In a suite of offices at the suburban campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, John Martello tries to nurture the Camelot spirit of the Kennedy years, when conquering social problems was a noble cause and not a quixotic quest.
"As a kid listening to JFK, I was inspired," Martello says of sitting in his third-grade classroom in 1961 and hearing Kennedy declare, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," in his inaugural speech.
Now he heads the Shriver Center, which tries to link the intellectual resources of academic institutions with the reality of urban ills.
"The vision is to reconnect higher education with important social problems," Martello says. A consortium of 12 Baltimore-area colleges formed six years ago, the center is a $13 million enterprise, running programs that range from mentoring middle-schoolers to training police in community policing to cleaning up lead paint.
The Shriver Center has had a national impact, says Ira Harkavy, director of the Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania. "They were not the first, but they were one of the most visible of these consortiums that are now spreading throughout the country.
"This is very much a return to the founding principles of the research university at the turn of the 20th century," Harkavy says. "These institutions were founded to create and disseminate knowledge in order to improve human welfare and advance democracy."
It is serendipitous, but far from accidental, that the center is named for Eunice and Sargent Shriver, Kennedy's sister and her husband. Sargent Shriver served in the Kennedy administration and was the founding director of the Peace Corps.
The center had its beginnings in a 1988 meeting between Martello, a psychology faculty member at UMBC, and Mark Shriver, son of Eunice and Sargent, who was trying to help at-risk youngsters stay in school with his Choice program in Cherry Hill.
Martello, looking for ways to connect academic institutions to urban problems, drew that program under UMBC's wing -- the first link between that campus and the Shriver name.
"In the late 20th century, and even more in the next century, the academy is being challenged to demonstrate its relevance to the community around it," says Mark K. Shriver, a Montgomery County Democrat and General Assembly delegate elected in 1994.
Another connection to the Shrivers occurred through Adam Yarmolinsky, then UMBC provost, who worked in the Kennedy, Johnson and Carter administrations.
"Through them, I met Sarge and Eunice," says Martello. "These were people I had grown up watching on TV. It was a thrill to have the opportunity to work with them."
It wasn't until six years later, after several other community programs had come under UMBC's aegis, that the Center for Learning Through Work and Service became the Shriver Center.
In most campus deals, colleges bestow a name in exchange for a hefty donation. But in this case no money changed hands. Instead, the Shrivers wanted their name on something they believed in, while the center hoped the name would bring attention and respect.
It worked. The center attracts grants and contracts from government and private agencies.
"To be blunt, I think that if every university in America had a Shriver Center it would be good for our country," says Sargent Shriver. "Not named for me, but a center like the Shriver Center."
He says the center's $13 million in grants shows the "attraction of the Shriver Center, to bring different entities to work with the undergraduates and faculty of UMBC in a way specifically directed at improving life in big cities like Baltimore," Shriver says.
"Let's say 50 universities in 50 states were doing what UMBC is doing. It would be a godsend for the United States. At least I think it would be," he says.
At the core of much of the Shriver Center's work is service learning -- getting students out in the community in service positions, then providing an academic context for that work.
"I am very strongly in favor of service learning," says Yarmolinsky, now a professor emeritus of policy studies, "It makes important connections between theory and practice."
James McKusick, chairman of the English department, designed such a course around adult literacy. Students learned the basics of teaching reading, tutored adults four hours a week, then met another hour and a half in class.
"When they meet with the instructor, they talk specifically about their experiences in adult literacy tutoring, the social and ethical concerns that surround it," McKusick says.
"The idea of service learning is not only to create an immediate social outcome -- this course is not going to remedy the problem of adult literacy, it's one step -- but to shape people's careers and understanding," he says. "The long-term impact on students is what's important."
Sarah Martin, a 24-year-old UMBC senior from Annapolis, has been working in the center's original venture -- the Choice program. She is in charge of a twice-weekly tutoring session for about 10 youngsters who are bused from Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore to the UMBC campus.
Martin will graduate in December, but her service has made such an impact that she hopes to continue with Choice until the end of the school year, then join the program as a caseworker.
"I just have a real strong belief in community service," she says.
The center's Peaceworker program takes in about 10 returning Peace Corps volunteers for a two-year master's degree program. It sends students into the community for service work, and requires a seminar that puts their work in a pragmatic and ethical context.
"It's combination of applied ethics and leadership development skills," says Peter Antoci, who heads the program. "There is some hard-core academic ethical reading, but there is a lot of talking about how working in a nonprofit in the United States is different than working overseas. It's good to get all the people around the table and reflect."
Antoci says Peaceworkers teach similar seminars for undergraduates involved in service projects.
"You put people like that together and sparks fly," Martello says.
Such an inspiration happened to Ann Whitney Breihan, a professor of business at the College of Notre Dame -- one of the schools in the consortium -- when she received a grant from the Shriver Center to develop a service learning course.
"I had always been interested in people with disabilities, but I had not pushed myself to make a connection between my interest in this vulnerable community and my work in the classroom," she says. "The Shriver Center presented that challenge.
"It introduced me to an area of scholarship I had never taught and to a lot of people at other institutions I had never met," she says. "It changed me as a scholar and a teacher and has had a real impact on my college because we now plan to start a program in the management of nonprofit organizations. This would not have happened without the Shriver Center."
Martello thinks the center is keeping alive the spirit that inspired him almost 40 years ago.
"I want students to have clear values and ethics and be willing to act upon those in public service," says Martello. "I know I am teaching students who have little idea who John F. Kennedy was, let alone Sargent Shriver. Through the name, they may learn."