Teens' interests guide them in volunteering

Students create their projects and recruit helpers


Many high school students spend their free time after classes doing homework, relaxing or perhaps working a part-time job. But Hannah Pryor, a sophomore at Towson High School, spends her spare time teaching kids through skits how to handle stressful situations. Danielle Chazen and Gaby Roffe, juniors at Beth Tfiloh Community High School, like to teach hip-hop dance at elementary schools.

They are just three of 20 high school students who make up the Commitment to Service Initiative, a new volunteer program that enables teens to go above and beyond the Maryland Service Learning graduation requirement by creating service projects.

Program members not only create their projects, they recruit other teen volunteers to join them. Sponsored by the Jewish Volunteer Connection, the 10-month program begins with a weekend retreat in October and ends with a three-week trip to Israel this summer. In between, the teens are required to meet monthly as a group, in addition to the service work they must do at least once a month.

Participants like Pryor say they like the independence the individualized service program offers.

"I had been looking for something to get involved with for a while, and I hadn't found anything. ... I wanted to do something that involved working with kids, and I also love acting, so I figured I can combine the two somehow," said Pryor, 16.

In her project, Pryor uses planned and improvised acting that teaches kids new and positive ways to express strong emotions. So far, she has worked with sick children at the Ronald McDonald House in downtown Baltimore and the Hackerman-Patz House at Sinai Hospital.

Through skits, Pryor tries to help youngsters deal with situations such as being teased or getting angry. Recently, at the Ronald McDonald House, Pryor and her partner, 13-year-old Aly Smith, pretended to be upset about not being allowed to eat ice cream before dinner. Then they took feedback from the kids on some appropriate responses to the situation.

Organizers say the initiative attempts to fill a niche for youths who are looking for more options to help out in their communities.

"We got a number of calls from teens and parents for service outside of their requirements for school," said Leslie Pomorantz, director of Jewish Volunteer Connection, an organization with ongoing and one-time volunteer opportunities for anyone interested. "Community service is something that many teens are passionate about -- more than just fulfilling requirements."

The service initiative grew out of two years of research, which included focus groups and surveys.

With the freedom to design a service project comes the responsibility of organizing it and following through -- a challenge that is not for every teenager. After interviewing 40 students from the Baltimore area, 20 were accepted into the program, which is run in partnership with the Maryland Teen Initiative and SPARK: Partnership for Service, two other organizations devoted to inspiring service.

With only three months remaining in its flagship year, the service initiative has just received a $270,000 grant from the Helen Diller Family Foundation in San Francisco to continue its work for three more years.

According to Leah Sherizen Berry, CSI coordinator, Baltimore is one of the first communities outside of San Francisco to receive a grant from the foundation for a program of this kind.

Chazen and Roffe, who have been involved in dance since kindergarten, have taught hip-hop to pupils at Fallstaff Elementary School every Friday afternoon since January.

"Dancing is our passion, and we wanted to carry that over," said Chazen, 16. "At Fallstaff, there are a lot of talented girls who haven't been able to take lessons. They're really talented, so it's rewarding to watch them learn."

Pryor says she sometimes has trouble recruiting volunteers to come help her with skits. Roffe and Chazen say the hardest thing is keeping the girls they teach focused after a long day of school. But all agree that the people they are working with make the effort worthwhile.

"When the girls come in, they are so ecstatic it lights me up inside," said Roffe. "It makes me so happy because I know I'm making their day."

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