PEOPLE LIKE to talk about celebrating their African roots and embracing their heritage, but when Odunde needs help, where are they?

It's a crying shame, if you ask me.

The three-day event starts Friday with a roundtable discussion. It's hard to believe organizers for the city's largest African cultural celebration are still scrambling just to secure a $27,500 deposit to offset the estimated $85,000 cost of police, fire and other services that used to be paid by the city. The South Philly-based organization has until this afternoon to come up with the deposit.

That's chump change when you consider that last year, 500,000 people went to the African marketplace, the free outdoor celebration on the festival's last day. If everyone who hung out enjoying the concerts and cultural demonstrations gave $1, Odunde would be in good shape.

Organizers wouldn't be all but on their knees begging people for money. They would have more than enough to offset the total cost of city services.

City budget woes have forced many popular local traditions - the Mummers Parade, the St. Patrick's Day Parade and the bike race - to scramble for donations to pay for services the city once provided for free.

"It's a new reality for all of us. We are struggling to make it work," said City Representative Melanie Johnson. "We are working with them and we hope to see it happen."

Meanwhile, what are you going to do?

Sit back and wait for an elected official, a big company or an individual with deep pockets to swoop in and come to the rescue again? If that's what we do, then we're all a bunch of cultural freeloaders.

This is Odunde we're talking about.

Summer in Philly wouldn't be summer without Odunde. It's part of the city's fabric. You know summer's here, at least unofficially, when you're strolling along a sidewalk in South Philly with a water ice and watching a performance on one of Odunde's sound stages.

But in these uncertain economic times, we can't just assume it's always going to be there, somehow getting by year after year. We have to do our part. Odunde is asking supporters to contribute whatever they can to ensure it can go on.

Help has been slowly trickling in. Bumi Fernandez, Odunde's executive director, got calls yesterday from Kenny Gamble, who pledged $2,500, and Rahim Islam, who offered $1,000.

But where are the masses who turn out each year and who claim they support Odunde's goal of embracing African heritage and teaching the next generation?

"We need our other influential African-Americans in the city of Philadelphia to make a donation," Fernandez told me yesterday. "We need Bill Cosby, one of our Philadelphia native sons, to step up to the plate."

Once the deposit money is raised, she's hoping festival-goers will donate at Sunday's African marketplace to make up the rest.

We can't let Odunde just wither away.

If Odunde means something to the city, and I think it does, we have to support it financially. Odunde's doors are open.

Drop off what you can at Odunde's headquarters, 2308 Grays Ferry Ave. The mailing address is Box 21748, Phila., PA 19146. *