Thursday, December 23, 2010

GHCC Office Closure - Winter Break

GHCC will close from December 24-January 2 (we'll return on January 3) for our annual holiday break. This means Greater Homewood Voices will be on a short hiatus as well. We'll look forward to returning your calls and emails—and bringing you a fresh batch of stories on the blog—in early January.

Have a safe, healthy, and happy holiday!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Just in Time for Christmas, a New Computer Lab for Waverly School

Chris Thompson, an AmeriCorps*VISTA member placed at Waverly Elementary/Middle School by GHCC, has been working hard this Fall to make sure Waverly Elementary students have access to computers to support their learning.

But Chris won't take all the credit: he made all the connections, got the ball rolling, and provided coordination and support, but it was Waverly's amazing community partners that came through and provided a whole new computer lab for the school.

Here's what Chris had to say about this collaborative effort:

Tell us a little bit about the new computer lab at Waverly. What was there before, and what will this lab allow students to accomplish?

The new Waverly Elementary School computer lab features 25 refurbished computers, a smart board for LCD projection, and a wonderful new mural painted by third grader Kyle Smith. The previous lab only contained a handful of “dinosaur” computers that were so old they were unusable. While these computers aren’t brand new, they are high-quality and only two years old.

The addition of a functioning computer lab will allow students to reinforce math and reading skills through interactive online learning tools, learn computer and technology skills, and have fun while they're at it. Classes that have already utilized the lab have been thrilled, and the teachers are grateful for another fun resource for instructing their students.

Who donated time and resources to make this happen? How did you coordinate efforts between them?

I initially reached out to any organizations doing computer donations to address the need for technology at the school. Bootup Baltimore, a student-run technology assistance organization operated through the Johns Hopkins Center for Social Concern, offered to donate 25 computers and the necessary keyboards, mice, and cables. They acquired the computers through the Johns Hopkins University’s IT Recycling Program.

I worked with Bootup Baltimore until we hit the obstacle of finding funding to buy hard drives. Because Waverly Elementary and the Cathedral of the Incarnation have a strong and long-standing partnership, it was natural for me to reach out to them and ask if they could help. When they said yes, Bootup Baltimore purchased and installed the hard drives, then delivered the machines to the school.

Bootup Baltimore did all the initial computer refurbishment and setup, but the school’s IT specialist took charge of maintenance and support for the computers after they entered the building.
A project like this can get complicated—what was the moment that made it all worth it for you?

The unveiling event that Waverly held for the computer lab on Wednesday, December 15 was when I finally felt really excited about the implications of the project for Waverly students. We had a third grade class in there playing math computer games and everyone was able to see computers being used.

We also took the opportunity to thank all our partners individually and recognized the third grade student, Kyle Smith, who did the wonderful mural on the wall to beautify the room. The event was a thrill for everyone and made me grateful for the work they, and I, had done together.

You’re a VISTA—what’s your role at the school and in the community? How did this help you accomplish your VISTA project goals for the year?

My primary role at the school and in the Waverly community is to mobilize resources for the benefit of neighborhood families and students. I also assist with parent engagement initiatives put forth by the school.

This project was a great example of partnerships with community organizations that will provide a resource to fill a long-term need at the school. My role is to inspire people to do work like this and help coordinate their efforts. This project never could have happened without the spark provided by a VISTA, which then transformed into a prolonged process of coordination and support for partnering organizations as they worked to make the lab happen.

My primary goal this year is to form and strengthen partnerships between the Waverly school and the surrounding community, and this project enabled me do both! 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Reflections on a Year of Service: George Shardlow

Last week, GHCC said goodbye to a VISTA member who has brightened our days at the office since November 2009. George Shardlow isn't going far, though: he'll be staying in Baltimore working on transportation issues, so no doubt he'll be hearing from us on a regular basis.

We first met George on Greater Homewood Voices last February, but we caught up with him again to hear his perspective after a full year of service.

You're a Minnesota native and went to school in Iowa—what brought you all the way to Baltimore?

I was pretty intent on getting out of my parents’ basement. I started applying to every VISTA position that seemed in line with my interests. The posting for my current position popped up and seemed quite intriguing.

