By Kiersten Hacker, Capital News Service
The University of Maryland fight song echoed through the college’s Reckord Armory Friday as dancers performed routines and a tunnel of cheerleaders welcomed the participants of Gov. Wes Moore’s Maryland Corps and Service Year Option to celebrate its pilot launch.
UMD President Darryll Pines took the stage first, touting the state’s flagship institution as the first “do good” campus. The university is a partner in the Service Year Option, which will provide job training and career development for young adults, and Maryland Corps, an opportunity for any adult to perform paid community service.
The crowd of about 400 cheered “Service will save us” with Pines as he led the chant of the governor’s signature phrase, saying he agrees with Moore “wholeheartedly.”
“You have no idea how you have just filled my heart. Seeing you here. Seeing you ready to serve. Seeing you say yes,” Moore said, speaking directly to the inaugural class of service members. “You are the fulfillment of a promise and you are the embodiment of a hope.”
Service has been a top priority for Moore since he took office in January. He signed an executive order during his first full day to establish the Department of Service and Civic Innovation, and in April, Paul Monteiro, former AmeriCorps national director and U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service director, was appointed secretary.
“People who thought that this would be difficult and people who, you know, might not have imagined that our state could actually lead … like this, but we were committed and we said yes, we can. And yes, we will. And now today is a celebration of yes, we did.”
The legislature approved the Serving Every Region Through Vocational Exploration Act of 2023, or SERVE Act, in April, greenlighting the governor’s service year road map. The law allows high school graduates ages 18-21 to complete a “first-of-its-kind” year of service at businesses and organizations across the state. Participants will receive job training while making $15 an hour and when they complete the program, they will get a $6,000 stipend for tuition or other general expenses.
Maryland Corps., which was established in 2016, will be revamped under the SERVE Act. Adults of any age have the opportunity to complete a year of service through Maryland Corps. while making at least $15 an hour and receiving the same stipend.
The law provided 200 spots for service year option participants in its inaugural year. Eventually, 2,000 high school graduates will be able to complete the program in 2026.
Applications outpaced the number of spots available in the program this year. According to Monteiro, this year’s cohort has 280 members between the Service Year Option and the Maryland Corps. About 200 of those members are in the Service Year Option, he said. Details about the number of host organizations were not made available.
Funding for the wages comes from a shared investment between the state and the host organization, depending on the size and the level of resources the organization has, Monteiro said. Funding also comes from the federal agency AmeriCorps. Monteiro said his department will also look for outside investments.
Sunflower Bakery, a nonprofit organization in Rockville, will have two members from the initial cohort, and since the organization is a nonprofit, it will not contribute to their wages. The bakery offers workforce development training for young people with learning disabilities, and Executive Director Jody Tick said the organization is “thrilled” to be part of the service year pilot.
“It is amazing because part of our experience for our students is on-the-job training and they can do so in a safe environment where they learn, grow and it’s OK to make mistakes,” Tick said.
Some members of the cohort said they were looking forward to gaining more work experience while also building connections with new people.
“And I feel like that’s the most intriguing part about this program is that you get to meet people from all different walks of life and I think that’s a beautiful thing,” said 19-year-old Baltimorean Briana Whitehurst.
Whitehurst applied for the program after their grandmother sent a link. Whitehurst matched with the Parks and People Foundation, an organization committed to bringing communities in Baltimore together through parks and green spaces.
All members of the cohort should be matched to an organization by next week, Monteiro said. He said the matching process must be thoughtful and deliberate, creating excitement for both the host partner and the member.
Creating this program can help solve a lot of societal ills, he said.
“You have the divisions that the governor talked about, you have senior isolation, the polarization, economic segregation. Service is one of the few things left that bridges a lot of these divides,” Monteiro said.
The Service Year Option will help ease the political divisiveness and vitriol the country is facing while giving Maryland a leadership position, Moore said. His goal is to make this Maryland’s decade, which means strengthening the economy, making communities safer and serving each other.
“This is not just a huge step forward to making that a reality. It’s a dream fulfilled.”