AmeriCorps branch to set up home base in East Baltimore

As many as 240 AmeriCorps members will relocate to East Baltimore's Graceland Park neighborhood in the coming months, as the domestic version of the Peace Corps establishes an urban campus, the first of its kind.

The classrooms at the former Sacred Heart of Mary School will be transformed into dormitories that will house the National Civilian Community Corps, an AmeriCorps unit that deploys teams of 18- to 24-year-olds to work with community groups and individuals in schools and parks as well as disaster areas.

Some of the volunteers, who sign up for 10-month stints, will be assigned to projects in Baltimore, said Kate Raftery, director of the unit of the national service organization. Others will serve across New England and the Mid-Atlantic.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the partnership will help the city confront its greatest challenges. She said 460 community corps volunteers have provided more than 90,000 hours of service to Baltimore since 2009. Their work includes removing 18,000 pounds of trash and debris, clearing vacant lots and landscaping.

"They have preserved and revitalized houses in neighborhoods across the city, assuring that low-income homeowners — from the elderly and disabled, to families with children — live in homes that are warm, safe and dry," the mayor said in prepared remarks. "And their construction skills don't end with homes. They also refurbished a closed middle school, helping to turn it into a new charter school."

The Graceland Park school — closed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore in June 2010 as part of a plan that also shuttered a dozen others amid declining enrollment — will be one of five locations nationwide for the community corps that had previously been located in more rural areas.

"We are committed to continuing the mission of this school in terms of engaging young people and setting them on the right path, just as this school and church have been doing for so many years," Raftery said.

Besides the Maryland site, the other facilities are in Colorado, California, Mississippi and Iowa. The local community corps office will move by early summer from the Perry Point Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The shift, coupled with renovations on the old school and the cost of a one-year lease, is expected to cost $3 million. Staff from the Cecil County location will be transferred.

The current site in Perryville houses 160 volunteers, but the new facility is expected to allow room for 80 more, Raftery said. She said the new location was a good fit, after the corps outgrew its current location, to allow the volunteers to integrate into the community. The ties formed by the volunteers will help teach the organization the best ways to cultivate community liaisons, she said.

"We looked here to be part of a neighborhood," Raftery said.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said the work AmeriCorps does enhances the country. She helped establish the organization in 1994 and, as a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she said she worked to secure funding to establish the new Baltimore campus, which will serve as a training facility and home base for volunteers.

"AmeriCorps volunteers are unflagging, unflinching and determined to make a difference. They tackle the toughest problems in our communities, responding to emergency and disaster situations like Superstorm Sandy," Mikulski said in a statement. "By partnering with our faith-based community to bring the [community corps] to the Sacred Heart of Mary, we are continuing in a tradition of working together towards a common purpose to meet a compelling human need."

Rawlings-Blake said the community corps is one of several service groups working toward improving city life and growing Baltimore's population. She also highlighted the Volunteers in Service to America, another arm of AmeriCorps, and Baltimore's "stepUP!" program that recruits local volunteers.

"Sometimes the call comes from above. Sometimes it comes from others. Sometimes it comes from within. But no matter where the call to service comes from, it's up to us to answer it for our city, for our state and our country," the mayor said.

Unlike other AmeriCorps programs, the National Civilian Community Corps is a residential-based program and the members are assigned to teams of 10 to 12, Raftery said. The teams are deployed for six to eight weeks at a time to projects requested by nonprofits, elected officials and others.

Raftery said projects for 2013 are still being decided, as is the number of teams that will be dedicated to city needs.

To convert the Sacred Heart school into a residential site, Raftery said crews are checking the electrical system, removing walls to form a larger meeting space and creating areas for the members to shower and cook their meals.

Archbishop William E. Lori said he is pleased to see the school find new life. The original school was opened in September 1927 and rebuilt in 1965, he said.

"Though we are very saddened by the loss of the Sacred Heart of Mary School, we are indeed pleased that it will continue to serve as a beacon of hope, as a center of education, and as an asset to our entire community," Lori said.

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