Alethea Kalandros missed more than 70 days of school last year and was close to dropping out. This year she's been absent only two days.
Instead of thinking of excuses to stay away from Chesapeake High School in Essex, she thinks of her school's community service work at the Maryland School for the Blind.
"It gives me a reason to come to school now," she said.
Alethea and a half-dozen classmates were among nearly 700 students and teachers who shared their tales of the rewards of community service during a conference of the Maryland Student Service Alliance at the University of Maryland Baltimore County yesterday.
More than 80 workshops were scheduled throughout the day on topics from crime prevention to cleaning up the bay.
As varied as the community projects the students discussed were the personal rewards they reaped from giving time and energy to others. Volunteering, they've found, can win them everything from the confidence to hang in there for a diploma to experience that could turn into a career.
Among the Chesapeake students were a handful of the 40 who belong to the school's chapter of Maryland's Tomorrow, a statewide dropout-prevention program that encourages student involvement in community issues.
Students who make an effort to come to school daily and take part in a community project are rewarded with special privileges, including field trips to the World Trade Center.
In one ongoing project, they clean up a portion of a local highway four times a year. Another project, working with students at the Maryland School for the Blind, proved a popular workshop topic yesterday. The students who attended the workshop were blindfolded and made to find their way out of a maze using their sense of hearing.
"That was confusing," said one student when her sight was restored.
"Now you have a feeling for what it's like to be blind and the difficulty finding people and establishing relationships with them," explained Donna Reihl, recreation supervisor for the Maryland School for the Blind.
The volunteers shared their expertise in "sight guiding" the visually impaired, thanks to a visit from one of their favorite MSB students, Jennifer Karns, who also demonstrated touch technique with her cane.
"It makes the Chesapeake students more aware of how to deal with students with disabilities, and it makes our students more comfortable with their sighted peers," said Reihl.
That was the purpose of the conference, said Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, director of the Maryland Student Service Alliance. "Our hope is that the students will go back to their schools with more ideas about increasing the quality and quantity of service they'll give."
The alliance was established in 1988 to deal with the State Board of Education requirement that schools offer elective courses in community service.
At South River High School in Anne Arundel County, a club named Unity was created in response to the effort.
It's name reflects its goal, says adviser Obie Tucker. "We aim to be inclusive."
Unlike other school organizations that segregate members by talents such as athletic ability, Unity invites members of all varieties -- "handicapped kids, people of different religions, different ages. We even take freshmen," Tucker joked.
Tucker said a common goal outside school forces kids to get together inside the school. They get to know one another, whether they're filling Christmas grocery bags for the needy or tutoring less privileged youngsters.
Unity members used their workshop time to talk about their community projects and show a video they filmed on Black History Week.
One of their goals, South River students said, is to promote racial harmony in the community.
Jamie Long, a white sophomore in the racially mixed school, says the best way to do that is by example. He says he chose to help organize Black History Career Day at South River earlier this year because he wanted to send a message that "racism does not just hurt black people, but it hurts everybody. We need to come together and help each other."
Edwanda Hayes, who helped coordinate yesterday's South River workshop, said Unity activities don't just support cooperation among students, but also promote long-term academic gains.
"These students are becoming better students. Their attendance has improved, test grades have improved . . . all because they're helping someone else. And, in turn, that makes them feel good about themselves," she said.