15 Sandtown VISTA recruits get Washington pep talk

January 28, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

President Clinton's national service czar came to West Baltimore yesterday to inspect his troops: 15 newly minted members of VISTA, the "domestic Peace Corps."

Unlike the Volunteers in Service to America of old, who were often sent into cities direct from college campuses, all 15 already live in the neighborhood they will serve -- Sandtown-Winchester, a poor community where the Enterprise Foundation and the city have embarked on an ambitious "neighborhood transformation" program.

Anthony Stone, 27, heard about Volunteers in Service to America while studying for the high school diploma he had never gotten. Annette Rufus, 23, learned of the program while volunteering at nearby Gilmor Elementary School, which her two children attend.

They were two of those chosen from nearly 100 applicants for the 17 VISTA slots, two of which have yet to be filled. For the next year, the volunteers will fan out through the community to try to lure young people off drug corners and into school, training or work.

"If you can do it in Sandtown, we can take the lessons of Sandtown and move them across the entire United States," Eli Segal, president of the Corporation for National and Community Service, told the group during a pep talk.

The volunteers will nearly double the staff of Community Building in Partnership, Inc., the agency formed to spearhead the Sandtown project. The agency hand-picked the volunteers.

James W. Rouse, the developer who founded the Enterprise Foundation, called the Sandtown project "the most important single development in the United States today, to change the life of poor people at the heart of the American city."

The 11 men and four women chosen so far will receive a $640 monthly living allowance, medical benefits and a $4,725 tuition credit that may be claimed at the end of the year's service.

"How many of you did take the job for the money?" Mr. Segal asked the group during an afternoon visit to Sandtown's Community Support Center in the 1100 block of N. Mount St.

No one raised a hand.

"And the benefits?" he asked.

Nearly all shot their hands into the air.

Thomas Denton, 27, a broadcast technology student at Coppin State University, said the tuition credit would help pay off his college loan.

Mr. Denton acknowledged that Sandtown youth might resist the volunteers' best efforts.

"The younger generation want to see what can you do for me now, what can I get out of it?" he said. "It will be up to us to persuade them."

Mr. Segal urged the volunteers to "think of yourselves as one of the troops, as one of the service warriors."

He said the Clinton administration's various national service programs would have 25,000 volunteers by the end of the year -- more than ever served in the Peace Corps at any given time.

And he pledged to revisit Sandtown to see if the volunteers had made a difference.

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