Home Truths

updated 03/08/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/08/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

On Feb. 20, President Clinton found himself face-to-face with the future of America. On President Clinton: Answering Children's Questions, an ABC special broadcast live from the East Room of the White House and hosted by anchorman Peter Jennings, 40 children, aged 8 to 16, asked the President for help—sometimes urgently. The President seemed touched by what he heard from kids like Michael Cruz, 16, who described the violence in his Chicago public school, and Joey Di Paolo, 13, an HIV positive New Yorker who wanted to know what the new Administration plans to do about AIDS. What follows are portraits of two of the children from that show who hope that the President can begin changing their lives.

A 12-year-old girl dreams of a home for herself and her mom

Every day, Venus Rodriguez, 12, wakes up in the bunk above her mother's in the cramped San Francisco homeless shelter where they have lived since December, rearranges her teddy bears and gets ready for school. So two weeks ago, when she got the chance, Venus asked President Clinton on national television, "What are you going to do to end homeless-ness in the world?" She says she is well satisfied with his answer. "He told me that they're going to build more low-income housing and help create jobs. I think he's really gonna do what he says."

Still, she adds, "people can't know what it's like to be homeless. They don't know what it's like to worry that your things might be taken while you're away at school. They don't know what it's like not to let your classmates walk you home because they might see you live in a shelter." After her TV appearance, her classmates swarmed around her in the hallways at school. Some leased her because she was homeless, she says, but others were encouraging. "Don't worry," said one. "You're not really homeless because you've got a roof over your head."

The trip to Washington, her mom says, was "like a cupcake with whipped cream and a cherry on top." A $250 gift certificate from the Gap and loans from friends allowed Venus to buy three new outfits, and she and her mother, Katrina Powell, were put up at a hotel for two days. The two have been homeless off and on since 1987, when Powell left Buffalo, where Venus was born, to escape a difficult relationship with Venus's father, a former mill worker. They shuffled between San Francisco and New York City before winding up at the Hamilton family Center, whose staffers recommended Venus for the TV special. The 12-year-old has attended 10 schools the last five years. But she is an avid reader and has maintained a 3.2 average. She hopes to become a doctor.

The day Venus discovered she had been selected to appear on television, her mother learned she had just gotten a job as an operator for Pacific Bell. She is about to begin training there soon. But mother and daughter still have a long way to go before they can afford an apartment of their own. And their life remains more difficult than perhaps even the President realizes. After the show was over, Clinton asked Venus if she had ever been to San Francisco's Glide Memorial Methodist Church, where he had attended services in the past. "I told him I had," says Venus, "but I didn't tell him that I was standing in line there, wailing to get some food."

A Louisiana boy asks for a cleaner, safer environment

Purnell Dexter Brewer remembers how his little brother, Charles, died in 1991. Charles, 10, had undergone years of radiation treatment for a rare brain tumor, but still the cancer spread, growing down the boy's spinal cord, paralyzing him from the neck down. "It was one of the worst forms of cancer I'd ever seen," says 12-year-old Purnell.

He has seen a lot in his short life. Purnell's grandmother died of stomach cancer in 1982, and many neighbors have succumbed to other forms of the disease. Purnell's uncle Junius Millet Jr., 44, is on permanent disability because his body is covered with nonmalignant tumors. Purnell Brewer lives in Garyville. La. (pop. 3, 181), near the Mississippi River, in what is frequently called Cancer Alley. Residents and environmentalists suspect the high incidence of disease is caused by emissions from four of the areas petrochemical plants (PEOPLE, March 25, 1991).

Purnell, who appeared with Venus Rodriguez to question President Clinton on ABC, asked if something could be done about "the carelessly handled hazardous waste and air pollution in this area. Clinton promised to have the EPA investigate the matter—which is OK by Brewer. "Believe me," he says, "they wouldn't leave without finding some wrongdoing [by the chemical plants]." Residents of Garyville and other nearby towns often awake with red and burning eyes to the smell of noxious fumes.

Since Purnell, an honor student at Leon C. Godchaux Junior High School. appeared on television, his life has been pretty exciting, he says. He was flown to New York City by Good Morning America and has been approached by producers interested in making a movie. But though he wouldn't mind being in a movie, he remains focused on his goals: becoming President someday and getting the chemical plants to relocate. Meanwhile, his brother, Charles, is never far from his mind. "If these planls were the cause of my brother's death, if I personally have to help to make a change, I will." he says. "That's a-promise."

ELIZABETH GLEICK
MICHAEL SMALL San Francisco and RON RIDENHOUR in Garyville

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