Fritzgerald Gray's year as an AmeriCorps worker changed his life.
"I was just hanging on the streets with my friends and I got into a little trouble," Mr. Gray, 25, says quietly, recalling a drug arrest in his days before AmeriCorps, President Clinton's program to stimulate volunteerism and give young adults a chance to earn tuition or work off college loans. "If it wasn't for this program, I'd probably be incarcerated."
Mr. Gray is an AmeriCorps success story. Just over a year ago, he was among the thousands participating in a huge AmeriCorps swearing-in ceremony led by Mr. Clinton. Now, having completed his year-long term of service, he has parlayed those skills into a construction job and starts work today.
Nationally, 20,000 people participated. They framed houses and tutored children, delivered meals to the elderly and taught adults how to read.
"I'm proud of myself," says Mr. Gray, who also completed a General Educational Development program to earn a high school equivalency diploma during his year of service. "I stuck it out."
Although some in Congress have threatened to yank the funding for AmeriCorps, Marilyn Smith, director of the Governor's Commission on Service, says the success of the first year went "beyond all of our expectations." Statewide, 888 participants recently completed their term of service.
"The AmeriCorps program served as a catalyst to volunteer programs all over the country. For the second year there will be 25,000 volunteers across the country," she says, noting that Maryland has the most participants per capita of any state and that more programs are being added this year.
Mr. Gray, who saw AmeriCorps as an opportunity to clean up the streets where he used to hang out, worked on a crew in West Baltimore, cleaning streets and lots. He also renovated homes, learning how to install dry wall and hang Sheetrock.
As part of Civic Works, a Baltimore-based youth service organization, Mr. Gray and 35 other young people worked 1,700 hours for $4.30 an hour and a $4,725 educational voucher to use for tuition or to repay student loans. The group worked on jobs throughout the city and Baltimore County.
Andy Higgins III, 20, says he wouldn't trade his experience on assignments that included escorting senior citizens to the bank and on shopping trips, and tutoring at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School.
"I could have taken a job making a lot more money," he says. "I did this because I wanted to make a difference."
Mr. Higgins formed friendships with the seniors and became especially close to one woman, whom he affectionately calls "Boo."
According to Civic Works officials, many of the workers who have completed their term of service have enrolled in or are returning to school. Some, like 22-year-old Aurora Coleman, are doing volunteer work.
Before AmeriCorps, she attended Baltimore Community College and participated in the Stay in School program, in which students worked part-time at a government agency. When that program's funding was cut, she lost her clerical job at the Health Care Finance Administration.
"I heard about AmeriCorps and thought, 'That's for me,' " says Ms. Coleman. "I had a tuition bill I needed to pay and I liked the idea behind the program."
Now, the West Baltimore resident has landed a job as a volunteer coordinator with Action for the Homeless in the city.
"When I was coming up, the community took care of the kids and everybody else," Ms. Coleman says. "We need to go back to that."