Twenty-five Hopkins undergraduates made their mark in Baltimore last summer, through a new internship program that immerses them in work with urban nonprofit and government agencies. The Community Impact Internships are all about encouraging students to roll up their sleeves and make a difference in the city. In the stories that follow, four of those interns tell how much they've gained by giving back.
By Mary K. Zajac
Photography by Mike Ciesielski
With its pastel-striped paint job and dusty vinyl seats, the Baltimore City Public Health Department’s Needle Exchange van feels more like a camper you’d take to a state park than a pioneering site for HIV research and prevention.
Inside, the air conditioning runs full blast, the white noise of the fan all but obscuring the retro rhythm and blues songs on the radio. Outside, several men and women carrying plastic bags linger near the unmarked van, parked as it is every Monday morning next to the Monroe Street United Methodist Church. Across the street sits a string of rowhouses whose front sidewalks are littered with weeds, a pile of old tires, a baby carriage—the everyday urban detritus that makes this patch of Southwest Baltimore look no different than any of the city’s other underserved neighborhoods.
Three days a week, the staff of the Health Department’s Community Risk Reduction Services Program visits this corner at the intersection of Monroe and Ramsay streets. Inside the program’s van, they meet with people addicted to drugs injected intravenously to offer free HIV testing, distribute Harm Reduction Kits, and exchange clean needles for used ones. On Mondays, Johns Hopkins senior Anita Ram is on board.
Dressed casually but neatly, in jeans and a light blue T-shirt celebrating “JHU President’s Day of Service, 10.02.10,” Ram looks every inch a 21-year-old, yet her maturity sets her apart. With an easy smile, she greets clients who enter the van one at a time and records their personal information, before asking how many needles they have to exchange and whether they want long or short syringes.
As an intern with the Health Department’s Needle Exchange Program, Anita Ram worked hard to gain the trust of Baltimore’s intravenous drug users.
When a man with pale blue eyes and a navy bandanna reports police seizing his clean needles and ID card, she asks if he would like to participate in a Health Department survey designed to track clients' interactions with law enforcement. When another young man, obviously high, agitated, and with an open wound on his shin, insists that he's found information on the Internet that says distributing clean needles is illegal, Ram listens closely and gently corrects him before exchanging the 100 needles he's brought in.
“Thanks. See you Wednesday,” he says, as he leaves.
In operation since 1994, the Needle Exchange Program has been instrumental in lowering the number of new HIV infections related to intravenous drug use from 650 reported cases in Baltimore in 1994 to 177 new cases in 2010. The program, the only confidential syringe exchange program in the nation, has also distributed more than 9 million clean needles and collected more than 10 million contaminated needles to be safely destroyed. Ram is clearly proud of the program's success, and during lulls between clients, she talks animatedly about a needle exchange program in Washington, D.C., and another she read about in a New York Times article.
Any way you look at it, Ram is an accomplished student. A public health major from Columbia, Maryland, she is one of the co-presidents of Johns Hopkins' Women's Pre-health Leadership Society, has volunteered at the Baltimore Rescue Mission clinic for homeless men, and spent last summer in Chennai, India, the city where her parents grew up, helping to organize an outreach camp and educate parents about child nutrition. (After the conclusion of her internship, Ram returned to India through a Provost's Undergraduate Research Award (PURA) grant to study the increasing prevalence of obesity in Chennai.) She plans to attend medical school after taking a year off.
Ram says she was motivated to apply for her Community Impact Internship because she felt that living on campus was a bit like living in a bubble. She wanted to learn more about the city, she says, and the position with Community Risk Reduction Services felt like a natural choice because of its focus on epidemiology and community health, two areas in which Ram has a keen interest.
“I probably learned more [about Baltimore] in one and a half weeks than in three years in living here … [there are so many] social issues I had a blind eye toward,” she says.
Along with spending time at Monroe and Ramsay streets, Ram travels once a week on the van that visits the Block, the Red Light District on Baltimore Street where prostitution and strip clubs prevail. She's found that clients here are eager to take advantage of the many services—including distribution of birth control and other reproductive health services—that the mobile unit has to offer.
