A lifetime of service began on East Biddle In service to America

Michael G. Sievers

June 28, 1993|By Michael G. Sievers

THIS is an important year for me. It's the 20th anniversary of my year as a Volunteer In Service To America (VISTA), one that provided the foundation for two decades of public service to my local communities. I served that year in an old East Coast city by the Chesapeake Bay.

There is another reason that I am thinking about VISTA: President Clinton's plan for a national service corps. His idea reminds me very much of the agency I served as a younger man. His inspiration has the same source: John F. Kennedy's 1960 inaugural address. His goal is the mission that VISTA has been assigned since its inception in 1964: to serve our nation with passion and purpose.

VISTA instructed me to appear at the National 4-H Center in Washington for almost three weeks of training beginning in mid-February. I arrived with limited possessions to a bunking assignment with three guys from a local inner-city neighborhood project called the Mission of Community Concern. They slept with knives under their pillows. I tried not to notice.

The training went quickly. The best of it was visits to social service agencies and religious services. The worst of it was the food. I remember three things vividly: a Rhode Island friend named Peter Pare and his 1964 Chevelle; the desperately poor mothers we visited in dark, depressing rooms; and word finally arriving about where I would be assigned.

My destination was 45 miles up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, a place called Baltimore. The project was the Neighborhood Design Center. Led by a skilled political organizer named Doris Johnson, this center was staffed by a dozen disparate spirits who brought the needed skills of urban design and social services to neighborhoods too poor to pay for them. The organization's rented storefront on East Biddle Street on the edge of Mt. Vernon had a heart that pulsed with care and compassion.

This crew of architects, planners and social scientists welcomed a new set of skills. I was trained in landscape architecture and ready for what $200 a month could offer in the way of urban life.

The community I came to know as a VISTA was called MUND (Model Urban Neighborhood Demonstration). It was wedged into an urban hardscape east of Greenmount and above North Avenue. MUND was a project of the 1960s and the war on poverty's Office of Economic Opportunity. It was there that I found a home.

My work for MUND focused initially on the design and construction of a recycled playground carved from a portion of the asphalt that served the Oliver Cromwell Elementary School at Homewood and 22nd Street. This project, designed with help from children at the school, combined the voluntary efforts of the Maryland National Guard, the city's Forestry Division and donors like the C&P Telephone Co.

It consumed me. Twenty years later a model of it hangs on a basement wall in our Portland home.

When my VISTA tour ended, the MUND board of directors found some money to offer me a staff job as a planner. The board owned a building six blocks from my third-floor apartment on Maryland Avenue in Charles Village. I could finally afford my rent of $108 a month.

The ensuing months allowed me the opportunity to work on housing, health care and community education, and to learn to love the city I now called home. When not bicycling to MUND, I was falling hard for the Orioles, coaching a baseball team called the Senators at the Clifton Park Bowl and playing ball in the evenings on the courts across from Margaret Brent Elementary School at 26th and St. Paul.

My running mates on those muggy nights never knew my name. To them I was John Havlicek, a white guy who could run and shoot. It was an appellation earned from hard-driving playground games when a voice would cut the air: "Give me Havlicek!"

My work with MUND ended the following winter when I returned from a holiday to find my office stripped of personal possessions. It was a signal: My time in the community was over. That spring I began a planning job with the city's public works agency.

I remained in Baltimore until the summer of 1979, and through those years continued as a volunteer of the Neighborhood Design Center. I still have a passion for public service. VISTA gave me a strong sense of place and an unwavering devotion to improving communities through a commitment to people and ideas.

VISTA is where I and thousands of other volunteers got our start. It's still going, with 3,300 Americans serving over 770 projects throughout the country. VISTA is in the nation's institutional memory bank. Like the wheel, it doesn't need reinventing.

Michael G. Sievers writes from Portland, Ore.

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