Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

Acting out history at Dallas Nicholas

On February 28, actor Aaron Androh of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture visited students in GHCC’s Barclay Youth Safe Haven Program (BYSH) at Dallas Nicholas Elementary School.  In honor of Black History Month, Mr. Androh arrived in the persona of Earl White, an important figure in Chesapeake history.

“We’ve been doing a unit called History and Heroes,” says Shekita Wilkins, who is the Director of BYSH. “I wanted to introduce the children to a significant historical figure with roots in Baltimore so that they are able to make a more personal connection between their hometown and history.”

Once called “The Black Pearl of the Chesapeake,” Mr. White was an oysterman who, in 1998, was named an Honorary Admiral of the Chesapeake – a title that few African Americans have ever held. After a long life, Mr. White died in 2004. Most watermen still consider him a legend.

BYSH provides 50 students at Dallas F. Nicholas Elementary School with mentoring and enrichment activities such as this one. We are currently in great need of academic mentors to serve our students for two hours a week after school. If you are interested, please contact Shekita Wilkins at 410-916-2540 or

Just in Time for Christmas, a New Computer Lab for Waverly School

Chris Thompson, an AmeriCorps*VISTA member placed at Waverly Elementary/Middle School by GHCC, has been working hard this Fall to make sure Waverly Elementary students have access to computers to support their learning.

But Chris won’t take all the credit: he made all the connections, got the ball rolling, and provided coordination and support, but it was Waverly’s amazing community partners that came through and provided a whole new computer lab for the school.

Here’s what Chris had to say about this collaborative effort:

Tell us a little bit about the new computer lab at Waverly. What was there before, and what will this lab allow students to accomplish?
The new Waverly Elementary School computer lab features 25 refurbished computers, a smart board for LCD projection, and a wonderful new mural painted by third grader Kyle Smith. The previous lab only contained a handful of “dinosaur” computers that were so old they were unusable. While these computers aren’t brand new, they are high-quality and only two years old.
The addition of a functioning computer lab will allow students to reinforce math and reading skills through interactive online learning tools, learn computer and technology skills, and have fun while they’re at it. Classes that have already utilized the lab have been thrilled, and the teachers are grateful for another fun resource for instructing their students.
Who donated time and resources to make this happen? How did you coordinate efforts between them?
I initially reached out to any organizations doing computer donations to address the need for technology at the school. Bootup Baltimore, a student-run technology assistance organization operated through the Johns Hopkins Center for Social Concern, offered to donate 25 computers and the necessary keyboards, mice, and cables. They acquired the computers through the Johns Hopkins University’s IT Recycling Program.
I worked with Bootup Baltimore until we hit the obstacle of finding funding to buy hard drives. Because Waverly Elementary and the Cathedral of the Incarnation have a strong and long-standing partnership, it was natural for me to reach out to them and ask if they could help. When they said yes, Bootup Baltimore purchased and installed the hard drives, then delivered the machines to the school.
Bootup Baltimore did all the initial computer refurbishment and setup, but the school’s IT specialist took charge of maintenance and support for the computers after they entered the building.
A project like this can get complicated—what was the moment that made it all worth it for you?

The unveiling event that Waverly held for the computer lab on Wednesday, December 15 was when I finally felt really excited about the implications of the project for Waverly students. We had a third grade class in there playing math computer games and everyone was able to see computers being used.
We also took the opportunity to thank all our partners individually and recognized the third grade student, Kyle Smith, who did the wonderful mural on the wall to beautify the room. The event was a thrill for everyone and made me grateful for the work they, and I, had done together.

You’re a VISTA—what’s your role at the school and in the community? How did this help you accomplish your VISTA project goals for the year?
My primary role at the school and in the Waverly community is to mobilize resources for the benefit of neighborhood families and students. I also assist with parent engagement initiatives put forth by the school.
This project was a great example of partnerships with community organizations that will provide a resource to fill a long-term need at the school. My role is to inspire people to do work like this and help coordinate their efforts. This project never could have happened without the spark provided by a VISTA, which then transformed into a prolonged process of coordination and support for partnering organizations as they worked to make the lab happen.
My primary goal this year is to form and strengthen partnerships between the Waverly school and the surrounding community, and this project enabled me do both! 

