AmeriCorps plants seeds of change

The Baltimore Sun

For six weeks, 11 young people will meet every day at 9 a.m. at Havre de Grace Elementary School. Some of them will go to work on an outdoor garden project, while others will be working with children at the school.

Then at 2 p.m., the young people will head to the Boys and Girls Club of Havre de Grace, where they will play games and act as mentors for the children there.

Although their roles are different, they have a common goal: to make a difference in the world.

"There aren't many projects like this; it's very unique," said Danielle Ludwick, 24, who was born in Portland, Maine, but calls Toronto, Canada, home. "We have the opportunity to work with kids at the school as positive role models and mentors. We want to make a positive impact."

Ludwick is one of about 1,100 people, ages 18 to 24, who are participating in a national residential service program called the National Civilian Community Corps, an AmeriCorps program.

Divided into groups of 10 to 12 people, the participants spend 10 months traveling around the country to meet community needs in homeland security, disaster relief, the environment and youth development. They spend six weeks at each location.

The teams work in conjunction with the community-based organizations, national nonprofits, schools, local municipalities, and state and national parks. Sponsors of the program include the American Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Salvation Army, the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club.

The Maryland group will spend six weeks in Havre de Grace, where team members are contracted to the Boys and Girls Club. However, since the club is only open from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., they help out at the school from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Members live in one of five campuses in Denver, Colo.; Charleston, S.C.; Sacramento, Calif.; Perry Point; and Washington. For their service, the young people receive $4,725 for college, graduate school or student loan repayment. They also receive lodging, meals, uniforms, health benefits, loan forbearance, transportation and a living allowance of about $4,000. They will be housed in buildings owned by the Department of Veterans Affairs, in Perry Point.

At Havre de Grace Elementary, the team members are creating a wildflower garden, mentoring students and helping with other projects as needed.

"They are absolutely phenomenal," said Mary Sampson, the family liaison for the school. "They have such a positive attitude. They've given wonderful student and staff support."

Corps members have worked on the yearbook, set up for receptions, mentored students, made banners, helped with lunch duty and sat with kids in the reading room.

Working at the school is a perfect placement for Lacey Roberts. She said she aspires to work in alternative education.

"I have a drive to help people of all ages, it's my purpose in life," said Roberts, 18, of Little Rock, Ark. "Being in this school is amazing. It's way out of the league of the school I attended. They did the basics for us there, and that's it. At this school, they do a lot more for the kids. Being here shows me how good school can be for kids."

The AmeriCorps group is starting work on a flower garden that will be used as an outdoor classroom, Sampson said.

"The garden has been a longtime dream of ours at the school," she said. "Our fifth-graders go to Harford Glen, and this can be an extension of that program."

Corps members recently began clearing the area around the designated location for the garden. The garden will include picnic tables and benches.

However, the school doesn't have a budget for the project. It is trying to secure funding through donations. The materials needed for the project include: royal blue, yellow and red paint; lumber for benches and picnic tables; bushes, mulch and flowers.

When it's completed, the wildflower garden will be inspiring, said Felicia Guynes, 20.

"We can get the kids involved, and clean up the area around it," said Guynes, who lives in New Orleans.

Although the team members work together on the projects, each has his or her own reason for participating in the program.

Tired of the country's social problems, Chris Sellers said he can't keep looking at those things and do nothing.

"I get a sense of involvement being a part of this program," said Sellers, who had participated in the program previously. "I implement myself in the community where we're working, and wherever I visit with AmeriCorps becomes a part of me."

Ludwick said she is participating in the program to find her niche in nonprofits. Ludwick recently graduated from Wilfrid Laurier University with a bachelor's degree in communication studies and plans to work in the nonprofit sector, she said.

"I am so excited about helping people," she said. "But I'm also excited about finding my passion and my place within nonprofits. I want to figure out if it will be dealing with poverty, homelessness, children or education."

The program offered a perfect opportunity for the school to receive help, said Joyce Stevenson, principal at Havre de Grace Elementary.

"Our vision states: 'We believe in ourselves and receive support from our community to achieve our goals and dreams,' " said Stevenson, who has been the principal there for the past three years.

"They are helping to make our vision a reality."

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