A Google image search for Baltimore yielded pictures of vacant houses, which struck me as sufficiently different from suburban Minnesota to constitute a legitimate adventure—of course, I’ve since discovered the city’s vibrancy. GHCC called me back after I applied and the next thing I knew, I was on a plane to “Bawlmer.”

Tell us a little bit about your educational background and study abroad experiences. How have they helped you in your VISTA service?

All too often, study abroad is marketed as an opportunity to experience something “foreign.” For me, the most enriching part of the experience was being foreign. You have to develop a comfort level with the fact that you’re different from everyone around you. The unfortunate reality is that many people are unable to acclimate to that environment. I’ve always been sort of odd—even back in Minnesota—so I was never all that upset about being a “gringo.” You learn to not take yourself too seriously and to laugh at all the uncomfortable disconnects.

I say all this simply because there is an extent to which a lot of VISTAs, myself included, are strangers in a strange land. You enter a community you know nothing about and, in the beginning at least, people are not entirely sure what to do with you. I’ve had a lot of fun moving from neighborhood to neighborhood developing a rapport with the residents I met there.

All the clichés about everybody being the same on the inside ring true, but it’s undeniable that there are plenty of quirks between us. Apparently, you Baltimoreans don’t use the word “folks,” as in “how are you folks doin’?” It’s just baffling to me. I’ve enjoyed being a quirky, Nordic oddity and have learned a lot from being here.

Was VISTA your first choice coming out of college? What other options did you consider? How did your family feel about you moving halfway across the country to do a year of service?

As a Political Science major, my first choice was to have someone pay me to just sort of make profound observations about an assortment of topics—turns out that’s not really how it’s done. Always a generalist, I was open to any number of options. In May 2009, the month I graduated, there were a slew of magazine articles harping on the worst job market since post-War Germany, which was certainly…uplifting. VISTA seemed like a good option because it welcomed entry-level applicants at a time when I would have been competing against PhDs to get a job flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

It was also appealing to dedicate myself to something other than just making money. By the time I applied in November 2009, the bailouts were in full swing. The image I was getting of corporate America was of greedy, entitled white dudes who screw up and then rob the American people.  I have since moderated this view and, through the course of my service year, become keenly aware of the importance of the private sector for building vibrant communities.

How did my family react? They were supportive. I think they understood that it was time for me to get out of the Midwest and they were happy to see me doing something worthwhile. My father is known for what you might politely call “dark humor,” so my moving to the city where they filmed The Wire provided no shortage of fodder for one-liners—one-liners, it turns out, many Baltimore natives are not entirely fond of. Several members of my family have been out to visit and they have all come to love this city as I do.

Every VISTA year has its ups and downs. What was the toughest thing you had to go through, and what/who got you through it?

There were several points when I did not feel like I was on the front line, per se. I doubted the importance and impact of what I was doing. Indirect service is necessary work, but it’s not always as gratifying and the results are not always immediately apparent. I had to remind myself that community organizing is a marathon and not a sprint and that every little bit helps.

What accomplishment are you most proud of from your year?

 We’ve set up a series of monthly workshops called the Neighborhood Leaders Forum for community activists. It has been a great way to inform neighborhood leaders about the issues affecting their communities. We have gotten a lot of positive feedback and it looks like they will continue to take place after I leave.

Many GHCC staff members got a chance to appreciate your sense of humor during your tenure here. What memory will make you laugh every time you think of it?

A group of staff and VISTA members ran in a mud run in Rockville, Maryland, dressed in brightly colored, full-body spandex suits we ordered online from a Chinese wholesaler. We were pretty much the most popular people at the race and even got interviewed by the Washington Post. Maybe you saw it. It was in section Z, two pages after the profile of Mrs. Salahi’s hairdresser.

That has nothing to do with combating poverty, but it was the highlight of the year.

Give us the outsider’s perspective—when you moved here, what surprised you most about this city? What do you think is its biggest strength?