A Uniform for Every Student

Submitted by Kerri Hamberg

Margaret Brent Student Receiving UniformAs a relatively new resident of Baltimore and a new volunteer at GHCC, I want to spend some time getting to know the area and the organization. Since I’m a former public school teacher and a parent, Christy—GHCC’s Development Director and the supervisor for my volunteer work—recommended I start by talking to a fellow parent who’s been working with GHCC in the local public schools.

I sat down on August 26 with Jennifer DiFrancesco, a mother of two and minister at Second Presbyterian Church on N. Charles Street. This summer, GHCC helped her and other parents at Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School use direct appeals and social networking to raise over $9000, enough to provide each student with a brand-new uniform for the 2010-11 school year.

“Originally, we’d just hoped to raise enough for a couple hundred second-hand uniforms,” she told me. “But then GHCC stepped up and offered us help with Facebook, Twitter, and Paypal, and suddenly the donations started rolling in. We could never have raised so much money without their help. Now we have more than enough for every child to have a free, brand-new uniform for the first day of school.”

Last week, the school hosted a back-to-school event, where each student was measured for their uniform and everyone went home with a brand-new shirt. GHCC’s Karen DeCamp helped make arrangements for five AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteers to assist with the celebratory event.

“Everything went so smoothly, thanks to all of the volunteers. We sold some hot dog plates for $2.50, fitted everyone for their new uniforms, and the kids had a great time,” Jenn said. “I think we’re all looking forward to the new school year.”

Kerri has been volunteering with GHCC’s development staff to help with public relations and fundraising efforts. This is her first blog post, but we’ll be hearing more from her as she settles in! To read more about Jenn DiFrancesco’s amazing fundraising efforts for Margaret Brent students, keep an eye on your inbox for this month’s GHCC Digest (or sign up if you haven’t already) or check out her feature in Great Kids Up Close.

VISTA Spotlight: Andrew Stiller

Know someone interested in making positive changes in the world? GHCC is seeking qualified candidates for our nationally-renowned AmeriCorps*VISTA program.  Sign on for a year of service with us and receive health benefits, a modest living allowance, and an end-of-service education award.  We have 10 positions available to start in August 2010 in the areas of improving public schools, strengthening neighborhoods, and adult literacy.
We’ll be featuring several VISTA stories in the coming weeks to raise awareness of national service.
Want to know more? Visit our website!

Submitted by Andrew Stiller

I never thought my time as a VISTA member would land me in front of a room of civil servants while being webcast live across the United States. But then again, I didn’t really know what to expect.
Though my parents tried to instill a sense of civic pride and responsibility in me, it didn’t really stick until I got to college. Community service was part of my middle and high school curriculum, but we never embraced it because it was forced upon us. Teenage angst and rebellion almost required that I scoff at being forced to clean streets.
Luckily, that all changed. As an undergraduate at Dickinson College I joined the event planning organization, a service-oriented club called the Keystones, and a traditional Greek fraternity. Surprisingly, I had a better service experience motivating the Greek men to roll out of their beds for philanthropy on Sunday morning than I did with the Keystones. I realized I could affect more change by motivating and teaching others. This was my philosophy throughout college.
After graduation, I was applying for policy-oriented jobs and anything else I could find. I was really lucky to be turned on to the AmeriCorps* VISTA program, and when a position opened up at GHCC, I jumped at the opportunity. VISTA reflected the ideals and methods I adopted in college.
My role as Community Connections Coordinator at GHCC immersed me in a Baltimore City public school community, working with parents and administrators at the school and a variety of partner institutions in the neighborhood. It became apparent early on that true success would be measured by how much buy-in I could get from the parents and the community. A large part of my responsibility would be motivating parents, churches, businesses, neighborhood institutions, and local colleges and universities to invest in Waverly Elementary/Middle School.
I had an opportunity to articulate my experiences when representatives from the Department of Education and the White House’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships came to Waverly to discuss partnership building. I don’t remember saying a lot, but it must have stuck with them. A few months later, I was asked to give a presentation on my role as a VISTA member to the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. A briefing had been scheduled to discuss the possible collaborative efforts between the Department of Education and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). As a VISTA member working primarily with schools, I was located at the epicenter of this relationship.
I felt really honored to present on my VISTA experience. I found that the hardest part was limiting the length of my speech. GHCC’s VISTA members wear many different hats on a daily basis: organizer, capacity builder, mediator, teacher—the list is almost limitless. It was really difficult to put it all these amazing experiences into words. I worked on my speech up until the night before, trying to find the right word to express how it felt to see a parent step up to participate at the school.
When I spoke, though, I was confident. The audience was attentive and after two PowerPoint presentations from officials at CNCS, I think my firsthand experience was a useful counterpoint. I spoke about the day to day things, my major accomplishments, and ways any VISTA member can positively change a school. Regardless of my pre-speech jitters and what I had written down, I found that speaking about my VISTA year was actually quite easy. I think the reason is simple: I became a VISTA to help motivate others, yet it was their efforts in return that motivated me even more. I am now just as invested as anyone else in Waverly Elementary/Middle School and its surrounding community. I hope that means my job has come full circle. 

