Opinion | Building Bridges of Another Kind in Maryland

Taking a gap year, or devoting a year to public service, whether to develop yourself or to serve a higher purpose, can be very alluring and, just as often, very impractical: How do you find the right opportunity, or fit it into your life, and most of all, swing it financially?

Gov. Wes Moore of Maryland is trying to find a way to make it work for more people.

One of the centerpieces of his administration is the newly established Department of Service and Civic Innovation, which includes a public service program with two arms, the Service Year Option, for Maryland residents within three years of high school graduation, and Maryland Corps, which is open to a range of applicants. Each provides access to entry-level positions at nonprofits and state agencies, as well as a small number of businesses with a strong service component, such as public health or community development. Participants are paid a minimum of $15 per hour and provided help with transportation and child care, which could otherwise keep out those with fewer support systems. At the end of the minimum nine-month term, all participants get a $6,000 stipend toward college or to cash out for a down payment on a car, for example, or a home.

Right now, the program is tiny. Next week, the Maryland Assembly will vote on whether to include a $13 million expansion of both programs in the state budget to increase the number of participants from 200 a year to 500, with a target of 2,000 Service Year participants by 2026.

The timing might not seem great, at a moment of budgetary constraints and in the wake of the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore harbor, but that’s not how Moore sees it.

“I will defend the return on this investment any day of the week,” he said when I spoke to him earlier this week. “This is the kind of program that gives people such hope and inspiration. I really do believe in the idea that service will save us, especially at a moment like now.”

I’d like to think he’s right. The goal of Maryland Corps and Service Year is to strengthen community ties, motivate and train Maryland residents and better equip them for their futures.

Maryland Corps, similar in many ways to the federal AmeriCorps program, removes barriers to the sorts of people who tend to get shut out. Crucially, it also welcomes noncitizens who have working papers and people with criminal records who often find it difficult to get into other programs. Providing this kind of access was “a prerequisite,” Moore told me.

Justin Peleska credits the Service Year Option for the structure and support he needed after a suicide attempt and a mental health crisis.

“I was still recovering from what I’d gone through, and I found it to be my calling to give back to the community that gave so much to me,” Peleska, 21, told me. He works for a nonprofit that supports women recovering from addiction.

During the pandemic, Romona Harden, 22, dropped out of school after a semester and returned home to Prince George’s County. She knew she wanted to re-enroll in college one day but wasn’t sure how to go from one step to the next. She began working for a nonprofit community organization that had signed up to be a provider for the Service Year Option and then encouraged Harden to apply.

“I need a mentor,” Harden wrote in her application. “I have a lot of hopes and dreams, but I need someone to push me.”

“My biggest hurdle is myself,” she told me in a Zoom interview. “As much as I know that I put in a lot of work in school and my personal life and professional life of trying to get to the next place, it’s still very discouraging. It’s hard to think that I can compete with other people out there being fresh out of college.”

Like all participants, Harden received training, opportunities to network with other participants and a “success coach” who met regularly with her as a kind of mentor.

“My success coach is the bomb dot com,” she told me. Harden said her coach has at times felt like a therapist. “She’s helped me to know that I can do it. There are people who believe in me.”

For Javaria Alvi, an immigrant from Pakistan and a mother of three, Maryland Corps’s support systems were essential for her to return to the work force. Because of child care demands, Alvi needed to work remotely while trying to pivot to a career in I.T. Maryland Corps enabled her to get trained on the job, developing an app that helps new immigrants connect with services and legal assistance.

“I had a child care issue and couldn’t get to one of the trainings,” Alvi told me. “I had no access to day care, but I was able to reach out to my success coach, who gave me a lot of options.”

This is the kind of program that can provide meaningful skills for education, career and community life to those who need them most. It also gives participants what Moore calls “the chance to find that thing that makes their heart beat a little faster and helps them get on that path.”

And it’s the kind of program that rallies bipartisan support, which it did when the Assembly first approved it. And though the state needs to recuperate from a devastating and financially destructive loss, making human investments in the future is equally important.

Perhaps the aftermath of the bridge collapse, the kind of catastrophe that typically motivates a community into action, is exactly the right moment to think about funding public service.

“If this tragedy serves as a motivation for people to give their time and service to the state of Maryland, then this is a wonderful opportunity for them to be able to help out,” Governor Moore said.

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