Service to others puts Baltimore students on magic bus to White House

November 30, 1990|By Kathy Lally

At 8:30 a.m. yesterday, as George Bush was in the Oval Office for a national security briefing, Janicka Downer was shivering on McCulloh Street in West Baltimore, the wind whipping litter around her ankles as she waited for a bus to take her to meet the president.

Five and a half hours later, 13-year-old Janicka would find herself in the White House, sharing a podium in the East Room with Mr. Bush and his wife, Barbara, a select group of students from around the country who do volunteer work and some celebrities who want to encourage them.

It was a long journey from West Baltimore to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

First there was the bus ride -- not the sleek coach with television that Janicka and the 20 other Baltimore eighth-graders had imagined but Y & L Transportation Inc.'s yellow bus No. 20, driven by grandmotherly Martha Crawford.

Later, there would be lunch in a fancy hotel just across the Potomac from Washington. "Rich people's food," scoffed 13-year-old Kim Church. "Caviar, sushi stuff," scowled Steven Burkett, surveying tables laden with scallops, shrimp canapes, the finest of rare roast beefs and bries. "Don't they have anything cooked?"

The Baltimore youngsters, from Booker T. Washington Middle School in West Baltimore and Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Brooklyn, traveled to the White House for a presidential promotion. The youngsters belong to Magic Me, a Baltimore-based non-profit group that tries to develop self-confidence and self-reliance in youngsters through service to others.

The Baltimore kids had been recruited for Magic Me membership because in a city school system endangered by a disastrously high dropout rate and an array of social ills, they are considered among the most imperiled. Many leave their city neighborhoods only rarely. Yesterday, they covered immeasurable territory.

"I don't want to be up on stage with no president," Antoinette Brown, 13, announced as she waited outside Booker T. Washington for the bus. "Why me?"

"Because you're so beautiful," replied Patty Bond, Magic Me program director, gently pinching her cheek.

Chalako Geddis of Booker T. had made his own special arrangements for the trip. The night before, his sister's boyfriend had carefully cut the words "Magic Me" into the hair on the back of his head.

About 10:45, bus No. 20 turned into the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Mrs. Crawford guided her bus alongside two black Cadillac limousines. As the kids jostled off the bus, Ms. Bond reminded them, "I want you to keep it quiet and keep it cool."

She needn't have worried. There was total silence as the hotel's uniformed doormen snapped to attention and swung the doors wide and the youngsters stepped onto a plush Oriental carpet under chandeliers.

It was at this point that Janicka panicked. "Miss Patty," she announced, "I don't want to do it."

The Magic Me kids volunteer in nursing homes and with the retarded, and Janicka was to speak at a White House ceremony launching StarServe (Students Taking Action and Responsibility in Service). They were joined by 17 other Maryland students who do volunteer work through the Maryland Student Service Alliance, a state education program that gives high school credit for such service.

The other Marylanders came from Fallston High School in Harford County, Suitland High School in Prince George's County and Richard Montgomery High School in Montgomery County. A class of third-graders from Polk, Neb., also had been invited, along with contingents from Arkansas and Texas.

"You can do it," Ms. Bond whispered firmly to Janicka. "Jus imagine yourself feeling good."

Janicka still didn't want to do it. But the sponsors -- Kraft General Foods -- called out their heavy artillery in the slicked-back blond hair form of Chad Allen, star of a television show called "My Two Dads." The teen heart throb put his arm around Janicka, and they walked off.

A few minutes later, Janicka was back. "Psyched," she exclaimed.

At the White House, with the president of the United States looking on from a few feet to her right, Janicka read her speech perfectly. She talked about being scared of the mentally ZTC retarded at first, but finding they taught her to judge people by what they are, not how they look.

Finally, it was back to Pentagon City in Virginia and bus No. 20. The kids were tired and hungry -- few could eat that "richy food," Robert Regan said. Caught up in anti-climax, Janicka said talking to the president was less thrilling than the time she walked on ropes stretched 20 feet in the air as part of an Outward Bound program.

Then Alfred de la Cuesta, Magic Me executive director, appeared with two large pizzas. Real food. After a while, laughter and the hum of contented chatter arose.

"I felt special," said Kim Church of Benjamin Franklin. "Very special."

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