Oakland Mills students reap voluntarism's rewards

Juniors help build community playground in West Baltimore

June 29, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Two summers ago, Oakland Mills High School students Lindsey Petersen and Leigh Beaman volunteered for the first time in the Sandtown-Winchester area, building a Habitat for Humanity house for a deserving couple.

The next year, the two girls invited two friends to West Baltimore to help scrape, prime and paint.

This week, six more Oakland Mills students trekked from the suburbs to the city, joining Leigh, Lindsey and friends as they cleared a vacant lot to make way for a community playground in the same depressed neighborhood.

As the group has grown, so too has the teen-agers' enthusiasm for hard work - the kind that helps the less fortunate.

"I just never thought 30 minutes from where I live it would be like this," said Katie Nutter, 15, looking around at the neighborhood where she and nine other Oakland Mills juniors worked this week. "I mean, you see stuff like this on TV, but ... "

"It makes you feel thankful for what you have," agreed Gabriel Amponsah, 16.

When the juniors arrived Monday morning at the empty lot near Gilmor and Presstman streets, it was thick with weeds 4 feet high and covered with trash, glass and furniture.

They knew the school next door, New Song Academy, wanted to use the lot as a play area for its students, but the Oakland Mills workers initially thought that idea was wishful thinking.

"It looked like someone had just dumped their closet out over there," said Lindsey, 16.

But they were determined to help.

They got to work, filling two trash bins with debris, shoveling, raking, and pulling weeds the size of a 6-year-old's forearm.

From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., they toiled, taking little time for breaks, getting sweaty and dirty and tired.

"It doesn't matter about the work because you're helping someone else," Gabriel said.

"We'd probably just be sleeping anyway," said Molly McCourt, 15.

The playground that will be built soon on the newly cleaned lot will benefit the schoolchildren and the community, which is composed of boarded-up rowhouses and housing projects surrounded by cracked asphalt.

At times during the week, neighborhood children with nothing to do stopped by the lot to help.

"The kids, they really appreciate it," Katie said. "I didn't know if they would or not. But you can see that when they look at us."

Travis Edwards, 11, lives on Gilmor Street and often walked past the dirty lot. Though he will be in middle school, he said, he intends to use the play lot once the work is done.

"I'm glad they're doing this for the community, just to help out the people," he said.

Rene Gonzales, 15, said working for the first time in a depressed neighborhood has put a stop to his complaining about what he once perceived to be terrible inequities between his Columbia school and other Howard County high schools.

"It really changes your point of view," Rene said. "You realize how good you have it."

Though they are grateful for their air conditioning and other luxuries when they get home every night, Lindsey and Leigh said they felt guilty about being so privileged when they first started working.

"Some places were so bad and dirty. We felt like we were so spoiled," Lindsey said.

The experiences, however, have helped them realize that instead of feeling guilty, they should work to make things better for others.

Now they want more of their peers to learn that valuable lesson.

They're hoping to start a Habitat for Humanity club at Oakland Mills when school starts this fall. Club members would help renovate and rebuild on Saturdays during the school year as well as in the summer.

"It's becoming kind of like a tradition and we really like it," Lindsey said. "And, it's a really good cause."

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