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Sagawa Talks to Baltimore Sun about Service

Baltimore Sun

Success through service

Baltimore‘s “chief service officer” can help unlock vast opportunities for involvement

By Shirley Sagawa

July 19, 2010

For decades, Maryland has led the way in promoting volunteer and national service. The first (and still only) state in the nation to require service learning for high school graduation, Maryland has laid the groundwork for an engaged population. U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who for decades has quietly ensured that programs like AmeriCorps receive funding, has led the Maryland delegation in making service a national priority. And now Baltimore steps onto the national stage as a recipient of a highly competitive Cities of Service grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Rockefeller Foundation, which will enable Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to appoint a “chief service officer” to become part of her senior team.

At a time when needs are great and resources are limited, service offers untapped potential to address Baltimore’s most pressing problems. As I researched my recent book, “The American Way to Change,” I found hundreds of highly effective organizations using volunteers and AmeriCorps members to produce extraordinary results.

For example, Playworks, a national organization featured in the book, sends trained, full-time coaches, many of whom are AmeriCorps members, to 24 public schools in Baltimore, where they transform recess into a positive experience that helps more than 10,000 local kids get more out of their school day. Teachers in schools that partner with Playworks report they reclaim up to 36 hours of class time each year as students are able to stay focused in the classroom as a result of these activities, which include physical games at recess and conflict-resolution tools.

Experience Corps, another national organization, partners with Greater Homewood Community Corporation and the Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health to utilize the time, skills and experience of adults 55 and older in elementary schools. In Baltimore, students in schools with Experience Corps had improved math and reading standardized test scores in first, second, and third grade, and increased percentages of third graders scoring at the advanced and proficient level on the MSA reading tests than in the comparison schools, as well as fewer suspensions and principal referrals.

Despite the opportunities programs like these represent, it’s the rare leader at any level of government who incorporates service into plans to lower the dropout rate, or other challenges such as increasing financial security, lowering energy consumption, or revitalizing neighborhoods.

The new Baltimore chief service office will have no shortage of challenges to tackle with the help of volunteers. Fortunately, the CSO will also have strong organizations to build on, in addition to Playworks and Experience Corps. The Baltimore City Public Schools’ new volunteer matching system is a promising tool that can expand school-based service. Civic Works, an urban service corps, tackles environmental and other challenges by engaging area youth. Habitat for Humanity, Rebuilding Together Baltimore, and Baltimore CASH (Creating Assets Savings and Hope) Campaign all use volunteers as key parts of their efforts to assist low-income residents become financially stable. And Business Volunteers Unlimited Maryland connects 25,000 individuals to service opportunities each year.

In addition to helping to change Baltimore for the better, those who step forward to help may well find that they themselves also benefit. Studies document that students who serve do better in school and in life, and that adults who volunteer can advance their careers. Those who serve others have better physical and mental health, live longer and are happier. In fact, a study of Baltimore Experience Corps volunteers by Johns Hopkins researchers found that compared with a control group, the older volunteer tutors had better overall health, including strength, cognitive ability, and physical activity levels. They also watched less television and had a bigger social network than seniors in the control group.

Ironically, it is often those people who could most benefit from volunteering who have the fewest opportunities to serve. Disadvantaged youth, the unemployed and people with low levels of education volunteer less than others. The new chief service officer should be sure that Baltimore’s plan includes those who are not typically asked to serve.

In accepting the Cities of Service grant, Mayor Rawlings-Blake commented that “to move the city forward, we need everyone to be involved.” If the chief service officer is able to bring that about, we can expect to see not just better schools and safer streets, but stronger communities and healthier citizens as well.

Shirley Sagawa is a visiting fellow with the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., and the author of “The American Way to Change: How National Service and Volunteers are Transforming America.” Her e-mail is ssagawa@americanprogress.org.