VISTA Spotlight: Sarah Lesperance

Know someone interested in making positive changes in the world? GHCC is seeking qualified candidates for our nationally-renowned AmeriCorps*VISTA program.  Sign on for a year of service with us and receive health benefits, a modest living allowance, and an end-of-service education award.  We have 10 positions available to start in August 2010 in the areas of improving public schools, strengthening neighborhoods, and adult literacy.  

We’ll be featuring several VISTA stories in the coming weeks to raise awareness of national service.

Want to know more? Visit our website!
Submitted by Sarah Lesperance.

Growing up in the small town of Meredith, New Hampshire, I was not exposed to a lot of diversity.  Moving to Worcester, Massachusetts for my undergraduate studies opened my eyes to a new kind of culture and different ways of living.  I was heavily involved in volunteering, and it soon grew to become a passion.  I knew right away that I needed to continue advocating and assisting those who were less fortunate.  After seeing so many fellow volunteers go on to serve, I knew for years that AmeriCorps would be my next step in life.

Being accepted as an AmeriCorps*VISTA member at GHCC has proved to be the path I was meant to take for many reasons. Moving to Baltimore immediately felt like home to me.  Everyone was so welcoming and willing to help in all ways.

On a daily basis, my primary responsibility is getting parents more involved in the school by notifying them about what is happening in the school and when. Currently I am helping our new softball club get started by helping with the practices. I also apply for grants, such as a Parks and People Foundation grant we were awarded recently for our annual Earth Day Celebration. I also keep in constant contact with Medfield Heights Elementary’s community partners and let them know about important meetings and events. My work varies day to day, but with the ultimate goal of bringing in new resources and people to improve the school’s well-being and success.

When I got to Baltimore, I was not accustomed to how a city public school system operates. Back in Meredith, we had three towns attend our one public school, and even then I only graduated with a class of 99 students.  But with the help of staff at GHCC and Medfield Heights Elementary School, I was quickly able to catch on.

The skills and experiences that I have gained from my VISTA year so far have been invaluable. Being put into so many unfamiliar situations allowed me to grow as a person. I have realized that if you live within your comfort zone, you aren’t really living at all. I have met some fascinating individuals through my work as a VISTA member and just living in Baltimore. I have learned that it is important to make friends before you need them, work hard but always with a smile, and to listen to what everyone has to say around you because it’s a great way to learn.

I would definitely recommend a year of service with AmeriCorps*VISTA to others because it is a great chance to build new skills and experiences and meet new people. It is also a great way to give back to your country and community, which will have a lasting impact on the community as well as the individual.

Sarah completes her VISTA year in August 2010.  She is currently searching for non-profit job prospects and hopes to remain in Baltimore.