Former AmeriCorps workers see positive changes in Homewood

Greater Homewood nonprofit celebrates 40 years with reunion

April 24, 2010|By Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

When Jermaine Lewis started working at Dallas F. Nicholas Senior Elementary School in 2001, there was no art program at the city school.

But after Lewis started there under the AmeriCorps VISTA program, he was later hired as the art teacher, and nine years later, the school still has an art program even though Louis left after several years.

"I'm glad that room is still being used and that kids are being artistically fed, challenged, nurtured," he said.

Lewis, now employed at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, returned to Baltimore this weekend for a reunion of current and former Volunteers in Service to America members who worked with the Greater Homewood Community Corp., a nonprofit that focuses on neighborhoods from Mount Royal Avenue to the county line, and from the Jones Falls to Lake Montebello. The reunion was part of a yearlong celebration honoring the 40-year-old Homewood nonprofit.

The North Baltimore-based group relies on local volunteers but also uses workers from AmeriCorps, a national service organization, for economic development and adult literacy programs, said Karen Stokes, executive director of the nonprofit.

But the group's ultimate goal is to get residents to help themselves, Stokes said. "No one organization is going to solve all the problems in an urban area," she said, but the program tries to "make changes that have a real rippling effect."

Since 1973, 178 VISTA workers have served the Homewood Corp.

Current AmeriCorps VISTA worker Andrew Stiller has been focusing on Waverly Elementary School. Stiller said he was working at the school carnival April 10, when a 22-year-old man was fatally shot several blocks away. Despite the incident, Stiller said the residents "don't accept it," saying that many residents care about their community — "they see it as something precious," which is key to community improvement, he said.

Among his goals, he is trying to strengthen the parent-teacher organization and improve training for school volunteers.

Sandra Sparks, former executive director of Homewood, said that while she worked for the nonprofit, from 1989 to 1998, there was still a movement of people relocating to the suburbs.

"The city was not seen as an attractive place to be," she said. But she's noticing that attitude change and said the volunteers have helped make the city attractive.

She said the organization has contributed to several initiatives, such as the winter portion of the 32nd Street farmers' market, the Jones Falls Watershed Association and neighborhood safety patrols.

Since his service year, Lewis has also noticed improvement.

"So much has changed, so much is good," Lewis said, saying the Windup Space bar on West North Avenue, where a small reception was held, didn't exist when he worked in the area. "There are signs for new projects in the community … it's really nice to see."

In an earlier version of this story, Jermaine Lewis' name was misspelled. The Sun regrets the error.

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