Ram is also actively involved in the “Aligning Law Enforcement and HIV Prevention in Baltimore City” study sponsored by the Bloomberg School of Public Health, which focuses on police attitudes and beliefs about needle exchange via a two-pronged survey of Needle Exchange clients and police officers who receive harm reduction training from BCHD staff. Ram, who conducts client surveys in the van, is quick to point out the need for abundant listening and patience. “You can't just go out in the community and say, ‘Hey tell me about your issues,'” she says. “You have to gain people's trust.”
Chris Serio-Chapman, director of Community Risk Reduction Services, describes Ram as having “an eagerness and a desire to change the world.”
“It's specific to Anita,” she says. “She is not numb. She is like ‘Good gosh, we have to do something about that!'
“She reminds us about what is important,” says Serio-Chapman. “You forget after 17 years of doing this.”
At Edgecombe Circle Elementary, a stone's throw from Sinai Hospital in Northwest Baltimore, Johns Hopkins sophomore Frank Molina leads a group of rising fifth‑ graders in a round‑robin reading of Joyce Hansen's The Gift‑Giver.
An intern with the Higher Achievement Program, Molina is assisting with the program's Summer Academy. The classroom has no air conditioning, and is so warm and dark that even the fish are sluggish in their murky aquarium, but the students willingly read aloud. Some falter, stumbling over simple contractions like “it's,” while others add swagger and emotion to the passages that capture the conversations of the young people in the book.
Afterward, Molina leads an animated discussion. Waving their raised hands, the students are as eager to answer questions about the chapter as they are to ask Molina about the dagger‑like earrings he wears in each ear—questions he answers good‑naturedly at the end of class, much to their delight.
“Please,” pleads a boy in madras shorts with his hand stretched into the air after Molina asks about a character's motivation. “I know!”
Molina gives the student his chance but also tries to include students who aren't waving their hands and never misses a beat when a girl in a dark T‑shirt corrects him on the pronunciation of her name. He mimes tugging a rope when another girl, pink beads threaded on her braids, struggles to answer a question. “I'm going to pull that idea out of you,” he gently teases. “I know you have an idea in you.”
After class, Molina, a sociology and public health major from San Francisco, rolls o the list of things he's learned from five weeks of Summer Academy: to multitask, to be prepared for anything, to find the confidence to get in front of a class and teach.
Infectious enthusiasm: Frank Molina found that teaching Baltimore middle schoolers gave him a “new outlook” on life. “I can see myself being a teacher. And I had never thought of that.”
“Initially I wanted to see what it was like to work in a nonprofit,” Molina says about his motivation for choosing Higher Achievement, which offers enrichment programs to at‑risk middle school students. “I couldn't have asked for a better placement for myself.
“I'm in love with this place. It's awesome.”
Prior to his internship, Molina had volunteered in high school for several community outreach programs through his local St. Vincent de Paul Society. But nothing prepared him to teach fifth‑grade math on 30 minutes' notice or write middle school lesson plans. Nevertheless, he's jumped right in.
“Interns generally bring energy, enthusiasm, commitment to service, and a desire to learn,” says Gayle Lake, director of site operations for Higher Achievement. “Frank brings all of these things in such large quantity. He is up for any experience, and his role has stretched from combing the curriculum to conducting research for culminating projects. He has tackled many various tasks with such enthusiasm and innate skill.”
Along with teaching, Molina has done nuts and bolts work like ordering school supplies and printing student and teacher manuals. But he's also had the opportunity to write a service learning–based curriculum being used in Higher Achievement classrooms right now. And six weeks into his internship, he's finally beginning the project he was hired to do: conducting one‑on‑one high school placement interviews with eighth‑graders. The interviews are designed to help students prepare by assisting them with applications and teaching time management skills and test preparation.
Molina has continued working with Higher Achievement this semester, and he also plans to put his name on Baltimore City's substitute teacher list.
“I have a new outlook on life,” he says. “I can see myself definitely being a teacher. And I had never thought that.”
“You probably think you know how to skip,” says Joanna Craig to the 12 little girls in multicolored leotards and ballet slippers circled around her, “but you've never done a ballet skip.”
Craig gracefully demonstrates the step before sending the girls skipping, arms extended, across the blonde wood studio floor of the Harris‑Marcus Center on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore. The center is home to Jubilee Arts, a community organization that provides arts classes at little or no cost to low‑income residents of the Sandtown‑Winchester and Upton communities. Classes are available for both children and adults, but it's hard to imagine the adults embracing the music and the movement with as much freedom and joy as these young girls do. Even the formal rules of ballet have a liberating effect that television or computers can't begin to match.
