Workers in an AmeriCorps program head to Alabama to aid hurricane victims.

Called to make a difference

September 13, 2005|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

Sara Anderson can be excused for still believing it's possible to save the world.

It's a noble goal mocked by cynics but still upheld by altruistic types like Anderson, a 25- year-old who majored in sociology and has put off a career for two years to help the less fortunate.

So after graduating from college in 2003, Anderson joined the National Civilian Community Corps, an AmeriCorps program with its Northeast regional headquarters in Cecil County. She has helped save an Arizona town from invasive pine beetles, saved California backwoods from fire, and made a difference in the lives of tough youth at a middle school in Sacramento, Calif.

Anderson, a native of Nashville, Tenn., proudly mentioned a recent letter she received from a girl who went from failing five of six classes to earning almost all B's.

"I just don't think there's any greater gift than to be able to look at someone's face and know you've affected them in some way," said Anderson, who will earn a $4,725 education award this year for her service with the community corps.

A career beckons, but there's still more work to be done.

For corps members such as Anderson, Hurricane Katrina is offering an opportunity of a lifetime to make a difference.

Since the storm hit the Gulf Coast two weeks ago, the corps has deployed 98 workers from its Perry Point campus to the Red Cross staging area in Montgomery, Ala. From there, the workers are scattered to devastated towns to distribute drinking water, transport victims to shelters and assess damage.

One corps worker called the deployment an adrenaline rush, the same tingle a firefighter gets on the way to a blaze.

"A lot of [hurricane victims] just need that human comfort and understanding that we can provide," said Adam Haigh, 23. He and the members of his corps team, assembled recently at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, could have easily passed for college students on their way to vacation.

Instead, they were headed to Alabama, embarking on perhaps the most daunting mission yet for the National Civilian Community Corps, a federally funded program that began in 1994 to strengthen communities and build future leaders. Members typically work in teams of 10 to 12, tutoring disadvantaged youth, planting trees in national parks, and building camps for the terminally ill and disabled.

But they are often called on to assist the Red Cross during natural disasters. Last year, corps members helped repair thousands of Florida homes damaged by four hurricanes and transported food and drinking water to Red Cross centers.

It's a lot of work for little pay - corps members complete 1,700 hours of service and receive $4,725 for college payments or loans.

But "the rewards are immense - you learn about yourself, you learn about the world," said Anderson, sipping from a soda cup in an office on the Perry Point campus last month.

Several weeks later she drove with her team to Concord, N.H., to spend a month working with an environmental group called Groundwork Concord, planting trees and building a dog park, among other tasks.

When not deployed, members live in small, two-story houses on the Perry Point campus, on leased property at the Veterans Affairs medical campus near the Susquehanna River.

The campus is one of five regional training centers for the corps. Each class of corps workers undergoes several weeks of training, with lessons ranging from clearing brush after a forest fire to teaching conflict-resolution skills to an inner-city teenager.

Throughout the 10-month program, members typically complete five projects, each ranging from four to 10 weeks. They live at project sites, in places as disparate as small New England towns and the Bronx borough of New York City. Many members, like Anderson, undertake a second 10-month tour as team leaders, earning the same pay plus bigger stipends while deployed.

Like the better-known Peace Corps, admission into AmeriCorps NCCC is competitive. About a quarter of the thousands of applicants every year are accepted, said Monica Davis, a former member who now serves as spokeswoman for the Perry Point campus. Applicants must write a brief essay and be interviewed, she said. The program is restricted to 18- to 24-year-olds; there is no upper age limit for team leaders.

Elsa Erickson went through the program last year and now leads a team at Perry Point. The 25-year-old from Eau Claire, Wis., called her time as a corps member "the most amazing year of my life."

During one project, she helped rebuild the promenade in Havre de Grace after it had been destroyed by Tropical Storm Isabel.

"Youth these days have a pretty bad image, and AmeriCorps is a way of giving back to the community and putting a better light on the youth," Erickson said.

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