In the days before the Presidents' Summit for America's Future, held in Philadelphia in April 1997, the Inquirer asked former President Jimmy Carter to write an op-ed on the challenges and hopes facing the nation then — and the message resonates today, 20 years later.

The greatest domestic challenge for our nation today is reversing the tide of despair that plagues so many of our citizens, especially those in low-income urban areas. Despite a vast array of government and private programs designed to address socioeconomic issues, many Americans face increasing obstacles to living healthy, productive lives.

It is especially heartbreaking when we realize that poverty, poor health care, crime and lack of quality education affect one segment of our population hardest: our children.

I have often heard people lament that the problems facing our neediest citizens are so entrenched and so complex that nothing can be done. This is not only wrong, but this attitude helps to perpetuate these problems. All of us have the ability to help ourselves and to reach out to help someone less fortunate. If we could form this great chain of human compassion, we could win major battles of the war against hopelessness and despair. It would be a social revolution like no other we've experienced in this country.

But it will not happen overnight. We've learned this through a variety of international and domestic programs at the Carter Center to prevent and resolve conflicts, promote democracy, and fight hunger, disease and poverty.

We first started working more than a decade ago in developing countries, primarily in Africa and Latin America. In Africa, we've seen whole villages become self-sustaining in food production by first teaching one farmer improved agricultural techniques. She, in turn, teaches the others in her village, and before long, food production is up fourfold.

By recruiting and training volunteer health workers, we've also seen a 97 percent decrease in a disease called guinea worm that keeps those same farmers away from their fields and prevents their children from attending school.

These and other programs demonstrate the true spirit of community. But it doesn't happen overnight.

In this country, our problems are different, but it is equally as important that we band together as a community of rich and poor, young and old, reaching across racial and religious lines.

In Atlanta, we have approached problems this way. The Carter Center's Atlanta Project (TAP) has helped some of our neediest communities gain access to resources to address problems residents identify – including juvenile crime, low immunization rates, lack of jobs and affordable housing, drug use and high school dropout rates. And our America Project has shared our successes – and failures – with other cities struggling with similar issues.

Shortly after the Atlanta Project was announced, we received thousands of calls and inquiries from individuals, corporations and small businesses asking how they could help. We responded by linking volunteers with those who requested their services and provided the business community an opportunity to form close partnerships with poor neighborhoods in a unique way: by sending their executives out to work with residents every day. Through volunteerism, a network of solid relationships was established that will continue long after the Atlanta Project closes its doors.

We've learned some important lessons along the way. One is that volunteers and those in need of help must approach each other as equals, each with something valuable to give, each with something valuable to learn. It is only in the spirit that we can help each other.

When Rosalynn and I walked the street during the Atlanta Project's citywide children's immunization drive, or when we hammer side by side with those who will live in a Habitat for Humanity home, we are always struck by how much we have in common with those we used to think of as "the poor" or "the needy. " They have faces and names. They have ambitions and goals. Like us, most of them also want the best for their children and are looking for an opportunity to improve their lives.

Real, sustainable change is a slow and arduous process that can take years, even decades. But it is only through the hard work of individuals, coming together in common struggle, that we can make improvements. If we invest in honest, open relationships among equals, the return for all our communities will be immeasurable.

And those who will benefit most are our children.

The Presidents' Summit for America's Future is an important component of this investment, but each of us must take it upon ourselves to ensure that America's future is indeed bright.

Former President Jimmy Carter is chairman of the nonprofit Carter Center in Atlanta.