For 30 years, The Choice Program at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County has supported Baltimore City youth, including those facing poverty. Each year, about 50 AmeriCorps volunteers also help out to find community solutions with families.
BALTIMORE – The drive to Southwest Baltimore takes about 20 minutes on this early evening, as downtown streets become congested following a steam pipe explosion that sent emergency vehicles into the streets.
Shay Couch-Murray, an AmeriCorps education volunteer with The Choice Program at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), maneuvers her gray Hyundai sedan by a police roadblock and takes a detour, passing the Orioles baseball park of Camden Yards.
Her work with students, parents and school officials is part of a youth engagement process by Choice Program AmeriCorps Community Service Learning Fellows, as the 50 or so volunteers who help yearly are formally known. The fellows, who are called members by the AmeriCorps service program, in the Choice education initiative assist students by serving as a bridge between school officials and families. The goal is to cut down on suspensions, expulsions and arrests.
The 30-year-old Black woman from the Bronx is heading to this city’s Lakeland neighborhood to support youth and families with home visits.
On this humid day, she passes modest two-story brick houses in this low-income neighborhood that is home to predominantly Black and Latino families.
“It’s not about ‘helping,’” says Shay, who almost always goes by her first name. “It’s about supporting – giving people the means for them to do something on their own.”
The Choice Program at UMBC started in the late 1980s as The Choice Intensive Advocacy Program. Mark Shriver, son of anti-poverty leaders Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, launched The Choice Program after realizing that incarceration was affecting, in particular, youth of color and families in this city.
Shriver structured the program so that community solutions could be found as alternatives to incarcerating city youth.
Since its founding, The Choice Program has grown to include advocacy partnerships with the Maryland state Department of Juvenile Services, Baltimore City Department of Social Services and Baltimore City Public Schools.
Baltimore youth participate in The Choice Program after school administrators, support teams of teachers and counselors, or city and state officials make referrals. Students in The Choice Education Program, for example, might be facing behavior, emotional well-being or attendance issues in the classroom.
Woven into this work is the grinding instability of poverty that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, affects at least 1 out of every 5 residents in this city of about 614,700 people.
Given the prevalence of poverty, says Choice Program Director LaMar Davis, one of the first questions AmeriCorps volunteers in the schools are encouraged to ask youth is: “Did you eat today?”
“Our kids have complex lives,” he says. “What happens at home affects school.”
Nationwide, families and community advocates – including youth – also are continuing efforts to end the “School-to-Prison” pipeline. That pipeline, families and advocates say, revolves around what they view as overly punitive school disciplinary measures that disproportionately affect Black and Latino students.
AmeriCorps volunteers such as Shay, and The Choice Program staff, view themselves as part of this nationwide movement to reduce incarceration in communities of color, especially in low-income neighborhoods.
But what do those efforts look like? How is community progress accomplished?
In many ways, these efforts mean finding committed people to:
- Drive a car through a police detour at the end of a long work day to listen to youth and parents.
- Work at schools during the day and make evening home visits to build trust and communicate with youth, parents, teachers, administrators and authorities.
- Cheer on a student at a school awards ceremony because her parents work minimum wage jobs and can’t afford to leave.
- Inform parents and youth of school policies and procedures that lead to an official suspension or expulsion.
- Answer late-night calls on an old-school flip phone to support youth with urgent questions.
It also means being willing to work up to 60 hours per week – and often on holidays – with families to take small steps and find pathways for progress in the face of the trauma that poverty can bring.
Shay might walk outside a classroom or play basketball with a student for a few minutes, instead of having a teacher send a youth directly to the principal’s office for a behavior infraction.
“Our goal is to get them back to the classroom within 15 minutes,” Davis says.
“We’re planting seeds, and those seeds are for belief and hope. Belief in self and family. Belief in community. And belief that youth can navigate the complexities of the world.”
Shay’s gray sedan rolls up to the park in Lakeland, a neighborhood some residents say is isolated because a highway cuts through it. The neighborhood has a fast-food chicken restaurant, a doughnut shop and an independent supermarket.
During the day, when classes are in session, Shay and another AmeriCorps volunteer assist students at Lakeland Elementary/Middle School. On this early evening, Shay looks out her car window and spots young people from the school.
As she exits her car, kids run up the park’s slight slope. “Miss Shay! Miss Shay!” they yell. She clasps hands and offers hugs.
“You good?” she asks in a reassuring and welcoming way, as she makes her way to outdoor basketball courts.
Basketballs fly in the air as a group of boys and young men try to sink shots. One boy pedals his bicycle, circling the courts. A few kids sit on cement blocks near sloping grass.
Shay carries the demeanor of an older cousin – one who believes in face-to-face conversations, non-judgmental support and simply being present, as much as possible, whenever a question surfaces.
She calls 14-year-old David over to talk about what he has learned over the year by working with her and previous AmeriCorps volunteers.
David once confided to her that he has difficulty in getting to school on time, and questioned whether classroom studies were for him. He thought all he needed, at his age, was a job.
Shay encouraged him to stay in school, saying small steps can lead to major accomplishments. Tonight, her presence at the park seems to reassure him.
“She keeps me out of trouble. She tells me to keep my grades up. She doesn’t yell,” David, who is Black, says. “You don’t get people like that that often. You need to keep her around.”
