Volunteer social work draws graduates

Meager stipends, plenty of experience

Anne Arundel

May 14, 2001|By Katie Arcieri | Katie Arcieri,SUN STAFF

Julie Humphrey has come a long way to volunteer at Sarah's House, from clear across the country to work with the emergency and transitional housing program at Fort Meade.

It seems an odd choice for a recent college graduate, whose major at the University of California at Davis was genetics - not social work.

"I spent so much more time with fruit flies than with people, I knew I needed a change in my life," said Humphrey, 22. "I had planned on taking a year off and I was trying to figure out how I could make it meaningful while serving people at the same time."

Raised in Sebastopol, a rural town of Northern California, she chose the assignment for a year of full-time volunteer service through the Baltimore-based Catholic Charities Project SERVE - Service and Education through Residential Volunteer Experience.

Humphrey said she was inspired to volunteer after hearing a talk by a representative from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a Catholic lay volunteer program, at a church service on the Davis campus.

Behind her idealism are her worried parents, unsettled that she - like other volunteers here - would be living in downtown Baltimore.

"My mom insisted that I take a self-defense class before coming to Baltimore," she laughed. "So I took tae kwon do for three months."

She has not had to employ the martial arts, but Humphrey said she has encountered plenty of mental challenges.

"I expected it to be challenging," she said. "When you are in a homeless shelter dealing with people who have been abused, or are going through major life changes, never having stability, it affects me on a personal level."

Humphrey has six roommates, sharing a downtown residence on the 100 block of Mulberry St. All work volunteer assignments through the program. They are:

Jennifer Bess, a graduate of Dartmouth College who runs a program providing job education and family counseling for young parents.

Bryan Connolly, a graduate of Middlebury College who works at St. Jude's Employment Center, which provides resume and job interview practice sessions to the unemployed.

Lauren Danchy, a Villanova University graduate who works for the Hispanic Apostolate, a program helping Spanish--speaking people.

Katie Fredricks, a University of Arkansas graduate who works with St. Anne Adult Day Services, which provides recreational and therapeutic care to the elderly.

Erin Miller, a graduate of Nazareth College working at St. Vincent's Center, which helps children who have been neglected or abused.

Kelly Smith, a graduate of Loyola College who volunteers at Our Daily Bread in downtown Baltimore - Maryland's largest soup kitchen. Smith, an assistant to its volunteer coordinator there, had volunteered for the organization during her college years.

Humphrey learned about Project SERVE in researching the Catholic Network of Volunteer Services. She contacted Robin Rich, director of Project SERVE, through e-mail, saying she was interested in the Baltimore-based program for college graduates committed to working with the poor or elderly.

Rich said the program looks for "those who have youthful exuberance."

"When you are just starting out, you are full of enthusiasm," he said. "Having read Humphrey's application and references, I knew she was a young woman with intellect and a great deal of sensitivity."

An advisory committee reviewed Humphrey's application, including a questionnaire, biographical essay and three references, before the high school valedictorian was approved and headed east.

Out of 80 programs Catholic Charities offered in Maryland, she chose Sarah's House, a residential facility for homeless families in Anne Arundel County. Humphrey said she wanted to work with families - especially young mothers.

Sarah's House, she said, is not a typical drop-in shelter. It includes such services as an employment program and transportation, on-site computer training, parenting workshops and substance-abuse assessment.

"We are not just a shelter; we are an all-encompassing program that is designed to assist individuals to move to independent living," said Deborah Hardy, director of Sarah's House.

As the only SERVE volunteer there, Humphrey works 40 hours a week primarily with homeless women and their children. Five days a week, she meets with families to develop a case plan that sets goals and helps them to find the resources to become self-sufficient.

Between 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m., she runs an after-school program that provides recreation, arts, crafts and homework help to children who live at Sarah's House.

SERVE volunteers receive a monthly stipend of $254 for food, transportation and expenses.

Humphrey, whose talents include playing the piano and French horn, practices Tuesday nights with another volunteer organization - the Baltimore Symphonic Band at Essex Community College.

The team of SERVE volunteers also gets support from Catholic Charities employees in Baltimore - occasionally receiving extra Orioles or symphony tickets.

"Thanksgiving was the best example for me," she said. "I couldn't go home to California, but all of my roommates were leaving and I didn't want to stay in our house by myself," said Humphrey.

"Many of my co-workers and even Charities staff that I barely knew invited me to their homes for Thanksgiving dinner," she said. "It was amazing."

The yearlong stint ends July 31, and some volunteers will return to their hometowns. After 1,700 hours of service, they are eligible for a $4,725 AmeriCorps education award, and Humphrey said she will use hers for graduate school - if or when she decides to go.

She has considered staying in the area, and at Sarah's House.

"I know this is a field I'll want to stay in all my life," Humphrey said. "Even if it's not direct service, my first and foremost criteria is making a difference."

Catholic Charities' Project SERVE: www.catholiccharities-md.org.

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