What was most surprising for me was seeing the stark racial and socio-economic differences between neighborhoods. I’d never had the experience, before coming here, of walking just one block and finding myself in a completely different world. That said, I love the fact that each neighborhood has such a strong identity. Summers in Baltimore are a blast. Not a weekend goes by without a street fair somewhere in this city and each one puts its neighborhood’s flavor on display.

Baltimore’s biggest strength is its pride and sense of self. People are proud to be from Baltimore, and I can see why. There is a certain tough-luck-kid-chip-on-your-shoulder element to it, but more importantly there’s just no place quite like Baltimore. I like that my neighbors sit on their porch and say hello as I walk by. There is a real sense of community within each neighborhood, even at times when bonds across neighborhood lines are not readily formed.

I hope people don’t take this the wrong way, but above all else I think Baltimore is a great place to be weird. I don’t know that I could ever fully articulate what I mean by that, but I know that I love that about this place.

If you could say just one thing to people starting a year of service, what would it be?

Stick with Natty Boh. Resurrection is delicious, but you’re living in poverty and you need to come to terms with the fact that you can’t afford it. Lay off Chipotle for the same reason.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Building Capacity in Baltimore Schools

Every winter, education advocates across Maryland hit the streets to educate parents and residents on funding cuts on the table for their neighborhood schools.

The Baltimore Education Coalition (BEC) is made up of organizations from across Baltimore City that improve public schools. GHCC was a founding member of the BEC when it formed in 2009, together with organizations like BUILD, Child First Authority, and the ACLU of Maryland.

Jimmy Stuart is an AmeriCorps*VISTA member working in Success Academy, an alternative high school located at the Baltimore City Schools headquarters on North Avenue. As a VISTA, Jimmy is building sustainability in Success Academy’s programs—he sees firsthand how important adequate funding is to maintaining good schools. VISTA guidelines dictate that Jimmy can’t join BEC, but he can help lay the foundation for an active and engaged group of city residents and parents. Today we caught up with Jimmy to ask him about his work.

You’re an AmeriCorps*VISTA member—what does this mean in terms of restrictions on your personal involvement in advocacy efforts?

As a VISTA, I’m prevented from doing anything that ties the VISTA name or image to a political cause. In my project this year, I’m improving the quality and sustainability of programs provided to students at Success Academy, an alternative high school run by Baltimore City Schools. I’m involved with the BEC because funding for schools is directly tied to the goals of my project. In that capacity, I can inform people in the community about how to get involved with this work. I can talk about the BEC, help run meetings, and organize actions. But the actions themselves have to come from BEC members, not me. Simply put, I can tell people how to get to the bus to Annapolis, but I can’t get on the bus myself.

Your role is all about giving others a voice and making sure Baltimore’s citizens are engaged in the legislative process. How does this make you feel at the end of the day? Do you prefer empowering others over being on the front lines, or is it a struggle not to get your hands dirty?

Even if I was doing direct advocacy, the work would be pointless if we weren’t focused on informing others so they know what it means to be advocates for themselves. The need is too great for anyone to do this alone—Baltimore needs a loud, strong voice for our schools. Funding for education affects me, but many other people in this city are closer to the issue than I am. Providing people who are closest to the problem with the information to affect change is going to yield far better results than anything I could do on my own.

Sure, I’ll be disappointed I can’t get on the buses to Annapolis with our community members. But the experience of inspiring people and getting them to that point is something that I’ll carry with me much longer than that momentary disappointment.           

What is your favorite aspect of GHCC’s advocacy work? What have you learned during your tenure here?

What I appreciate most about GHCC’s advocacy work is our awareness of the many different issues affect each other and affect our work. Advocacy often gets broken down into smaller and smaller compartments—you meet people who are passionate about one issue, and one issue only. At GHCC, there’s an understanding that many issues affect our work, and if we want to do our work well, we can’t just plug away on one of them. It all matters.

The quality of our public schools affects us all. Sometimes we think that funding for schools only matters if those schools educate our own children or cut our paychecks. Excellent public schools are critical to building strong and vibrant urban communities. Every family should be excited about sending their children to their neighborhood school. If we want people to invest in this city—to buy and care for a home, to open a quality business, to get involved in their community—we need strong public schools.