AmeriCorps volunteers such as Shay only spend a year with The Choice Program at UMBC. But it’s these frequent, small interactions with youth over that year that volunteers and program organizers hope will build trust and contribute to the larger goal of disrupting suspensions, expulsions and arrests.
Parents offer guidance and support. But poverty and trauma remain powerful factors affecting Baltimore City families, Davis says. Some studies, he notes, now consider racism to be a form of trauma.
Many low-income families in the area, he says, are “keeping their heads above water.” While the work of AmeriCorps volunteers with The Choice Program is worthwhile, the long hours make it difficult for people to serve a second year.
At the park, David pauses to reflect on how he has grown with Shay as a mentor. “She tells me the people who are bad, don’t keep them around. Only keep the good people around. She made me a better leader,” he says.
“It’s about mutual respect. I’m here to guide them,” Shay says. “There’s a beautiful relationship where you can ask: ‘Did you do your homework?’”
Around 7 p.m., a boy dribbling a basketball approaches Shay, who is wearing a black polo shirt and gray pants. Her aviator sunglasses are perched on her short hair.
“Hey, Miss Shay, you want to go 1-on-1?”
“What do you go to? Seven?”
The New York City native drops her sunglasses on the court. She folds her body to the height of the boy. The game is on.
As she plays basketball, Dorrion, another Black youth, stops to talk about working with her for the past school year. His demeanor can seem serious to those who don’t know him well.
“I can relate to her. We grew up in the same circumstances,” he says of Shay, who is Black and earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Morgan State University. “She is blunt, but she cares.”
Shay says later that Dorrion can be a quiet teen but his seriousness disappears as he gets to know a person.
If she and other AmeriCorps volunteers weren’t around to offer support, where do Dorrion and David think they’d be?
“I’d probably be in the streets, doing stuff,” Dorrion, 14, says quietly, with no other youth nearby.
David also appreciates Shay’s efforts. Without her support, “I’d be getting bad grades. I’d be repeating the eighth grade,” he says.
One way David knows he has grown as a teenager is that he now tells younger kids in the neighborhood to stick with good people and avoid troublemakers – the same message Shay shares with him.
As David thinks about that idea, the serious expression on his 14-year-old face disappears. A wide smile quickly replaces it.
Before Shay leaves the park, she turns to Dorrion and reminds him of a work and mentorship opportunity offered by The Choice Program in partnership with Starbucks.
“Tomorrow, you have job training, and wear that shirt,” she says, before turning to more kids.
“Y’all be safe.”
The low-income Baltimore neighborhoods in which AmeriCorps volunteers with The Choice Program work have prompted some leaders in the city to suggest that the outreach workers wear bullet-proof vests for safety during community visits.
Davis, an articulate administrator who is White, observes: “How can you be part of the community if you’re wearing a flak jacket?”
Neighborhood visits can last late into the evening, when parents are home from work to shed light on a question that a school principal or teacher may have asked.
Pamela Hall, Dorrion’s mom, is standing in the doorway of her two-story brick house. A U.S. flag hangs nearby. She talks honestly about her son’s behavioral issues at school. Things improved after Shay showed up, she says, and served as a mentor to her son.
“Dorrion was more receptive to Miss Shay,” Hall says. “Miss Shay will come over and tell me if something is going on. She made me feel comfortable.”
Shay also speaks directly about race and being Black in America with the youth: “I ask them, ‘What does it mean to be a young Black male?’”
Conversations with the youth can hit walls, or it may take longer than expected for the meaning and lesson to sink in. Shay says some youth are dealing with attention deficit disorder. But breakthroughs are memorable.
One day, she recalls, Dorrion shared that he wants to be a NASA engineer when he grows up. Shay, Dorrion and another youth piled into her car and made the 60-minute drive southwest to Washington, D.C.
There, they toured the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to see what humans have sent into the sky.
Another time, she and other Baltimore youth traveled to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture to learn about Black leaders such as Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington and Chuck Berry.
Shay has taken neighborhood youth for archery lessons, where they learned about the body positioning necessary for arrows to fly properly. At first, the youth dismissed archery as “phony,” she says, but they ended up loving the experience.
“It gives the kids something else to do,” says Dexter Harris, David’s dad. “Inner-city kids don’t get to see a lot of that.”
Davis adds that The Choice Program’s overall partnership with Lakeland Elementary/Middle School has improved test results campus-wide.
By about 8:50 p.m., after a day of work and attending a community art unveiling at the Baltimore Police Department Headquarters, Shay sits in her car and fills out a form describing her work in Lakeland.
Before she returns to downtown Baltimore, she shares why she values this work. She says she identifies with the neighborhood kids: She grew up in a poor part of the Bronx. Her mom and grandmother raised her.
“Education is the key to everything,” she says. “The program teaches kids to dream beyond themselves, beyond Lakeland and beyond Baltimore. Sometimes, you need someone to validate your dreams.”
This fall, Shay is back at Morgan State University. She is pursuing her master’s degree in social work.
A new group of AmeriCorps volunteers, Davis confirms, is already showing up in Baltimore City neighborhoods to listen to families and offer support.
Brad Wong is news editor for Marguerite Casey Foundation‘s Equal Voice News. All original and contracted Equal Voice News content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.
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