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A Pledge to Serve

City Year Students Lend Help to the District

You may have heard the commotion from Upper Senate Park last Friday afternoon. You might have seen the lines of people in matching uniforms, enthusiastically chanting and cheering at innocent passersby.

In case you were wondering, it was not a high school pep squad competition.

Friday marked the fifth anniversary of City Year Washington, D.C., a program that brings young people from all walks of life together for a year of service in the community. The newest class of City Year D.C. members pledged to give a year of service to the Washington, D.C., community during Friday’s ceremony.

City Year, a national program and member of AmeriCorps, aims to “demonstrate, improve, and promote the concept of national service as a means of building a stronger democracy.” Launched in Boston in 1988, the organization now has 14 sites around the country, including the five-year-old Washington initiative.

Corps members range in age from 17 to 24, and include everyone from suburban college graduates to inner-city GED candidates looking to serve their communities. Following a month of orientation and basic training, participants take a pledge, committing themselves to a year of community service.

Before beginning their service projects each morning, members dress in their uniforms — khaki pants, white shirts, Timberland work boots and signature red coats, all donated by Timberland — in each of the 14 City Year sites across the country, and participate in physical training. The scene resembles a less intense military line-up, with more gaiety.

Corps members receive a modest stipend for living expenses and must secure their own housing, though the program offers resources to help them search for living space.

Participants have a variety of reasons for joining City Year D.C. Sunmer Davis, a 21-year-old D.C. native, went to college in Pennsylvania and graduated last May.

“I went away to school, so I wanted to give something back to my community,” he explained. Davis plans to become a teacher, so he chose to participate in the CYCLE (City Year’s campaign for literacy education) program.

D.C. native Kenneth Hodges, 23, wants to give back to the community as well, but he has an additional motive in mind. After fulfilling the yearlong commitment, participants receive a $4,725 education award. Hodges will use his award toward tuition at the University of the District of Columbia to study early childhood development.

The D.C. program has 50 members split into five service teams, two of which are new this year. Only a year ago, however, AmeriCorps funding cuts from Congress forced the D.C. corps down to 36 members. The numbers are back up this year, but D.C. Executive Director Chris Murphy sounded hesitant.

“Our funding is restored this year, but it’s something that we fight for constantly. We don’t take it for granted,” said Murphy, an alum of City Year’s 1988 pilot program in Boston. Murphy left his job at a D.C. law firm five years ago to lead the City Year D.C. initiative.

While Murphy expressed cautious optimism, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who attended last week’s ceremony, seemed confident.

“I think the fact that they got increased funding this year and rallied Congress sent a message to the administration and Republicans in Congress: Don’t mess with this program,” Norton said.

Despite last year’s economic hardships, members will participate in two new projects this year — the CYCLE team and the HOPE team (HIV outreach, prevention, and education). In addition to the new programs, corps members will participate in three original programs, including a civic engagement team that organizes community projects, the young heroes team to engage middle school students in community service, and the DECYDE team, a drug education initiative for middle school students.

Service projects differ in each of the 14 City Year sites, depending on the needs of each specific community. Norton expressed gratitude to City Year for helping to meet the needs of the Washington, D.C., community.

“One program I particularly value is one that’s being added this year, the HIV/AIDS program,” Norton said. “We have the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the country.” She added that the youth of the City Year participants help influence and impact young people in D.C.