UB students get lesson in community service

College major focuses on training for nonprofits

December 13, 2003|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A mother of grown children and going for a college degree in her 40s, Debbie Hood longed for an alternative to the finance major she had chosen at the University of Baltimore.

She found it this semester in a new major called "Community Studies and Civic Engagement," a menu of courses geared to an increasing number of students interested in nonprofit organizations.

When a counselor pointed her to a description of the new major, "I said, `I think I've found something that I'd like to do,'" said Hood, a UB junior and Perry Hall resident.

The new program reflects a trend among universities and colleges that are now training students for nonprofit work. The Johns Hopkins University and the College of Notre Dame of Maryland have similar programs.

At UB, the curriculum in community service is paired with a long-standing scholarly effort to collect the archives of Baltimore nonprofit groups. In its first semester, one of the major's courses traces the history of the Maryland Food Bank, which turns 25 next year. It also recently donated most of its files to the program.

As part of the community studies courses, students are required to volunteer at the nonprofit groups that they study.

So far, 11 students have chosen the new major. One of them is Likivu Speaks, a 30-year-old Baltimore minister-in-training who wants to provide housing for the disadvantaged.

The food bank course has taught Speaks that nonprofit work is more "intense" than he thought. "Being able to have it hands-on and practical makes it come to life," he said, loading cardboard boxes into a recycling bin at the food bank's warehouse.

The new major also puts students to work on the nonprofit archives. So far, the university has records of about 75 organizations in its Langsdale Library, offering them a safe place to store their files while providing access to material that often is hard for researchers to find.

But that information often arrives in less-than-perfect form.

The food bank records arrived in 48 boxes that had been stacked on pallets-like so many donated canned goods- in the organization's warehouse on Franklintown Road in West Baltimore.. Inside the boxes, the researchers found a potpourri of documents, some of which were disorganized. A folder marked "Board General, 1979-83," included a statement of revenues and expenses for the first nine months of 1988. It had memos that listed the group's founders, chronicled problems with employees allegedly stealing food and documented how much bread, soda and pizza a family day care program would need.

Acting as file clerks as well as researchers - a type of multitasking common to workers at cash-strapped nonprofit groups - each member of the food-bank class gets two boxes of records to organize and use for a research paper. The goal is to tell a story about the food bank - how it started, what it tested and rejected, and key points of evolution. "It's a mystery tour, basically," said Jessica I. Elfenbein, director of the community studies and civic engagement program and teacher of the class. "We don't know what's inside each box."

Over the semester, Elfenbein's students also have written proposals for small grants to tell the history of the food bank. They've heard Bill Ewing, the food bank's longtime executive director, describe how the group started with a band of volunteers who salvaged and redistributed food that grocery stores had discarded. Today, the organization collects and provides food to 900 pantries and soup kitchens across the state.

Ewing says the class has been good for the food bank. Its help with his scattershot records gives him confidence that people will learn, years from now, how a patchwork of community food programs formed an alliance through the organization.

"They have motivated us to think about some things we really hadn't thought about," he said. "That part really appeals to me, the sense of really documenting the growth of this community."

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