WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush and his wife, Laura, spoke up Friday for an initiative that urges at-risk children to shun gangs and drugs and avoid making dead-end choices.

“Children throughout America face a lot of problems,” Mrs. Bush said about her initiative, Helping America’s Youth, which stresses that every child needs a caring adult – a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, teacher, coach or mentor.

“In the fall, we’re hosting a White House conference on helping America’s youth, bringing together researchers, community leaders, educators and others who want to find solutions to the challenges young Americans face,” Mrs. Bush said.

During the event at Paul Public Charter School in Washington, the president and first lady met with four children whose parents have spent time behind bars.

Bush told the story of Lexus Henderson, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at the school who lives with his grandmother because his mother is in prison. The teen has been involved with Higher Achievement Program, founded in 1975 to improve grades, standardized test scores and attendance of underserved middle school children in Washington.

Lexus told the president that he planned to go to college, preferably the University of Miami.

“I’ll put in a good word with the governor,” Bush said about his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The president also promoted his initiative to give religious groups equal footing with nonsectarian groups in competing for federal contracts. Civil libertarians fear the government will wind up paying for worship, eroding the constitutional separation between church and state, but the president says religious organizations often do a better job of serving the poor and meeting other social needs.

Unable to win passage of legislation to accomplish his goal, Bush has bypassed Congress and made more taxpayer money available to religious groups through executive orders and regulations.

Bush noted that religious charities received $2 billion last year in taxpayer money – up from $1.17 billion in 2003.

“I think there’s a vital role for government to play,” Bush said. “But first we’ve got to understand the limitations of government. Government can do a lot of things, but one of the things government is not really good at is love. It can hand out money, but it can’t put hope in a person’s heart, it can’t serve to inspire a person to set goals, like going to college.”

On the Net:

White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives: http://www.whitehouse.gov/government/fbci

AP-ES-04-01-05 1512EST

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