AmeriCorps expanding its agenda

New members to focus on homeland security

April 15, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Nearly a dozen new AmeriCorps members stood and took an oath before Mayor Martin O'Malley and others yesterday declaring they would "get things done for America" in a field where the national service program has never gone before - homeland security in Baltimore and other cities.

"Project Liberty" marks a turning point for AmeriCorps, reflecting realities of a post-Sept. 11 world. The goal is to better educate city dwellers on how to brace for and react to emergencies, and the new AmeriCorps members will be trained to spread the word.

One person taking the oath on the porch of the Clifton Mansion was Kelly Hill-Ross, 54, an actress whose son is stationed on a Navy destroyer in the Persian Gulf.

Hill-Ross, like her colleagues, is being trained to teach others about civilian response to natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

When the Iraq war began, Hill-Ross said, "I was all doom and gloom, but now I'm looking forward to this [outreach] work."

The new members will work 20 hours a week for the next six months in AmeriCorps, a 1994 Clinton administration initiative intended as a domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps.

The local nonprofit group Civic Works is receiving a $124,000 federal grant to train 15 AmeriCorps members in emergency preparedness so they can get the message out "face to face, so it sinks into the neighborhoods," said Jody Kaplan, the project director.

Until now, AmeriCorps members in Baltimore have worked mostly on teaching reading, boarding up vacant houses, beautification, reforestation and food distribution. O'Malley said the shifting direction of AmeriCorps means community service is adapting to a changing world.

"It will help us to have a corps who can explain in plain English what shelter-in-place means," O'Malley said.

(Shelter-in-place is a term that refers to making a residence into a safe shelter with enough supplies and equipment to be self-sufficient for a period of days or weeks. )

"Whether there's a man-made or a natural disaster, there needs to be forethought," said new AmeriCorps member Leslie Campbell of Baltimore, "to keep pandemonium to a minimum."

The American Red Cross, the city health, police and fire departments and faculty from the Center for International Emergency, Disaster and Refugee Studies at the Johns Hopkins University are also advising and training the new class of AmeriCorps members. Other AmeriCorps programs in homeland security are starting across the country, and will cost $4.2 million in federal funds, officials said.

O'Malley, chairman of a U.S. mayors' task force on homeland security, has often exhorted the federal government to send more money to cities to shore up their civil defenses.

The mayor said yesterday that the $124,000 grant is a step in the right direction.

The War of 1812 had lessons for the group, O'Malley told them.

"The federal government scattered to the hills when our nation's Capitol was burned to the ground. ... Here they dug trenches and sunk ships," he said. "Only Baltimore saved Baltimore."

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