In the habit of serving

Volunteers: A scarcity of free time doesn't stop academy midshipmen from giving it away.

January 31, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

In the back of a damp room in an old building that was part of a mental hospital, where the cold of the early morning leaves a fog on the cracked windows, more than 20 midshipmen are sorting through books, heaving boxes of them into a truck parked just outside.

They could be elsewhere on this early Saturday morning, when they are relieved for a few hours from their weekly regimen of academics, athletics and military duties at the Naval Academy. Specifically, they could be sleeping.

Instead, like hundreds of their classmates, they pile into vans to help a Rotary club load books headed to Africa, plant trees in Patterson Park in Baltimore or harvest sweet potatoes from the fields of Southern Maryland for a local soup kitchen.

During the past few years, more midshipmen than ever have been volunteering to help local groups. School officials say more than half of the school's 4,000 students are engaged in community service projects at any given time.

The school isn't sure what's behind the surge in involvement, which brings midshipmen to places such as a veterans hospital in Baltimore, where former military personnel warm to the students and their trim uniforms. Others tutor in local schools, or clear trails and set up cabins for a local YMCA camp.

Many midshipmen credit the Midshipmen Action Group, a 10-year-old, largely student-run program, for catching their interest. The group scouts and organizes each event and sends out detailed notices on how to participate. The planners say they never run out of help.

National polls reveal that volunteering by college students has increased across the country, but the hours midshipmen devote to lending a hand are all the more notable because they have so little free time to give. From 6 a.m. until midnight each weekday, and throughout much of the weekend, academy life is packed with obligations. Saturdays are the students' personal time.

But on a recent Saturday at the makeshift book warehouse in Crownsville Hospital Center, James Tanyi, a senior dressed in the academy uniform for volunteer work - fatigues and a Navy sweatshirt - isn't thinking about sleeping. He's laughing.

He reaches into a box, still wet from rain that dripped through a hole in the roof that they have since patched. He pulls out a book titled "Intro to Suicide."

"What is this?" he asks with a chuckle. Fellow midshipman Paul Kamp, standing atop a nearby stack of boxes with books in both hands, calls back, "Geez, make sure that doesn't go into the kids' section."

When asked why they chose to spend their morning here, in a rundown former cafeteria without heat or a bathroom, where the weekly ritual includes mopping up water, building shelves and repairing the roof, they echoed the words of many of their classmates: duty, gratitude and service.

"I try not to restrict my life to just the military or academic," Tanyi said. "I just generally feel it's part of my duty to help the community. There's a lot of stuff we can do to help people out."

The Midshipmen Action Group, a team of midshipmen headed by Patricia Bowers, the academy's director of community relations, screens the requests for volunteer help. Because the midshipmen always show up when expected, and turn out in such large numbers, their help is much sought after, organizers said.

"They did in one Saturday morning what it would take us a month to accomplish," said Nancy Supik, a community organizer for Friends of Patterson Park, which sponsored a community tree-planting day in November. "From the very beginning, when we were making arrangements, they were so organized and on top of everything.

"They got a very brief training on how to drive stakes into the ground, and two minutes later they were just off for the rest of the morning," she said. "They did the work with kids hanging off their legs and were there with us right through to the end. They were so inspiring to the kids, and it is so important these kids see such great role models."

Steve Frantzich, a professor at the academy who serves as project director for Books for International Goodwill, a program of Parole Rotary, agreed.

"They are great organizers, these kids," he said. "You learn to just get out of their way. I tell them, `We need 20,000 books to be loaded in this truck to go to Africa,' and then just leave them be. They always come through."

Volunteering has become so popular at the academy that the school is offering this year for the first time four spring break trips to impoverished areas, including Mexico and North and South Dakota. Participants will distribute books and build homes. Because the academy cannot solicit donations, the midshipmen must pay for their travel and expenses.

Professor Howard Ernst offered to lead the trip to the Dakotas.

"This is my first year at the academy, and when I found out how these kids wanted to spend their spring break, it surprised the heck out of me," Ernst said. "When you think about it, though, this is a service academy, and they are here to serve their country. But it still amazes me, especially with the amount of work and limited time they all have."

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