Service program gives students touch of 'real world' HOWARD COUNTY EDUCATION

February 01, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Thirteen-year-old Megan Thompson places a piece of paper with the name "Julie" in front of wheelchair user Julie Milner, who is paralyzed from the waist down and suffers from cerebral palsy.

"Come on, Julie," Megan coaxed as Julie, a Cedar Lane student, stared blankly at a piece of paper. "You can do it. Where does this 'U' go?"

The lesson today was for 11-year-old Julie to match letters to words. She responds slowly, misplacing the "U" on the "E," the last letter of her name.

"No," Megan said. "Try again. You can do it. Where is the 'U' "

Megan, a 13-year-old Harper's Choice Middle School student, claps every time Julie is correct. She encourages her every time she's not. The two seem like sisters. There are good days, and there are bad days.

But every day for about 45 minutes -- or one class period -- Megan walks to Cedar Lane to volunteer as a peer tutor. She's part of her school's Jobs Program, a mandatory general studies course that eighth-graders take to graduate.

The program started about 10 years before the state department of education mandated the new student service requirement, which is to affect ninth-graders next year.

Under the requirement, students must either perform 75 hours of community service or complete a school-sponsored course or program that allows them to plan, act and reflect on their experiences.

The Harper's Choice program fulfills all three objectives, says teacher Julie Kayser, the coordinator.

Students who complete the program say they "felt needed and they felt good," she said. "A lot of children work with children and adults, in environments where they help people. They say it's a touch of the real world."

Mrs. Kayser helps students write resumes, prepare applications and find jobs. "While employees look at applications, resumes are also taken into account," she tells students. "And the only people who get interviews are the people who impress employees."

For many of these students, their volunteer work is the highlight of their day.

Those who do miserably in school shine, "especially those who work at either Cedar Lane or any job where they feel they're really needed," Mrs. Kayser said. "They rise to great heights. There's something to be said for feeling needed."

Students work at eight sites, including Harper's Choice, two elementary schools, a day care, a village center and an adult day care center -- all within a 10-minute walk.

Ben Strahl, 13, works two jobs, one involving people his grandparents' age at the Florence Bain Senior Center near the school.

"Some of them I talk to," he says. "One guy likes to play Ping-Pong with me. I think it's different and fun to do. I enjoy it."

He also lends a hand to gym teachers at his school, setting up and taking down sports equipment, as well as refereeing matches.

Eliza Hammond, 13, works at the nearby Athletic Club, where she watches children in a nursery while their parents exercise. "When parents leave, they start crying," she said. "I give them toys to play with. I just don't like walking over there when it's raining."

Perhaps the most satisfying jobs involve volunteering at Cedar Lane School, where the students are peer tutors to special education and disabled children. Megan Quirk, 13, for example, teaches students who use wheelchairs how to play basketball.

"It's neat when kids throw the ball for the first time and you can help," she said. "I love working with children. It's given me a lot of responsibility, because you have to get there on time."

Teachers at Cedar Lane say they rely on the eighth-graders as much as their students do.

"It works out great," said Linda Callahan, who teaches special education. "I've really lucked out, because I have wonderful kids who come in. They interact really well. One student, Aaron, gets upset when his tutor doesn't come."

When they first come in, many students who have never worked with disabled children are taken aback. "Normally, they have an 'Oh, my God' attitude," Ms. Callahan said. "But the more they're here, the more they relax. They have to be willing to get their hands dirty."

Ms. Callahan said some students did not want to be at the school at the beginning of the year but "it's like there's a whole new person inside" at year's end.

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