Growing up in rural Mississippi, Willye White built her future on cotton and dreams. Trudging through the hot delta sun, she said, she would "watch the train go by and say, 'Father, I know there's something better to do than this.'"
Something better for the lithe, hazel-eyed White was to run for Olympic gold with a determination that earned her two medals and a ticket around the world.
Today, White and more than 20 other Olympians met here to make further plans for a federally funded program that encourages disadvantaged youngsters to strive for higher ideals. They call their quest "The Olympic Experience."
In two years, the program -- with more than 100 past and present Olympians contributing their time -- has combed small-town and urban America to search out youngsters 15 to 18 with problems ranging from drug abuse to truancy and challenge them to take a positive stand in their lives.
"The real challenge will be to get them to lift their level of expectations," said Milt Campbell, the Newark program coordinator and an Olympic decathlon champion in 1964. "They've been kicked, beat on and told every day you're not worth a damn."
The message carried by the Olympians: You are somebody.
Its effect "was beyond our expectations," said Bill Toomey, the 1968 Olympic decathlon champion who is the program chairman.
Last year 3,000 youths were reached in five-day, 30-hour self-help sessions that focused on career development and personal success through developing self-confidence and goals. About 130 Olympic athletes participated. About $600,000 was provided by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Youth Programs. Funding has been increased to $800,000 this year.
Among the success stories: In Miami, a teen-age girl anxious to complete the last day of training sneaked out of the hospital a day after giving birth. In Los Angeles, a Chicano gang leader turned his gun over to a program leader.
"He said he realized there was something better in life," said Olympic long jumper Ralph Boston, recalling the story.
This year athletes will recreate "The Olympic Experience" at nine sites in seven states, from Birmingham, Ala., to Santa Ana, Calif. The program presently is not operating in Washington; there will be a session in Richmond June 22 to Aug. 14.
Barry King, a former British decathlon champion, is executive director of the program. Under the government contract, "We're mandated to change the employment attitude of these kids," King said. Program participants are Summer Youth Employment Program workers selected by their employers.
Most are inner-city youths.Some are dropouts; others pushouts. Athletes inverviewed today said most of the youngsters want handouts and believe the world owes them a living.
Barbara Jones, a U.S. Olympic sprinter in the 1952 and 1960 Games, relating her experience, said, "A lot of these kids don't like themselves. They don't like the environment they live in. . . I come from the projects and I know you can feel rich without having a dime. 'The Olympic Experience' is letting them know they are somebody."
"They need direction, some sort of spark," said Vince Matthews, a gold medalist in 1968 and 1972. "A couple of years before, some of us were in the same place."
LeRoy Walker, physical education instructor at North Carolina Central University, said a long range program goal is to employ Olympians in similar, year-round programs.
"They want to be utilized," he said of the Olympians. "They want to give something back. And we need to give them that opportunity."