The first members of President Clinton's "domestic peace corps" -- the young men and women who agreed to perform national service in exchange for college tuition or job training money -- completed a year of work and graduated yesterday at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
They may be among the last.
After 11 months of restoring polluted waterways, tutoring children, helping veterans and assisting disaster victims, the 170 members of the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) paraded across a stage.
They hugged, they whooped, they said goodbye to friends. And they lamented that Congress may cut the program, which advocates say contributes far more to communities than it costs.
"I wish Congress would target something else," said Sheryl Boone, 23, of Edgewood. "It's putting a sense of pride into people -- some people who came here with none."
Ms. Boone earned her high school equivalency diploma while working in the NCCC.
On Capitol Hill at the same time as yesterday's graduation, there was another skirmish in the political fight over the future of national service programs. A Senate subcommittee began hearings on President Clinton's AmeriCorps program. NCCC is a part of AmeriCorps.
Some Republicans in Congress would like to eliminate AmeriCorps because they believe it costs too much and goes against the trend of downsizing government.
"This is not an environment for creating new federal programs," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican whose 2nd District includes Aberdeen. "We're going to have an awful lot of hard decisions to make."
A decision on AmeriCorps is expected by the end of summer.
Aberdeen Proving Ground is one of four sites nationally that house and feed NCCC members. The others are in Charleston, S.C., San Diego and Denver. Workers at the other sites will
graduate this summer.
Workers at Aberdeen have performed 150 community service projects in 13 states and Washington since last July. Corps members worked in teams and had to perform at least 1,700 hours of service. In return, they received a living allowance of about $800 monthly and nearly $5,000 toward college or vocational training.
The Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs AmeriCorps, released a study this week by independent economists concluding that services valued at up to $2.60 were received for every $1 spent on the program.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat and ranking minority member of the appropriations subcommittee holding hearings on AmeriCorps, said that "in our effort to downsize government, we should not degrade it."
At yesterday's graduation, Don Mathis, Aberdeen's director, said corps members are not getting paid to "sit around campfires" singing.
"What we are here for is to benefit the community," he said. "We don't want a corps members coming in and saying, 'What's in it for me?' "
For example, in Southwest Baltimore's Mill Hill community, about 20 corps members helped start a youth recreation program and got teen-agers interested in the quality of the Gwynns Falls waterway.
"They didn't just come in and clean a river," said Mary Bontempo, president of the St. Benedicts Housing Council. "They had a huge impact on the community."
Before the graduation ceremony, corps members spoke of experiences they say have changed their lives.
Michael Dugan, 23, of Cleveland spent many hours over five weeks with a seriously ill veteran at the Perry Point Veterans Hospital in Perryville. He learned to communicate in writing with the man, who couldn't speak. Mr. Dugan built models with the veteran and helped him get out of bed, which he had refused to do.
Jason Jusino, 20, of Puerto Rico helped a 9-year-old from the Dominican Republic, who knew no English, adapt as a second-grader at Edgewood Elementary School.