Give us a little background on the current education funding crisis and how BEC is trying to help.

It’s an unfortunate fact, but each year school communities are challenged to do more and more with less and less. The state proposes cuts every year, but the cuts this year could be worse than the city has seen in a long time. Not only could the city lose a significant amount of direct funding for schools, but there is a push at the state level to transfer the cost of teacher pensions from the state to local school districts—an incredible expense for city schools to take on.

The state of Maryland is facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall—a hole in state spending that has been plugged up by stimulus money for the last two years. There is going to be enormous pressure within the state legislature to cut spending—including spending for schools—when the budget is introduced in January.
For this coming budget session, the BEC has three goals: to maintain current funding for Baltimore City Public Schools; to get elected officials to develop a comprehensive funding plan for the school facilities improvement plan proposed by the ACLU; and to encourage Baltimore’s delegates to work better together on protecting our schools.  

Tell us a little bit about the advocacy training on Thursday. What do you hope people will come away with?

The event on Thursday is a workshop and action. We have targeted key leaders in our school communities to attend the event. We hope to provide them with a clear sense of the potential funding crisis, and to collaborate on how to get people from our communities involved in preventing cuts and improving school facilities. The event will also be an opportunity to celebrate our schools and to get people fired up about our work.

The pressure to cut funding is going to be very strong this year, and those cuts could be devastating for our public schools. I hope people walk away with a sense of hopeful urgency—that it can be done, but it will require all the strength we can muster to do it.

If you are interested in attending the workshop and action at Digital Harbor High School this Thursday, or learning more about the work of the Baltimore Education Coalition, please contact Jimmy at 410.929.3657 or 

Monday, December 13, 2010

Planting Trees in Barclay

It may feel chilly (or downright cold!) outside today, and you may find it hard to imagine yourself enjoying the outdoors, but only a month ago the sun was shining on a group of volunteers who were just delighted to be out planting new trees in the Barclay neighborhood. Telesis Corporation, along with a multitude of community partners, led a tree planting in Calvert Street Park on November 13. Annie Jamieson, a project manager with Telesis, was kind enough to send us some thoughts on her experience planting trees in Barclay.

What is your position with Telesis? Can you briefly describe Telesis' relationship with the Barclay neighborhood?

I’ve been a project manager at Telesis Corporation for the past year. In addition to Baltimore, I’m working on affordable housing projects in Pittsburgh, PA and Newark, NJ.

In January 2006, Telesis was selected by Baltimore Housing and members of the community to lead the revitalization effort for the Barclay/Old Goucher neighborhood. Since then, Telesis has participated in an extensive planning process with community residents, neighborhood organizations, local developers, social service providers, city officials, local foundations, and potential funding partners. Telesis’ vision for Barclay is a stable, healthy, safe, equitable, and livable neighborhood with quality open spaces, community facilities, and employment opportunities.

In June 2010, we began construction on the first phase of the redevelopment plan. This phase includes 72 rental units, eight of which overlook Calvert Street Park; and 30-35 homeownership units, the first 20 of which are directly adjacent to or just to the north of the park.

Why was this tree planting important to Telesis?

Beginning in 2006, the Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) and Landscape Architect Liling Tien of Pela Design worked with community residents and groups to create a landscape design for Calvert Street Park. The park is a focal point in the neighborhood and offers an exceptional opportunity to realize many of our redevelopment goals while creating a beautiful environment for residents.

While Telesis is, at its core, a housing developer, we believe a successful and stable community includes not only housing, but beautiful streetscapes and places for residents to enjoy the outdoors. Utilizing the NDC design to plant trees in the park and nearby street tree pits was a simple way to make a great impact in the neighborhood.

Planting new trees not only increases the neighborhood’s tree canopy, but aids in storm-water management, creates a healthier living environment, provides opportunities for local residents to get involved, and answers the community’s desire to improve the park.

How many trees did you plant, and where? Who participated?

We planted a total of 39 native trees in Calvert Street Park and empty street pits in the blocks surrounding the park.

