Veterans group spruces up school as 9/11 service project

As recently as 2010, Jeremy Wallick would have spent a fall afternoon like Saturday’s in the engine room of the submarine he called home for most of his hitch in the Navy.

On Saturday, he was in East Baltimore, paint roller in hands, helping apply a coat of pastel-toned orange to the walls of an elementary school cafeteria.

Wallick, 34, was working as a team leader for The Mission Continues, a nationwide nonprofit that aims to steer the skills and the can-do spirit of military veterans toward volunteer projects that create positive change.

The former mechanic was one of 30 veterans and service members and about 50 other volunteers who teamed up to give Roots and Branches School, a K-5 charter in Harlem Park, an “extreme makeover.”

Scheduled to commemorate the 16th anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which is Monday, the project helped brighten and spruce up the school inside and out, from the construction of a new reading room and the painting of an original mural indoors to the re-mulching of playgrounds and the building of new trash receptacles out front.

It was the kind of project for which Baltimore City’s public schools would probably not have been able to find the money, said Principal Anne Rossi.

The school’s 170 students might never meet the volunteers who made the makeover happen, she said, but she was sure it would make a lasting impression when they flooded through the doors Monday.

The upgrades reinforce one of the school’s core philosophies, Rossi said — that a clean, stable environment promotes learning— and they’ll reinforce the equally important message that the children are valued.

“It means a lot to kids who sometimes aren’t so well taken care of that someone cares enough to come in on their own time and do these kinds of things for them,” she said.

Studies have shown that Harlem Park, a neighborhood between Sandtown-Winchester to the north and Franklin Square to the south, has one of the highest percentages of vacant houses in Baltimore.

Two youths were killed within a few blocks of the school this summer, Rossi said, but the surrounding community is unusually tightly knit and “extremely committed” to the welfare of the school.

Established in 2011, the school bases much of its teaching on the Reggio Emilia approach, a philosophy developed in post-World War II Italy that integrates nature and the arts into preschool and primary curricula. It was one of five Baltimore schools that former city schools CEO Gregory Thornton recommended for closure in 2015. In January of last year, the city school board voted to close four of the schools but to defer a decision on Roots and Branches.

Students who wish to attend are chosen by lottery.

Little is random about the goals of The Mission Continues, established in 2007 to provide opportunities for post-9/11 veterans “to find purpose at home through community impact.”

Originally founded to serve only wounded or disabled veterans, the organization expanded its mission in 2011 to include anyone who has served in the military since the that killed 2,997 people in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania early 16 years ago.

It’s the first generation of American veterans who all joined the service as volunteers, spokeswoman Katie Kilby said, and that means it’s a population with a desire to serve.

It can be hard for many to transition back into civilian life, she added, whether the trouble comes from something as simple as missing military comradeship or as complex as dealing with post-traumatic stress.

By tapping skills gained in the military and directing them toward communities, the organization aims to serve both the veterans and the communities.

Leslie Premo, an Army veteran who was once based at Aberdeen Proving Ground, helped establish the 1st Service Platoon in Baltimore not long after the rioting that took place in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray of injuries suffered in police custody in 2015.

Twenty-six members of the Towson University chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority also pitched in, with about a dozen creating a mural depicting the silhouette of a tree on a wall outside the library. Roots and Branches chose the image to reflect the name of the school, and Lloyd paused to consider the symbolism.

The project seemed to generate a general “sense of inspiration,” Towson senior Mary Lloyd said, and she found the image apt.

“When I think of a tree, I think of being free, of being one with the world,” she said. “I think it shows it’s possible to grow, no matter what environment you’re in.”

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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