GW students tackle community service

A little girl looked up at GW sophomore Darshana Lele and handed her a crayoned picture of a house with two people standing in front.

“This is my house and this is you and me because I think of you as my older sister,” the girl told Lele.

Lele said the girl’s affection is not unusual – children in the Northwest Settlement House, where Lele volunteers through the GW Neighbors Project’s Project Child, often share their love in return for the much-needed attention she gives them.

Lele is applying to become a member of the federal AmeriCorps program next year – a position from which she said she hopes to help coordinate the children’s program.

“This is the kind of work you take home with you – and to class, and on vacation,” said Clare Giles, an AmeriCorps member who works with Project Teach at Shaw Junior High.

AmeriCorps participants at GW said they will take a better understanding of inner-city problems, an ability to set and reach goals, strengthened leadership skills, a better sense of identity and great friendships from their service in AmeriCorps.

Grants from the federal AmeriCorps and Learn and Serve America programs fund GW’s Neighbors Project – a program administered through the University’s community service office.

Nearly 25,000 students served more than 11.5 million people through the AmeriCorps program in 1996, according to the AmeriCorps Web site.

The quality and overall impact of AmeriCorps-run community service projects have never been assessed by formal studies, though there is a push for better analysis this year, GW AmeriCorps leader Jomo Graham said.

But Chris Young, who works with a D.C. program called For Love of Children (FLOC), said teachers and principals consistently recognize the importance of AmeriCorps members’ work. One teacher at Shaw’s Scott- Montgomery Elementary said she can readily identify the values AmeriCorps members instilled in her students, Young said.

“Without AmeriCorps members, we would not be able to do one-quarter of what we are doing this year,” Young said. She supervises two AmeriCorps members at Scott-Montgomery Elementary School and one at Shaw Junior High.

This year, the number of students in the tutoring program at Scott-Montgomery jumped from 36 to 150, thanks in part to assistance from the Neighbors Project. Young said children in the programs are experiencing “tremendous” success, an accomplishment she attributes to the one-on-one tutoring available this year.

A unique partnership between the Neighbors Project, FLOC and the federal work-study program through the University enables one-on-one sessions between GW students and District youth. At Scott-Montgomery, AmeriCorps participants do not tutor students, but they coordinate the tutoring sessions, tackle problems and provide support and troubleshooting, said Kaari Oberg, an AmeriCorps participant at the school.

Oberg said students often are embarrassed during their first encounter with a tutor, ashamed that they read far below their grade level or not at all.

Oberg said one of the most exciting aspects of her service is watching the young students open up to their college-age tutors.

According to a site-specific scale used at Scott-Montgomery, Oberg’s students have shown a full year of reading improvement in the six months since the program began at their school.

To facilitate such programs, the GW program works in conjunction with Connecting Howard and Neighborhoods for Growth Development, (CHANGE) Program, the community service program at Howard University. Together the two universities sponsor eight programs serving various needs in the underprivileged Northwest Shaw neighborhood. Programs range from after-school tutoring and medical care to low-income housing renovations.

AmeriCorps provides students the chance to perform 900 hours of community service and volunteer coordination during the academic year. AmeriCorps members receive a $5,400 stipend and a $2,363 education award for one year of service.

Each AmeriCorps member is required to devote at least 16.5 hours a week to the Neighbors Project, including at least 10 hours of on-site work, two hours of office work and three hours of leadership training on Fridays.

Fourteen applicants will be given the chance to work in the Shaw Neighborhood in Northwest D.C.

Applicants said they chose AmeriCorps because it will allow them to perform interesting work that possibly will help in their future career endeavors. And the experience will expose potential volunteers to people and situations that may not have been available through employment elsewhere.

Anand Susarla, an AmeriCorps member who works with the Healthy Neighborhood Project, said he started looking for community service that would help his aspirations for a career in health policy.

Susarla said he wanted to gain the insight through the AmeriCorps program, which he said Washington health policy makers may lack.

“I wanted to learn about the people, not just the policies,” Susarla said.

Seema Patel, office manager of GW’s office of community service, said she also aspires to be an AmeriCorps member. She said she hopes to work on the Healthy Neighborhood project to help her on the road to a medical career.

Although applicants can not apply to a specific program, they can request to work on a project of their choice, Graham said.

Application forms are available in the Neighbors Project office Room G05 in the basement of the Marvin Center. Applications for the 1998-’99 school year will be accepted through March 11. Students must undergo group and personal interviews for the application process. Sixty students are expected to apply.

The final decision will rest with current members, Graham, Neighbors Project Program Coordinator Megan Myers and a Howard University CHANGE program representative.

Graham, a former AmeriCorps member from San Jose, Calif., said the selection committee is looking for students with a history of community service – students looking at AmeriCorps as more than a job. He said he expects the decisions to be announced by April 30.

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