In addition to planting new trees, neighborhood children planted 60 bulbs in the park with the help of our landscape architect, Sharon Bradley. Our contractor, Southway Builders, Inc. also donated their time and removed three invasive shrubs in the park.

15 Cub Scouts from Pack 725 and their parents, community residents, TreeBaltimore, Neighborhood Design Center, GHCC, and Telesis all came out to volunteer.

Photo montage assembled by Lowell Larson

Besides just planting trees, what do you think you accomplished this weekend?

While it’s clear that the new trees make Barclay more beautiful, what is most important is that the community was involved. While Telesis and our partners continue to revitalize this neighborhood, small accomplishments along the way, like planting trees, signify progress and growth and let the community see firsthand how their neighborhood is transforming.

In an urban environment, where most children do not have regular access to back yards and playing fields, it was wonderful to see children outside using shovels and wheelbarrows on a beautiful fall day. Neighborhood children learned the difference between soil and mulch, how to plant daffodil bulbs, and helped to dig holes for trees they can watch grow over the years.

Street trees were planted and quickly watered by eager residents who filled up buckets from their kitchens. Residents promised to water and look after the new trees on their blocks. One store owner came out of his café, extremely happy that new trees would soon grace his sidewalk, and thanked us and agreed to water the trees.

The simple “thank yous” and promises to care for the trees brought the neighborhood together and fostered a sense of community pride.

What did you feel best about at the end of the day?

At the end of the day, I felt best about the fact that the children from this urban community got to experience planting a tree. Standing on top of the mulch pile, shovel in hand, one child said, “My mom is going to be so proud of me. I’ve never planted a tree and I’ve never done community service before.” The children finished the day with dirty hands and jeans and learned all about trees—why their roots need room to grow, why we needed to add compost and why mulch should not touch the tree trunk. It was great to know that we had exposed the children to something new that they could return to and take pride in after many years.

How much time had you spent in Barclay before the tree planting? Did you learn anything new about the neighborhood while you were planting trees this weekend?

My time in the Barclay neighborhood was pretty limited before the tree planting. I worked for Telesis from 2006-2007 and took part in the first community design meeting. That was a powerful event because the community really had the chance to think about how they could have a voice in the neighborhood transformation. Now that I’m back at Telesis, I’ve been to the neighborhood to photograph our properties and attend our groundbreaking ceremony this past June.

It’s always good to be in the neighborhood—it’s a very welcoming place!

Any other thoughts you'd like to share?

I’d like to thank many of the people and organizations who helped make this event successful: Hieu Truong from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, Kristen Humphrey from the Neighborhood Design Center, Liling Tien from P.E.L.A Design, Inc., Greater Homewood Community Corporation, Anne Draddy and Charlie Murphy from TreeBaltimore, Sharon Bradley from Bradley Site Design, Inc., Peter Merles from Midtown Community Benefits District, Southway Builders, Inc., Tree-Mendous Maryland, Hollins Organic Products, Inc., Charles Village Community Benefits District, Cub Scout Pack 725 and their families, and all the community members!

A special thank you is also in order for Peter Duvall of GHCC who put an incredible amount of time and effort into this community event!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Donor Voices: Connie Smith

It's that time of year again: we're all receiving a deluge of fundraising appeals in our mailboxes, and here at GHCC we're sending out our fair share as well. As the holidays grow nearer and life becomes more hectic, sometimes it's important to reflect on why it means so much for us to give.

Recently, Greater Homewood Voices caught up with someone who knows exactly what it means to support a cause she believes in: loyal GHCC donor (and staff parent!) Connie Smith. Almost a year ago her son Tyson, GHCC's Director of Administration, shared his journey from Utah to Greater Homewood. Recently, Connie and her husband David made a journey of their own to attend GHCC's Annual Celebration & Volunteer Recognition event on November 9. Here, she shares some reflections on the event, giving to GHCC, and finally meeting Tyson's GHCC family.

GHCC's Annual Celebration & Volunteer Recognition
November 9, 2010
L to R: Connie Smith, Tyson Smith, Neal Gary, David Smith
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Why do you think it’s important to support non-profit causes you believe in?