“Step, hop,” Craig reminds the girls quietly as they dance, some concentrating on their feet to get the right steps, other leaping like tiny frogs.
Skipping, Craig explains later, is the girls' favorite activity.
This ballet class is different from the ones Craig, 21, has taught at other places, where classes were held in a gym and became some‑ thing to occupy students after school. Here, says Craig, students have signed up for the class because they have high aspirations as dancers. They've begun to recognize steps after they've performed them each week. “They all really want to be ballerinas,” she says.
Joanna Craig bonded quickly with the budding young dancers she taught through the Jubilee Arts program. “They all really want to be ballerinas,” she says.
Fair‑haired and dressed in black footless tights and a pink top, Craig, a senior from New York City majoring in behavioral biology, looks every bit the dance instructor. A member of Johns Hopkins' Modern Dance Company, she is a bit reserved, and she considers questions carefully before answering. But she blossoms when she interacts with the students—reaching out to hug a girl who throws her arms around her waist, brightly asking another child whether she'd like a blue or red leotard from the bag of donated dance clothes.
Mariska Jordan, Jubilee Arts' director, recalls an afternoon when a scheduled hip‑hop class had to be canceled and one child lingered in the studio, upset that she wouldn't be dancing.
Before you knew it, Jordan says, Craig and the girl were exchanging dance moves, a ballet step for a hip‑hop step. “Even though that wasn't Joanna's class, she stuck around and became engaged,” says Jordan.
Teaching dance is only part of Craig's assignments at Jubilee Arts. Since her internship began, she's also been involved in organizing rosters and mailing lists, making sponsorship calls, and leading the summer food program that provides free lunch between noon and 2 p.m. to neighborhood children.
Although some aspects of the work have been frustrating—trying to get possible sponsors to return phone calls and emails, convincing the community to take advantage of the services offered—Craig has gotten what she wanted and more out of this internship. She's seen the ins and outs of a non‑ pro␣t, and how hard the staff must work.
Craig has also come to value the physical place of nonprofits in the community and says she's learned that “the best way to get to know people isn't necessarily teaching in a class or in a formal setting.”
“It's sitting down at a table and chair for a little bit,” she explains. “Talking to someone, you can learn so much about them.”
When Craig began her internship, she observed other interns who had been there for close to a year and saw them interacting with clients by name and asking how their children were. “I want[ed] to get a little bit of that,” she recalls.
In a very short time, she has gotten her wish.
Inside Martha's Place, the scent of spaghetti and garlic bread hangs in the air. While the home's residents, women in the beginning stages of recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, begin to gather in the oblong dining room—a space made warm by windows, exposed brick, and wood floors—Dominique Duval crosses her legs at a desk in the front office and looks out onto Pennsylvania Avenue. She candidly admits her initial hesitation over working here.
“The first time I [came] over, I wasn't too sure about the site, but I'm really happy I'm here [now],” says the 20‑year‑ old, who is majoring in public health with a minor in Africana studies.
Founded in 2000, Martha's Place offers six‑month transitional housing and long‑term single room occupancy (SRO) housing in two snug West Baltimore rowhomes to women beset by drug addiction and homelessness. Recovery rates here are above the national average of 30 percent, with a 50 percent recovery success attributed to the six‑month program, and 75 percent recovery attributed to the SRO. Tonight, seven women—five residents of the six‑ month program and two from the SRO house—share the evening meal.
This kind of intimacy can be scary. Taken on that level, Duval's hesitation was understandable. It wasn't that she was disinterested in public service. Duval, a Baltimore Scholar from the city's Hamilton neighborhood, had been a volunteer with Youth Opportunity Baltimore during her junior year, and had performed service projects with Hopkins Christian Fellowship. But she hadn't engaged in any work she could characterize as “long term and serious.”
“I was going to be a senior, and had yet to have seriously gotten out into the community,” she explains. “I'd seen stuff around me, and what had I done? Nothing. And that's unacceptable. So I took a hard look at myself,” she says, and decided to apply for the Community Impact Internship program.
Dominique Duval says her work with women at Martha's Place, in West Baltimore, challenged her perceptions about drug addiction.
