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Petula Dvorak asks, Where are the angels?

Monday, February 28, 2011; 11:50 PM

It's time to look to the heavens. Or at least check the voice mail and e-mail.

It's that scary, back-against-the-wall budget time when lots of nonprofit and local groups are looking for an angel.

Sometimes they exist, swooping in at the last minute, usually anonymously, and save something beloved or important that's on the chopping block with a big cash donation.

Don't believe in angels? Take the recent case of Washington's endangered azaleas.

Earlier this month, U.S. Arboretum officials announced that tough times would result in the removal of one of the most treasured exhibits: the gaudy azaleas that are the backdrop for many a Washington wedding portrait each spring.

The Glenn Dale azaleas "are low on this scale of scientific merit but high for aesthetic and visitor experience," said the arboretum's interim director, Ramon Jordan said.

E-mails flew; savetheazaleas.org was launched; and members of Congress were lobbied.

And, lo and behold, the angels heard. A million bucks came raining down on the arboretum from an anonymous donor, a gift that will save the shrubs.

Threaten to tear it down and they will come? Is that how it works?

Excellent. Let's see what else we can save from the budget ax.

How about a needle exchange program that gives clean syringes and condoms to drug addicts? It's designed to help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in our nation's capital, where we have the highest rate of infection in the country.

Any angels call in to help keep the program going?

"No, we didn't hear from anyone," said program director Mary Beth Levin, as she began to clean out the offices of PreventionWorks just before its scheduled shutdown date of Feb. 25.

Hmmm. I guess there are no angels out there for this one.

How about the public schools in Prince George's County? Kids are cute. There have to be angels out there for kids, right?

As part of a dreary budget hammered out last week, Prince George's schools are likely to see the death of a popular reading program for students whose literary skills are lagging, and a beloved nature center known as Camp Schmidt will close.

So far, no billionaire has descended from the sky to save these programs.

So cute isn't catching big donors' eyes. How about cuddly?

Last week, the National Zoo said its Kids Farm exhibit is going to kick the bucket. They need to cut $500,00, and the petting farm and giant pizza play space (giant foam topping you can roll and a crust you can bounce on) are the easiest place to do it.

There was a massive outcry from parentland. A Facebook page was created, a petition was circulated and, of course, a protest was organized by a mom who is also a lawyer. It's D.C. - of course the nursing mother of three juggling a Baby Bjorn and a petition is a lawyer.

At the pet-in on Saturday morning, kids who grew up with George the miniature donkey, Lucky the goat and Tulip the cow came to bid them farewell while parents signed a petition begging the zoo to spare them.

"This is the only space where little kids can actually go and see animals and play," stroller-pushing father of three Josh Feira told me.

His family comes from Arlington County nearly every weekend to play at the petting zoo.

Even more poignant was one of the zoo volunteer's perspectives. "Sometimes, this is the closest some inner-city kids will come to being on a farm," he told me. He was a teacher for 31 years. "Never do you see kids light up the way they do when they're around animals. This is it for a lot of kids, this place."

Over at the giant pizza, kids crawled through a huge olive as parents strategized: "Can't they just call Domino's or something and get them to sponsor this? Wouldn't it be great advertizing for a pizza place?"

The zoo would love that, it turns out.

"Sure, something like that would be great. We've never really had a situation like that where we really need someone to just swoop in," National Zoo spokeswoman Karen Korpowski-Gallo told me.

But they haven't heard anything yet.

So cuddly won't do it, either.

The number of huge, anonymous donations nationwide is actually up as the recession deepens, reports the Journal of Philanthropy.

But the kind of stuff that gets saved by an eleventh-hour angel? It's not the kind of social programs - from reading classes to women's health care to environmental education - that are endangered in this budget cycle.

It's libraries, aquatic teams, historic churches and university buildings that usually get the biggest help from a quiet Mr. or Mrs. Moneybags.

And, of course, azaleas.

Angels, are you listening? There's a lot more in peril right now than flowering shrubs.

E-mail me your ideas for a program that needs to be saved at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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