Young adults on a mission to improve lives of others

As a volunteer with Notre Dame Mission Volunteers, Sarah Kennedy, 23, works full-time for Alternative Directions, a Baltimore nonprofit that helps people who are in prison or leaving prison. She runs a program called CHIP, which mentors children of incarcerated parents, and she helms a transitional program for women coming out of prison.

"I see so much injustice and inequality in our country," she said. "I think if you're not actively working against it, you're supporting the status quo."

This is Kennedy's second year with the volunteer organization, which was founded in Baltimore and is part of AmeriCorps. Last year, she worked at the Caroline Center, which provides free job training in Baltimore. "It was a very good experience," she said. "I was doing a lot of teaching. But this year is even better and more in my career."

As one of 17 Baltimore volunteers with the Notre Dame Mission Volunteers, Kennedy works full time, on track to complete 1,700 hours of service in an 11-month commitment that began in September and will end in July. For her time and effort, she receives a stipend of $900 per month, plus benefits. She also receives support in the form of regular meetings with other Notre Dame volunteers.

"It's really admirable that these people are taking a year of their lives to serve others," said Natalie Brown, communications coordinator for the nonprofit, who said volunteers also receive $5,000 toward their education after they complete the program. "They're not really receiving many benefits. They're doing it because they are committed to this mission."

Notre Dame Mission Volunteers focuses on helping the economically disadvantaged through education, and began in 1994 with six Baltimore volunteers. It began a partnership with AmeriCorps 17 years ago, and this year supports 390 volunteers working in 23 cities across the country.

"Baltimore was where the program started and it's generally been one of the larger program sites," said Alex Garcia, 29, who has been Baltimore site director since 2009.

Garcia, who grew up in Nebraska and worked with the Peace Corps, said Notre Dame appeals to him because it "really focuses on community with the poor and solidarity with the poor, not being afraid to live with and interact with people who are economically disadvantaged."

He said forging these "real bonds" with people is "not only personally attractive to me, but also the best approach."

Anthony Newman, 23, is one of many volunteers who are back for a second year with Notre Dame. He's working at the Julie Community Center in Fells Point, a nonprofit advocacy and education organization. He helps adults prepare for their high-school equivalency tests and teaches "other things for life," he said.

"I always knew I wanted to help people," said Newman, who is from West Virginia and said he came to Baltimore to volunteer with Notre Dame.

Allison Miller, 22, agreed that the Notre Dame program is appealing because of its direct interactions with the people it serves. "Service is something I always wanted to do," said Miller, who grew up in Harrisburg, Pa., and joined the program in September shortly after graduating from Penn State University. "I realized growing up I had certain advantages not everybody has."

Miller also volunteers with the Julie Community and she helps children in kindergarten through grade 3 at Baltimore's Tench Tilghman Elementary/Middle school improve their reading. She also guides a drama program for first-graders at the Fells Point Corner Theatre.

Miller lives with roommates and said she's able to get by on the volunteer stipend. "I'm not used to that luxurious of a lifestyle," she said. "It's just a matter of cutting out some of the small things and budgeting."

Miller, who is planning a career in human services, said she didn't realize until she began volunteering with Notre Dame how much she would like teaching young children to read.

"It was something the school needed and it fits me more than I thought it would," she said. "I really like direct service with the kids. Especially with the little ones, the change happens so quickly."

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