Still, Duval faced challenges, some geographic, some self‑imposed. Having lived mostly on Baltimore's east side, the west side was unfamiliar. Duval also saw her background as much more privileged than that of the residents and worried whether she could connect with them. And then there was the challenge of working with women battling addiction.
Even her supervisors harbored some doubts about Duval's placement. Martha's Place executive director Angela Long recalls Duval's initial hesitation in interacting with the residents. But during the internship's first week, Martha's Place celebrated three residents' graduations from the six‑month program, and Duval found herself moved by the women's testimonies and transformations.
Since then, she has embraced the mission of Martha's Place and is involved in all aspects of administrative work, from taking phone calls to keeping documents up‑to‑date. She also assists in house management, and this Wednesday evening finds her sitting down to dinner with residents, looking at family photos, and joining in the wave of laughter that sweeps through the table when one of the women pretends to break a tooth on a slice of burned garlic toast.
“Dominique's doing good work because she brings who she is here,” says Long. “And she's sensitive, loving, caring, compassionate.”
Chatty and open, Duval details the many things she's learned through the internship, seemingly without taking a breath: the challenges of running a nonprofit with limited staff and resources, the projects that get started with little time to finish, the vibrancy and pride she sees in this west‑side community.
The biggest challenges, she says, have been mental and emotional. Martha's Place has challenged her perceptions about addiction, and she's felt deep disappointment when women drop out of the program. She's also learning that she can't help everyone. “That's the emotional part, that addiction is real,” she explains. “I can't save people, and having that heartbreak really hurts.”
“The biggest thing I've gotten from here is that we're not that different,” says Duval. “We have different backgrounds, different avenues of life, but there's this power in sharing things.”
“It's a very honest place; that's what I like.”
Working at Martha's Place has convinced Duval that her future holds work specifically rooted in community. “Being at my internship showed me how rewarding it was to be able to interact face to face with the people you're helping and to be involved in their lives on an intimate level,” says Duval. “I know I want a job like that in the future.”
Abby Neyenhouse, assistant director of community and nonprofit internships, began her tenure one month after the application deadline for the inaugural Community Impact Internship program for which she’s had primary responsibility. Six months later, Neyenhouse is proud of the way the first year unfolded. “It was excellent,” she says, “a huge success that honestly surpassed all my expectations.”
Here are the locations where the 25 Community Impact Interns worked last summer:
Q: How many applicants did you have, and how did you cull that number down to 25?
A: We had 200 students apply. I read all 200 applications, and cut that number in half. The staff of the Center for Social Concern (where the internship program resides) reviewed them and narrowed them down to 70, and I personally interviewed those students. It was one of the hardest parts of the job. While I was interviewing, I tried to keep in mind what the potential internship sites were. I’d ask students what they would like to do and what they were looking for. We chose 25 students and matched them with agencies based on their interest in one of seven categories: education, local government, criminal justice, environment and sustainability, healthcare and health policy, neighborhood and community improvement, and women, children and family issues.
Q: How were the students prepared to encounter urban challenges such as poverty, drug abuse, and lack of resources?
A: Comprehensive orientation days were a big part of it. We did a lot of work on diversity and community-building to prepare them for potential things they might encounter.
Q: These internships sound like they involved much more than just filing or clerical duties. Can you talk about that? And how did you match the student to the organization?
A: When I met with our community partners, I stressed how this program was designed to have a sustainable impact on their organizations, and that I wanted interns to work on existing or new programs or projects. I also stipulated that interns would not do more than 15% clerical work. Some clerical work might be part of the job, but the point was to have students work in the community at the grassroots level and interact with community members.
Q: How did you keep tabs on the 25 students to make sure they were doing ok?
A: We had mandatory reflection sessions. I made site visits. We also had an evaluation process in place for students and supervisors. Through the evaluations we found out how efficiently and quickly students were getting their work done.
Q: Did anything happen during the program that surprised you or that you didn’t expect?
A: One thing that surprised me was how some of the students who had grown up in Baltimore really grew to understand the city in a different way. I hadn’t expected to see [hometown students] affected in such a strong way.
Close to half of the students are also continuing to volunteer at their sites. In an extraordinary move, Jobs Housing Recovery Baltimore fundraised in order to offer a paid position to their intern, Lauren Pennachio, so she could stay on through the completion of an event she planned for the organization.