I have lived the vast majority of my life in Sandy, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. I taught second grade for five years before I had children. I now have four sons, two daughters-in-law, and one adorable grandson, with another grandchild on the way in the spring. I loved my time as a teacher and spent many years volunteering in my children's classrooms. My husband is also an educator: he was a teacher, spent 20 years as an elementary school principal, and now he works for the Utah State Office of Education.

I have always felt very blessed in my life in many ways, not the least of which is that I was able to stay home while I had children growing up in my home. I have always tried to express gratitude for my many blessings by helping others less fortunate than myself. Through service to others I find great joy and a sense of well being, as well as increased gratitude for all I have. I have learned a whole lot about the non-profit world since Tyson got his job at GHCC and have been very pleased to be able to donate to such a worthy cause for the last few years.

You became a donor in 2007 when your son Tyson moved to Baltimore from Utah and joined our staff. What makes you glad he found us at GHCC?

I am thrilled about Tyson's chance to be involved in the great work at GHCC. None of us had any idea what lay ahead for Tyson when he left Utah in February 2007 and headed back east to Baltimore—all we knew was that he was planning to pursue professional acting. Now I realize there was a reason he went to Baltimore and I believe it has to do with his being hired by GHCC. Of course, being from Utah, none of us were very familiar with much about Baltimore or any of the large eastern cities. Tyson told me early on that he felt Baltimore faced more extreme challenges than many other cities did. He was quite surprised by many of the things he learned after his arrival. He is now able to work in a place where he can really make a difference and improve many lives, and that makes me very happy and grateful. I believe he is right where he is supposed to be at this time.

You flew out from Salt Lake City to attend our Annual Celebration. What was your favorite aspect of the evening? What inspired you the most?

I thoroughly enjoyed the Annual Celebration—I thought it went perfectly. It was wonderful to be able to put a lot of GHCC names to faces after hearing so much about them. My husband and I were so impressed with the mayor’s keynote address and her vision for Baltimore. It was also a lot of fun for us to see Neal's boss in that context (he works in the mayor’s office). The new Vacants to Value program she spoke about was very inspiring. I also really loved learning about all the awards that were presented.

My very favorite part of the evening was the three people who spoke from their personal experiences: the Experience Corps member, the school principal, and the adult literacy learner. They were so enlightening and inspiring to hear. These are people who have literally had their lives changed through GHCC’s work and are now helping to improve others’ lives. I could have listened to those kinds of stories all night long!

What is your favorite GHCC program?

I have been learning more and more over the past few years and everything new I learn just makes me appreciate even more all the good work that GHCC is doing. There is such a variety of programs reaching out to so many different types of people: children, adults, low-income, new move-ins, people who need to learn English, etc. I think that is so exciting. I have also thoroughly enjoyed learning about the VISTA program which I had not heard of before. I have loved reading the VISTA members’ inspiring stories on GHCC’s blog.

If I had to single out one favorite program, I would choose GHCC’s work in the public schools. Being a former teacher who raised four children, all of whom did very well in public schools and got a great start on their college educations, I understand how important a good education is for everyone. All children deserve excellent teachers who love to work with children and well-run schools with ample support from the community. I have heard a lot about the impact GHCC has on Baltimore City public schools and I am so impressed by that.

As one of GHCC’s long-distance friends, how do you keep up to date and stay in touch?

Of course, Tyson is my main source of connection to GHCC. He tries to keep me in the loop with the big things, but being on the mailing list for the past several months for Greater Homewood Voices and the GHCC Digest has been so eye-opening for me. I have learned so much and have really enjoyed reading the personal and very inspiring stories from so many individuals. On our recent trip to Baltimore Tyson drove us around a bit and showed us some Greater Homewood neighborhoods. We were able to see the 33rd Street mural and the Senator Theatre, which we brought home on a lovely hand-signed poster from [Baltimore cartoonist] Tom Chalkley.

If you could say just one thing to potential donors, what would it be?

If you are looking for a way to make a difference and know that your money will go a long way and be very well spent, GHCC is a great organization to consider!