The Way I See It: Volunteerism is 'Heartbeat' of University By Steve Libowitz Vernon Rice would rather nobody made too big of a fuss about his volunteer work. But it's exactly that, and the people he touches, that makes me want to make a fuss. Vernon is Homewood's lone auto mechanic, maintaining the 75 vehicles and 18 golf carts that service the campus. Every day for the past 20 years, after his 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, he drives to St. Anthony's Church in Gardenville. There, he picks up anywhere from five to 15 messages from people in the neighborhood who need food or help keeping their electricity from getting shut off or from getting evicted from their apartment. After sorting through the requests, Vernon goes out and helps. At a time when most churches and other community organizations are getting out of the house-to-house service business, Vernon presses on. From 4 to 5 every afternoon, he takes food, which has been donated to the church, and delivers it to those who need it most. Or he writes them a check for food or one to the landlord or a utility company to help keep people stable and warm. He laughs when asked if the neighbors love him, saying he thinks they probably appreciate him. But he turns serious when asked why he does it. Times are getting harder, and people are getting more desperate, Vernon says. Sometimes people want more than he has to give. But he keeps doing it because each week he knows his work helps at least one person who really needs it. Vernon's volunteerism is special, but not unique at Hopkins, and that's what is so amazing. At a university of more than 7,000 extremely busy faculty and staff and 16,000 driven students, volunteerism thrives. More often, our public service is driven as much by the communities that look to Hopkins for help. And more and more, the Hopkins family steps up to provide it. One example is the Safe and Smart Center, scheduled to open in early January. Neighbors in Waverly, a neighborhood just east of the Homewood campus, wanted to establish a community center that would provide kids with a place to go and learn after school. Bill Tiefenwerth, director of the Office of Volunteer Services for students, jumped on the idea and joined forces with Annie Kronk's Office of State and Local Affairs, Baltimore's Mayor Kurt Schmoke, the Baltimore Police Department and various community associations. The result is that a space was found. The landlord is paying the expenses of renovating the space as a community center, and students at Hopkins will manage it at no cost to the university. More than 500 students each semester, about 10 percent above the national average, volunteer for projects, such as the one-on-one Tutorial Project, the largest and longest running project on the Homewood campus. Bill Tiefenwerth thinks management may be one key to successful student volunteerism at Hopkins. He encourages them to either take over volunteer projects, or suggest one and then manage it. Last year, for example, Hopkins junior Matt Boulay created Teach Baltimore, a program in which more than 30 students at three area universities helped more than 175 inner-city students prepare for the mathematics, reading and writing components of the Maryland Functional Examinations. Two years before that, two graduating pre-med students felt that Hopkins should help show urban youth that college is a possibility for them. They started Project Outreach, which thrives well beyond their initial efforts. There are dozens and dozens of similar stories, of faculty and staff and students who somehow find the time--make the time-- to help others. As we approach the holiday season, it's important to make time for ourselves, our staffs and students, to roll up our sleeves and be neighborly. While the Johns Hopkins Initiative to raise $900 million will be our lifeblood for the foreseeable future, community involvement--volunteerism--will surely be our heartbeat. The way I see it will be a regular column in the Gazette, providing a first-person forum for upbeat observations and comments on the Hopkins culture and environment. Faculty, students and staff are encouraged to submit ideas for this feature, but the editors reserve the right to determine which commentaries appear. For more information and guidelines, contact the editor at the office of the Gazette.
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