Youth Empower the Community -and Themselves

by Dana Bennett

Every day, Civic Works corpsmembers are enhancing the lives of city residents and meeting communities' needs.

Civic Works, located at Clifton Mansion, is a non-profit youth service corps that "operates under the premise that young people can do great things if provided the opportunity," according to Dana Stein, Executive Director.

The mission of this youth corps, in the tradition of FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, is to promote individual growth and development while providing important services to the community. Since its founding in 1993, Civic Works corpsmembers have contributed over 300,000 hours of service to Baltimore.

Corpsmembers are empowered by the positive impact that they have on the community as well as by their own personal and academic growth.

Civic Works is a Baltimore affiliate of AmeriCorps, the new national service initiative. Through funding from AmeriCorps, Civic Works provides young adults aged 17-25 with valuable life and employment skills, a living allowance and a college education stipend in exchange for 1700 hours of service over eleven months.

Twenty percent of corpsmembers' time is devoted to academic enrichment. Those who are high school graduates and college students are placed in internships.

Those without their high school diploma receive GED instruction, and are expected to commit to passing the GED examination during their time at Civic Works. The Corpsmember Development Department, which handles the educational component of the program, has designed a curriculum to help corpsmembers review topics covered on the GED exam. Life skills education, which includes college preparation, health and personal money management is also in the curriculum.

Corpsmembers' progress is monitored throughout the year with standardized tests. Civic Works educators are dedicated to helping corpsmembers meet their goals, often offering tutorials to those who are in need of additional academic assistance.

The 100 corpsmembers currently enrolled in Civic Works are participating in a variety of projects addressing neighborhood beautification, public safety and education. Civic Works teams cooperate with local civic organizations to help fulfill communities' visions for their areas.

To better understand the residents' concerns, the teams study the community's history and current demographics before beginning a project. Corpsmembers attend community meetings and keep residents informed of their progress. The team strives to forge a partnership with the community instead of simply making temporary changes. Civic Works, according to corpsmember Andy Higgins, "gives the community a vested interest in the project" so that results of corpsmembers' efforts can be maintained indefinitely.

Tyra Dailey, a 20-year-old corpsmember, heard about Civic Works when she was serving as a board member of Youth As Resources. Already a member of various local organizations, Ms. Dailey saw Civic Works as another opportunity to help the community while learning new skills. Ms. Dailey works on the Neighborhood Environmental Team, which does beautification and landscaping in Historic East Baltimore and Park Heights-Reisterstown. This team was recently featured by the local media for building the Nobie Notice Park on 2100 East 20th Street. She says she "didn't know what to expect," but now, almost 11 months later, she has her GED, landscaping skills, and clear plans for the future. Ms Dailey feels confident that she now has the skills and experience to "go into any community and build something." Ultimately Ms. Dailey would like to go on to college.

With just two more weeks left in her program, Ms. Dailey reflected on her experience. "Civic Works made me stronger, gave me a chance to see what was going on in Baltimore...what changes I could help with." She believes that "the low living allowance shows that Civic Works corpsmembers really want to help."

Ms. Dailey admitted that, like many people, before Civic Works she "didn't know that there were so many positive young people out there."

Twenty-three-year-old Marcus Walker works on Civic Works' vacant house board-up team, funded by the city's Department of Housing and Community Development. He sees first-hand that vacant houses decrease surrounding property values, provide havens for illicit activities, and are an unsafe environment for children in search of a play area.

Although he was initially drawn to Civic Works by the educational stipend, as a member of Civic Works' Board-Up team he now appreciates the importance of his service. Over the past year, the team has boarded up over 400 vacant houses in West Baltimore, another example of Civic Works' continuing impact on the community. Walker's most memorable project was a board-up on the corner of Fulton Avenue and Fayette Street, an area known for high drug trafficking. The Board-Up team's work has prevented dealers from using the house, and Walker feels that the team has significantly reduced illegal activity on that corner.

Marcus Walker would like to see community recreational centers replace the empty lots where vacant houses once stood. "The shelters are so overcrowded, developers should rehab the abandoned houses and donate them to people without homes," he says. Walker plans to finish his education at Morgan State University, and is interested in studying political science and economics.

Corpsmembers meet every day at 7:30 a.m. at the War Memorial Plaza in front of City Hall to perform their morning calisthenics or physical training. Then the four- to twelve-member teams travel to communities from Govans to Harlem Park to Franklin Square. Each team is guided by a supervisor who acts as an educator, mentor, and role model.

James Smith, a 20-year-old member of the Northeast Police Activities League Team, spoke highly of the Civic Works supervisors, says of the supervisors, "They always stick by you," yet they allow the team members to work together with minimal interference.

The Northeast Police Activities League (PAL) Team works with children at the Northeast PAL center, an after-school/Saturday education and recreation program. Smith and his team supervise the children, assist with various classroom activities, and tutor basic reading and math. Earlier this year, the PAL team renovated a playground and built benches at a children's center on Chestnut Hill Road.

The team strives to built a good rapport between the police and young children. Their work at the PAL center forges mutual understanding while providing a safe environment in which the children can learn and enjoy themselves. Smith considers his work "fun" and has learned a lot about community responsibility and how important it is to "take care of the community as well as you take care of yourself."

Smith said it was a "challenge to learn different skills," but one that he willingly embraced. "I know myself better," he said having surpassed his own expectations on many occasions. He takes pride in his influence on the children and the respect that he receives from community members because of his participation in Civic Works. Smith is especially proud to be a "Black male role model" for the kids at the school and PAL center because "people always say that there are not enough of them."

Civic Works receives half of its funding from AmeriCorps. The remainder comes from government agencies such as the Housing Authority and such foundations and corporations as the Macht Foundation, and USF&G. The 12 member board of Civic Works, a 501[c][3] organization, consists of: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (ex officio), Lieutenant Governor of Maryland; Mary Lynn Devlin, BCCC; Helen Holton, Baltimore City Council; Joseph Schnitzer, Schnitzer & Segall; Victor Bonaparte, Baltimore City Department of Planning; Sol Goldstein, Sol Goldstein Associates; Samuel Hopkins, Maryland Historical Society; Terry Walsh Roberts, Governor's Office on Crime Control and Prevention; Samuel Rosenberg, House of Delegates; Joseph Smith, Bell Atlantic; Carl W. Struever, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse; and Dana Stein, president and executive director of Civic Works.

Dana Bennett, a 1995 graduate of the Roland Park Country School, is studying government at Harvard College. She worked at Civic Works this summer, and wrote this article at the request of the Chronicle.

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This story was published on Wednesday, August 7, 1996.