'The desire to help people' Volunteers: The guiding philosophy of those who choose to go into AmeriCorps, President Clinton's domestic Peace Corps, is that to give of one's time and talent is a privilege.

November 27, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

It's a humbling experience, this gig as an AmeriCorps volunteer: getting kids to sit still long enough to help them read, ,, feeding homeless folks who sometimes have more education than you do, or finding yourself surrounded by adolescent girls whom you take for well-wishers until they start beating you with umbrellas.

The umbrella attack occurred the first week that five young people in AmeriCorps -- President Clinton's domestic Peace Corps program -- moved into a South Wolfe Street rowhouse for their 10-month experiment in making the United States a better place.

It was a rude welcome to Baltimore for Kelly Wintroath and Shannon Sagedahl, rescued when a motorist on Lombard Street whisked the pair into her car, but it didn't deter the young women or their housemates from sticking it out.

And it didn't derail their guiding philosophy, which holds that being fortunate enough to give of one's time and talent is a privilege to be grateful for, on Thanksgiving and every other blessed moment of life.

"I thank God every day for letting me wake up and do what I'm doing," says Wintroath, 22, who graduated with a degree in English last year from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, her hometown.

Sagedahl, also 22, and Wintroath are teachers' aides at General Wolfe Elementary School, where they spend time giving children individual attention they don't seem to receive anywhere else.

"You have no clue if these kids have eaten breakfast or if they've been beaten or what effect all that has on what we see in school," says Wintroath. "You'd burn out in five seconds if you didn't really have the desire to help people."

The women bristle at a frequent criticism -- that because AmeriCorps workers get paid about $4.95 an hour plus health benefits and an educational stipend of $4,725, they are not truly volunteers.

They say if paying off college loans were their sole motive, plenty of easier ways are available to do it.

"I had a real job in telemarketing right out of college making about twice what I make with AmeriCorps. I hated it," says Sagedahl, who holds a communications degree from the College of St. Benedict in her home state of Minnesota. "I didn't want to be in the real world, but I had to pay my loans off. I prayed every day: 'God, if you get me out of here, I'll do your work.' My prayers came true."

Three more young people live on Wolfe Street as part of the Notre Dame/AmeriCorps partnership -- a public-private effort organized in five cities by the Baltimore-based Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

The others are Susie McGrath of suburban Philadelphia, Jonathan Accardo from Kansas City, Kan., and Michelle Quintrell, who grew up in the hamlet of Quakertown, Pa., and graduated with a biology degree last spring from Loyola College on North Charles Street.

Sagedahl and Wintroath will go home with McGrath to celebrate Thanksgiving at a huge traditional dinner where Irish music is as much a staple as cranberry sauce.

"My extended family is more like an immediate family; we'll have about 24 for dinner and maybe 60 for the party afterward," says McGrath, 22, who wants to be an attorney. "I thought it was a nuisance to go through it all when I was in high school, but now that I'm older and the family's been through some trials, I've come to appreciate that closeness. I don't give thanks for it every day, so I'm glad there's a day set aside."

Accardo is flying home to Kansas City to be with his folks, and Quintrell, who is assigned to the staff at Our Daily Bread soup kitchen, will give thanks on the job.

"This is a big Thanksgiving for me, getting to work at Our Daily Bread," says Quintrell, 22. "My family is supportive, but they think I'm a nut case. Quakertown is small, and young people there try to get rich so they can get out. Back home they're like: 'Homeless people, what are they?' "

At Loyola, Quintrell was on a path to medical school when a spring break "outreach" at the Beans and Bread soup kitchen on South Bond Street changed her life.

It led her to AmeriCorps, which has her thinking about getting a master's degree in social work.

She runs orientation at Our Daily Bread for the waves of volunteers who show up from around the state every day to help out.

The heart of this orientation, as Quintrell sees it, is to try and "humanize" the 700 to 1,000 guests who line up for a hot, sit-down meal.

To a recent group of volunteers from a local credit card company, she said: "Everyone has a different reason for being here. You can't judge why someone is here to eat. You'll hear a lot of stories, some of them are true, most of them are not, but smile at the people you're serving. No one is smiling at them on the street and they need it."

The children Jonathan Accardo teaches at Mother Seton Academy on South Ann Street get a lot of smiles and a lot of discipline from teachers at the private middle school. All of the 58 boys and girls at the school are from low-income families and attend on scholarships.

Accardo, 23, who holds a degree in International Management from St. John's University in Minnesota and intends to earn a master's degree in peace studies, tutors in reading, memorization skills and preps eighth-graders for high school placement exams.

Next semester, he and another AmeriCorps worker will introduce a course in conflict resolution at area high schools.

"It makes me sick to see how the people I grew up with are always worrying about what they don't have when what they have is enough," says Accardo, who meditates in the mornings to get a better fix on what's really important.

"I want the kids I'm teaching to be strong enough to know that throwing a fist is not worth losing your education for. And I want the people who know me and think that their possessions mean everything to look at my life and say: 'Wow.' "

Pub Date: 11/27/96

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