A Summer Camp Where Community Service Is Key
A Massachusetts program for teens promotes diversity and lending a hand
AYER, MASS. — DRIPPING with perspiration, national park ranger Alden Miller pauses in the morning heat while helping a cluster of teenagers from across the United States rebuild a stone wall next to a country road in Concord, Mass. ``This is where America started,'' he says with zeal. ``Right here.''
The historical significance of this wall rebuilding is not missed by Julia Cooley, a high school junior from Atlanta. The road under her feet is the Battle Road, by which the British retreated to Boston on April 19, 1775, after being routed by rebel militia at the North Bridge. The battle marked the start of the American Revolution. Today the road lies in the Minute Man National Historical Park.
And the rocks and boulders Julia and other teenagers from the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) are digging out and restacking are the same rocks from the same walls that were here on that famous day in 1775.
Ranger Miller, an archaeological protection officer, verifies the history of the rocks.
``I've read about Lexington and Concord,'' says Julia, brushing her gloves together, ``but I never thought I'd be moving rocks that played a part in the American Revolution.''
``It's an honor to be in a place like this,'' says tall and lanky Elton Tyler from Boston.
It's also a good fit to bring together 100 teenagers (ages 14 to 17) from 27 states for two months of community service, education, and recreation. While teenagers on the Battle Road rebuild the historical wall, other NCCC teens are painting furniture at a homeless shelter, conducting a safety survey of businesses in a nearby town, cleaning up former crack houses, coaching kids, or clearing weeds from crime-prone lots for community gardens. Another major project is their involvement in planning a one-day antiviolence conference in Boston.
The overall summer program is funded primarily by a $500,000 grant from Americorps, the Clinton administration's new service organization that provides students with educational grants after they complete community service. Boston University created the unique summer program here in conjunction with NCCC, which is part of Americorps. The overall theme is a ``Summer of Safety'' with an emphasis on ways to make communities safer.
The teens are divided into teams and housed at a dormitory at Fort Devens, a military base here about 40 miles east of Boston. The base is scheduled to be closed and converted to other uses. Counselors, or team leaders, are all college graduates, and many have master's degrees in social work.
``The goal here is to develop an attitude of service, to show these young people they have the means and the capacity to bring people together where they live, and carry forward what they have learned here. We want this program to set the standard,'' says Scott Flannery, the camp director and a former captain in the Air Force.
One hundred teens were selected out of 800 or so who applied. The goal was not to find academic stars, or prominent student leaders, but to have a geographic and racial mix of teens who had shown some previous level of community service, however modest.
An essay also weighed heavily in the selection process. The teens earn $700 for their work and a $1,000 educational grant to be applied to post-secondary education.
Many teens, away from home for the first time, say the best part of the experience is the new friendships with a diversity of races, and all the informal discussions.
``I'm learning that people are just people,'' says David Williams from Oklahoma City, Okla. ``I thought this would be more of a military experience because it is on an Army base, but we've had a lot of discussions about religion and philosophy.''
``This is really great,'' says Josh Gibson, a high school senior from the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. It is his first time away from the state. ``I'm meeting new people, and they're closer than friends at home,'' he says while seated in the Fort Devens mess hall at breakfast.
Lisa Mitchell, a junior from Lumberton, N.C., working with her team at the Merrimack Homeless Shelter in Lowell, Mass., says, ``I love being here. There's not a lot to do at home during the summer, so getting involved here is so exciting and worthwhile for me, and meeting everybody from other places is fun.''
For Boston University, the program could be the forerunner of a unique program still being shaped. ``Using ex-military folks as mentors,'' says Mr. Flannery, ``BU wants to create a residential program here for inner-city kids in foster care.''
Chitranjan Greer, a high school freshman from Detroit who wants to be an aerospace engineer, says that in his city ``people are getting killed over stupid stuff, and there's no place for kids to go. If it wasn't for my mother getting me in this program and keeping after me, I'd probably be hanging out. We're doing the right thing here by helping other people.''
Some teens complained about minor problems of having field trips canceled at the last minute. One girl says she was told there would be vegetarian meals. ``But there aren't any,'' she says.
Other youngsters, a long way from home for the first time, felt homesick for several days. ``I cried steadily for a week,'' says Jennifer Pilotte from Manchester, N.H., ``but we're all coming together like one big family.''
For the two-month period, ending in late August, the camp is designed to become a ``self-contained community,'' says Flannery. ``We emphasize their well-being and help them draw strength from each other and what they do together.''
The teens begin their day at 6 o'clock in the morning with exercises on the lawn in front of the dorm. Breakfast is at 6:45. By 8:30, the teams and their team leaders are together in vans on their way to their community-service sites. Most wear T-shirts identifying them as members of NCCC.
``Their enthusiasm is always up,'' says Jacques Walden, leader of Team 6 working at a homeless shelter in Lowell. ``They took 30 minutes for lunch today instead of an hour.''
``This group of teens,'' says Mr. Miller, standing by the rock wall, ``is the best volunteer group we've ever had.'' Several students cheer, and one says with humor, ``We all want to be just like Ranger Miller.''
In the late afternoon the students return to the dorm for a mixture of free time, letter reading and writing, and learning activities. At the dorm is a game room, a computer room, and a quiet room.
Nearby is a gym and a weight room. Informal workshops focus on topics like leadership and problemsolving.
After dinner and chores, the students can chose between enrichment activities, creative classes, and sports. At a ``peer mediation and problemsolving'' workshop, Steven Brion-Meisels, a mediator for the Cambridge, Mass., public schools, keeps 20 teens in rapt attention by involving them in the mediation process.
The overall program will be evaluated by Americorps, Boston University, and the NCCC. If it proves to be successful, a spokesman for NCCC says it could be duplicated in four other cites next summer.