers’ efforts began attracting attention. “NBC Nightly News” featured his efforts as part of its “Making a Difference” series. Other stories aired on CNN and ABC.
In what amounted to the program’s most important thrust, Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts sought $1 million in 2007 for a Youth Center and Work Study Program that would be administered by Iraq’s Ministry of Youth and Sports, with oversight provided by War Kids Relief.
But Congress’ rejection of the program spelled the beginning of the end for War Kids Relief. By June 2007, Powers announced his candidacy for the seat now held by the retiring Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence. His time with the Vietnam Veterans of America was also ending.
Rick Weidman, the group’s executive director for policy and government affairs, called War Kids Relief a legitimate group that received funding as a “start-up” effort. “We might give our chapters [or programs] a grant of, say, $25,000 for two or three years,” Weidman said. “But we also say we expect you guys to match it and develop a sustaining base.”
In March 2007, Powers incorporated the group as an independent nonprofit organization in Washington, D. C. It was taken over in late May of last year by Dominick King, a Marine veteran of two Iraq tours and a Powers friend. King, 25, said last week that he tried to raise money to accomplish the same goal as Powers but never succeeded. “We were expecting the money from the Kennedy-Kerry proposal,” King explained. “When it fell through, a lot of what we were hoping to do was basically taken away from us right there.”
Under King’s leadership, the program began to receive some attention around his hometown of Worcester, Mass. The class of Cynthia Bazinet, a high school government teacher in Auburn, Mass., adopted it as part of a senior peace studies course and raised $262.
But when it came time to donate the money in December of last year, War Kids Relief had terminated it Web site. She contacted King, who said they ought to find another charity to help.
Bazinet said that she tried confronting Powers about the situation in various conversations on political blog sites but that he always avoided giving a direct answer. He offered to discuss the matter privately, she said, but never online. “If you go out and [raise money], you had better be prepared to answer questions,” she added. “I don’t care if he is a vet.”
King said he did his best to raise funds privately but found limited success. He did continue to push the program in Congress and sent a shipment of soccer balls and backpacks to Iraq.
“I’m just not a very good fundraiser, I guess,” he said. “And without money, you can’t accomplish much.”
According to Powers’ campaign, War Kids Relief’s “mission, name and vision” were transferred to a Minnesota organization, Children’s Culture Connection, run by fashion designer Dina Fesler. She described CCC as an informal network of organizations aiming to foster cultural understanding. War Kids Relief was considering shutting down, she said, but she took over the name because she liked Powers’ vision.
“If War Kids was going to go away and people knew it as a name, we decided to basically take the name and create a cultural exchange program,” she said, explaining that the organization now works to exchange “cultural care packages” containing videos and games.
The candidate, who faces Davis and Amherst lawyer Alice J. Kryzan in September’s Democratic primary, said that while others complained about conditions in Iraq, he did something about them. He said his efforts resulted in the State Department’s creating a position for youth development, while raising consciousness about the plight of Iraqi youth.
Powers offers no apologies for his efforts: “I’m proud of War Kids.”
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