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Earthly Angels In the season of comfort and joy, celebrate those who comfort in despair

December 20, 1992|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

The work allows to combine her creativity with her desire to benefit others.

"There is this feeling that you can help people see what really is going on. The answer isn't to just give a can of food to somebody. The answer is to, as a community, help each other through very difficult times. . . . I feel that I am part of that," says Ms. O'Neill, 43, who lives in Baltimore County with her husband and three daughters.

Growing up in East Baltimore, she watched neighbor help neighbor when times were tough. "In most communities, people don't have that anymore. Most neighbors don't even know each other," she says.

She decided to volunteer after seeing an ad for the food committee in a theater playbill. It read: "Give your time, give your money, give your talents."

"I thought, 'I don't have any money, I don't have any time, but I do have this one thing I could give,' " she says.

Giving has sometimes meant arriving in Western Maryland by sunrise to photograph farmers at work or shooting family after family eating meals at Baltimore soup kitchens. At times, the challenge has been delivering a picture that moves others while allowing subjects to maintain their dignity.

Her work also has changed her once-simplistic view about hunger.

"In the back of my head, I thought this was a hand-out program for people who are hungry," she says. "But it isn't anything like that. . . . These are people who could be your own children, your own parents, your own brothers and sisters."

John Middleton

Some people are recognized by one name alone: Madonna, Elvis, Cher.

Add to that list 72-year-old retiree John Middleton.

Around the George W. F. McMechen School in northwest Baltimore, he simply goes by his nickname: Grandpa.

A foster grandparent for 11 years, he visits the public school for the disabled every day of the week, bringing with him a knack for making newspaper hats, telling jokes and listening.

Although his day officially ends at noon, he often lingers until after the dismissal bell to help out with events. A former professional Boy Scout troop leader, Mr. Middleton is proud that he beefed up the Boy Scout program there and has taken some youngsters on their first overnight camping trip.

"His big heart gets him through," says Paula Cottrell, school principal. "He came to our school years ago and said, 'Here I am. Tell me where you need me. I'll do what I can for the children.' "

His motivation is deeply personal. He became a foster grandparent to give youngsters a better childhood than he had. Growing up in Charleston, S.C., during the Depression, he faced many problems. His parents divorced before he was 6, his mother died of pneumonia several years later, and he was raised by relatives.

"I lost all the people who were my support at a young age," he says.

He also had vision and hearing problems that have resulted in him wearing two hearing aids and reading with a magnifying glass.

Before coming to McMechen, he volunteered at the Charles Hickey School, helping to create an Explorers Club there.

"I looked at those boys and said, 'These kids could have been me.' Their problems mostly came from neglect, from being in a one-parent home," says Mr. Middleton, who is a grandfather himself and lives in East Baltimore.

While he knows he's helping some youngsters, he says they do a lot for him.

"They have helped me cope in my senior years better than I would have," he says. "They give me a sense of purpose."

Brian Meshkin

Whether he's raking the yard of a sick neighbor or raising money for disaster victims, Brian Meshkin often thinks about his friend, Chris Kelly.

Three years ago, his red-haired classmate was killed while riding his bike in front of Brian's home. Brian and his father were the first to the accident, but Chris had been killed instantly in a collision with a motorist.

In the months after the tragedy, Brian and other students XTC struggled to deal with their grief. They began working on getting a mandatory bicycle helmet law passed in Howard County. Nearly a year after Chris' death, it went into effect.

"I felt obligated to do something," says Brian, who lives in Howard County. "I didn't want Chris' death to be in vain."

Since then, Brian has become a one-man fund-raising machine. Elected president of the student government at Glenelg High School this year, he has rallied students to many causes, including fighting prejudice, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence and cancer.

He got firsthand experience with discrimination during his freshman year. Part Iranian, he was the victim of taunts by upperclassman who wrote graffiti on his locker and cursed at him in the hall.

His goals have been to encourage activism among students and forge a stronger bond between the school and the community.

"Kids can make a difference. Sometimes there are barriers because of age discrimination. But there are many ways kids can be heard," he says.

During the first event of the school year, a fall dance, students realized it was going to be an unusual year. Brian donated some of the proceeds to Hurricane Andrew relief efforts.

Last month, after finding out that a neighbor who has cancer was unable to care for her home, he and 10 students spent several days clipping bushes, raking the yard and cleaning windows.

For the holidays, he's organized a dinner for the elderly in Howard County.

Brian's efforts have not gone unnoticed. This year he received a community service award from the United Way of Central Maryland and was named Maryland's young volunteer of the year by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Yet he frowns on being seen as too much of a do-gooder. "I don't consider myself an angel," he says. "I might not always do the right thing. I've been thrown out of my share of classes for being obnoxious."

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