Harlem on His Mind

UPDATED 04/10/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/10/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

WINTER IN MANHATTAN HAS been mild this year, but Geoffrey Canada clearly remembers the brutal cold of his South Bronx youth. "We were too poor to dress properly," he says. "I had thin socks, thin pants, no sweaters and no boots. It wasn't until years later that I found out you could remain warm in the winter if you had the right clothes."

An elegant figure in gray wool slacks and sleek loafers, Canada, 43, has triumphed over poverty, but he hasn't forgotten those who are still waging the battle. President of the Rheedlen Centers for Children & Families in Harlem, he has devoted his life to salvaging lives of needy youngsters. Based primarily in public schools, Rheedlen offers homework help, tutoring and recreational programs to 2,000 students ages 5 and up who apply for its services; social workers provide drug counseling and advise parents; and emergency food and clothing are given to families in distress.

Long recognized as a hero in his own community, Canada recently became one of six recipients of the first annual Heinz Awards. Bestowed in January by Teresa Heinz in memory of her husband John, a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and an heir to the Heinz-foods fortune who was killed in a 1991 plane crash, the no-strings-attached grants of $250,000 go to candidates chosen secretly by a nominating committee. "He has a passionate concern for children," Heinz says of Canada. "Here's a guy who is really on the front lines." Adds Children's Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman, "Geoff is a remarkable leader who has never lost touch with the child within."

Although a lot of Canada's work is spent overseeing Rheedlen's $5.5 million budget and staff of 84, he spends as much time as possible with young clients. With fiancée Yvonne Grant, a 35-year-old administrative assistant, he lives on upper Broadway near several Rheedlen schools. "It's important for the kids to have role models who go to the same supermarket and live on the same block," he says.

A black belt in karate, Canada also teaches a martial-arts class two evenings a week. Although he fiercely opposes physical force, Canada (whose memoir, Fist Stick Knife Gun, will be published by Beacon Press in June) is adamant about giving children a sense of power by teaching them self-defense. Still, he adjures students to avoid confrontations. "The first thing you learn," he says, "is that martial-arts training is a way of becoming nonviolent."

Canada also believes in getting parents involved. When a youngster uses violent language, for example, he warns that he will turn up at home for a talk. "The kids say, 'Yeah, right.' But when I knock on that door, they're stunned, and I have no problems after that," he says.

Canada's hardscrabble childhood gave him a keen sense of what such gestures can mean. His mother, Mary, now 65 and a substance-abuse counselor in Freeport, N.Y., without the help of husband McAlister, who left when Geoffrey was 3, raised Geoffrey and his brothers. (Daniel, 44, is a nuclear-plant technician and Reuben, 41, a defense contractor; John, an Air Force corpsman, died of alcohol-related causes in 1972.) An ambitious woman who eventually earned a master's from Harvard, Mary acted as her sons' tutor—restricting their TV time, teaching them to read and shepherding them to museums and civil rights marches.

A whip-smart, if reluctant, student, Geoffrey was sent to live with Mary's parents in Freeport at 15. At Wyandanch High School, Canada lived up to his early-promise; in 1970 he won a scholarship to Bowdoin College, where he majored in psychology and sociology. After the birth of son Jerry in 1972 and marriage to high school girlfriend Joyce Henderson, he entered the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His first teaching job was at Boston's Robert White School, where he worked with inner-city students.

Canada's marriage didn't last, but his bonds with Jerry (now a Berkeley law student) remained strong even after Geoffrey returned to New York City in 1983 to direct Rheedlen's truancy-prevention program. And while he has yet to decide what he'll do with his windfall, he expects that his family will reap part of the reward. "I have a strong commitment to them," he says.

And to the kids who are part of his family at Rheedlen. Says Davidchen Joseph, 18, who lives with a brother and has been in Canada's martial-arts class for five years: "Geoff's like a father. He's a guy you can be cool with—and he's there if you need help."

MICHELLE GREEN
LISA KAY GREISSINGER in New York City

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