St. Mary's College of Maryland

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Lee Capristo, editor
The Mulberry Tree
Phone: (240) 895-4795
18952 East Fisher Road
St. Mary's City, MD 20686

A Matter of Choice

Written by Anne Grulich, Editor

As Maryland looks back on 375 years of history, three 2009 graduates are influencing Maryland's future-from the ground up-by striking out on a path less traveled during tough economic times.

Baltimore is rich in history, long on promise, and ever on the verge of coming back. Paige Spencer chooses to be part of Baltimore's efforts this year by working as a Choice community service learning fellow. Paige studied gender and history at St. Mary's, but now she's experiencing it first hand, "the real deal," as she calls it. She works in the shadow of the Union Baptist Church on Druid Hill Avenue where a 19th-century leader she researched for her St. Mary's Project was pastor. And, yes, her mother worries about her every time she's out ‘night tracking.'

Paige Spencer '09Michele Hughes '09Candy Andrews-Powley '09

Michele Hughes works with Choice in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She is a magna cum laude alum with a degree in English. Michele chose Choice because she wanted to spend the majority of her time working with youth hands-on in their homes, communities, schools, and courthouses rather than sit behind a desk.

Candace Andrews-Powley is a Choice fellow in Prince Georges County. Candy majored and minored in Latin American Studies and African and African Diaspora Studies here at St. Mary’s. She sees Choice as foundational to her career in family law advocating for youth and families in Maryland’s urban areas.

So… what exactly does this Choice entail? And why undertake such a challenging position fresh out of college? The Shriver Center’s Choice Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, applies a community-based, family-centered case management approach to delinquency prevention and Choice caseworkers from the Prince George's County Office are, left to right: Patrick Burden, Candy Andrews-Powley, Shana Bernabela. Back row: Tamika Dubbinsyouth development. Choice works to serve youth and families in their communities avoiding expensive and disruptive stays in detention facilities. In conjunction with AmeriCorps, Choice community service fellows (caseworkers) earn a living allowance, healthcare benefits, and an AmeriCorps Education Award during a year of service working with youth involved in the juvenile justice system. It is an innovative way to put theory into practice, make a living, change someone’s world, and start a career—especially when the job market is so tight and need is so great on both sides of the equation.

Choice is never easy. Optimally, there are teams of three staff workers for 30 children. Fellows work all week and every third weekend. And every third day they ‘night track.’ That’s when individual caseworkers visit their clients at home to talk and reconnect with them, and then fill in their team mates with a rundown about each encounter the next morning. “Sometimes I sleep like a brick, just pass out from exhaustion; sometimes I have haunting dreams or stay up thinking,” says Spencer. “The neighborhood grandmothers watch that I make it safely. When my wallet fell out of the side pocket of my car door one night, neighbors called and returned it to me."

No two days are the same. "My day usually starts at 9 a.m. and can end either at 5:30 or 11:00 p.m. I may go to work thinking I will be writing reports and doing some community service, but as soon as I walk in the door I mayhave to go to a probation officer meeting, go on a cultural activity, or have some intervention meeting between a parent and a client," explains Andrews-Powley.

These three recent grads are already active resource brokers and advocates. They connect troubled youths and their families with solutions. "Choice is unlike any job I've ever had. I've been here for only three months but I feel like I've gained years of experience," explains Hughes. "A bad day is when you hit roadblocks and can't get anyone to call back on solutions you're working on. One young man is all set to go to a good high school this fall, but it's all the way across town. He'd have to get up at 5:00 a.m. and make his way somehow." Spencer is working to change his placement. "It's not just as simple as a phone call in Baltimore. You get a case number, fax in the form: you may or may not get a Candy Andrews-Powley '09 fax in return. You hit these walls. The people on the other end may file the paperwork, but then there's nothing beyond that but dead ends. Kids and families can't figure out these Byzantine systems. Where can we put a finger in the wheel of constant cycling and get it to stop?" Spencer asks.

These three graduates chose Choice independently, for different reasons, and have opened doors to perhaps very different careers, but they'll always share this foundational year serving Maryland's youth. They are finding out how the world works from both sides. "In an ideal world we wouldn't need Choice (help from the ground up); social services would work. Top down would be the optimal solution, but right now, ground up is needed," posits Spencer.