Americorps: Interview With Stephanie Linebaugh

It's not often a mother gets to interview her daughter on a subject of national as well as local interest. The subject is AmeriCorps, President Clinton's controversial "domestic Peace Corps." Created to "improve the environment, enhance education, increase public safety and address unmet human needs," AmeriCorps has also created a storm of protest among congressional critics who dispute the role of activist government. The Senate has agreed to $401 million funding for next year, $146 million less than what the president sought. The mother: Sonia Linebaugh. The daughter: Stephanie Linebaugh, 23. After graduation from St. Mary's College last year -- as one of about 1.2 million college graduates across the country -- she became one of 300 members inducted into the AmeriCorps/National Civilian Community Corps. Her team, Red 7, is among 27 operating out of Charleston, S.C. There are three other campuses: Perry Point, Md.; San Diego; and Denver. Corps members, aged 18 to 24, undergo six weeks of intensive training. Then, during their 10-month commitment, they must complete 1,700 hours of service in order to qualify for a $4,725 taxable, education award that's paid directly to tuition costs or to existing educational loans. That's $47.25 per month. That's in addition to room and board (barracks and mess hall) at their "home," the former Navy base in Charleston, or in the field with sponsors. They also receive a monthly stipend of $300. Q With a degree in marine biology, what made you choose a service project like National Civilian Community Corps?A I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I wanted to be involved in community service. I wanted a chance to travel, to meet new people and make some money towards my college debt.Q What went on in that "intensive training"?A We had many, many, many team building activities. Each team of 12 stays together the whole 10 months on all their projects. We also had safety lessons in CPR, first aid, mass care and disaster relief from the Red Cross. We were taught how to use hand tools properly. We had diversity training, mostly discussion. Our team of 12 comes from 11 different states and four ethnic backgrounds: Iranian, Hispanic, Asian and Anglo. We have different economic and educational backgrounds, from poor to rich, from no high school degree to bachelor's degrees. We discussed gender, religion, culture and how we were brought up. Then, before each project, we were trained in the skills we needed for that job.Q What projects have you done?A We blazed a trail through Francis Marion National Forest near Charleston, built a pavilion at Goose Creek, also near Charleston, remodeled a homeless shelter, organized a thrift store and renovated a soup kitchen in New Rhodes, La. We built two houses in Asheville, N.C., provided 'recreation and socialization' for elderly residents at J.B. Johnson Nursing Home in the District of Columbia and cleaned up a childcare center and spent some time with the children on the base in Charleston.Q What are you learning from your "involvement in community service"?A The Corps is more about personal growth than about changing the world. You have to accept the fact that you can make a difference, but you're not going to change the world in ten months. You're learning about people and places. You're learning skills. But mostly, you're learning about yourself -- whether you like it or not.Q What have you found out that you like about yourself?A I can sleep anywhere -- in a van or on a cot in a room with 11 other team mates; on a military base; in a homeless shelter; a decent house or the floor of a church hall.Q What have you discovered that you don't like about yourself?A Let's just say I'm learning more patience and flexibility. That's from learning to live, work and socialize with the same 12 people 24 hours a day. I've learned that common sense is not common. That people have different standards of cleanliness and courtesy. Where I fall depends on who you're talking to. To me, it's common sense that if you make a mess, you clean it up.Q What do your team mates say about you?A They say I feel strongly about things. I'm known for not letting things pass, for voicing my opinion. That's hard for the team sometimes, but they always know how I feel. My emotions sometimes affect the team.Q Did the training help make the team work?A Although we had different religions and cultures, religion was not a big deal. Age was a big deal. From 18 to 24 sounds like just a few years, but sometimes it's a lot. It's four years in a dorm or living on your own vs. having your own room with stereo, television, laundry service and mom's cooking. Dorm life was a good preparation for team life.Another big issue was food. We had heated discussions about what is regular food. Anna, who is Chinese, got mad because we made fun of her eating habits. She had never realized that everyone doesn't eat like her family. Octopus and squid would never even make the menu for most of us. For Anna, it's the same with macaroni and cheese. Q You said that you built houses in Asheville. You didn't learn that at home. How did you know how to build a house?A Our sponsors in Asheville were professional builders from the mountains. They taught us how to hammer, measure, use power tools. About five of them worked with us on the project for non-profit Neighborhood Housing Services. They worked for pay and taught us as we went along.At the house I was working on, the men seemed open to teaching us. We exposed them to some ideas they never would have thought of. They were surprised that women wanted to and could do construction work. The guys of the team liked any destruction work we had to do. The women liked the construction part, the hammering, the trim work. The hard thing for me was getting used to working on the height of the roof. I really enjoyed the work. I liked working really hard physically and then going home and forgetting about it. It was a mental break. Q What was the toughest job?A Mentally, it was the job at New Rhodes. The grass roots organization that aimed at helping the homeless really didn't expect us to show up. Other organizations had not followed through with promises of help. They just weren't prepared. Living quarters were not set up. The project wasn't organized. We had to make the best of what we had.We slept on the floor of a church hall. Then we slept on the floor of the homeless shelter with the bathroom a block away at a fire station. Despite the fact that this was hard, the community pulled together. People had us to dinner. The firemen took us in and let us use their kitchen and facilities. One man offered us free fruit daily from his roadside stand. The NCCC administrators said we could [abandon the project and] come home to Charleston. But as a team we decided to stay because the people needed us and wanted us there. The community got motivated. We got the homeless shelter renovated, organized the thrift store and renovated a soup kitchen. Our team leader, Farhad, helped set up an infrastructure so they could organize themselves to make the project work. They sent us a letter saying they're doing okay. Still ... we were there four weeks and it seemed like forever. Q Do you think they'll keep the project going?A That's the idea with AmeriCorps. We don't initiate projects. We accept requests for help with projects that are already under way. AmeriCorps looks for projects that can sustain themselves after we've moved on. I think they'll do it.Q What did you do in Washington, D.C.?A We spent eight weeks at John Beauregard Johnson Nursing Home providing recreational and social activities for residents. The majority are old people with both mental and physical disorders. Many have spent years and years in institutions.There's never a dull moment at the home. The staff told us, "If it happens on the outside, it happens at JBJ." They pick fights, some are alcoholics, many are interested in sex. Some are active, some are inactive. They might be mean or nice. It's not just old people sitting in chairs. Q Did you like working at a nursing home?A It's one of my favorite projects. I get to work with people. Like everyone else, the residents just want and need attention. Some of them don't know we exist. For others, we're improving the quality of their lives while we're there.We did physical activities with them: bingo, ball toss, bowling, rhythm band. Some can toss a soft ball across the room. For others, just holding a bean bag and letting it drop is a big deal. Mostly, we just talked to them, listened to them and held their hand. For some, holding their hand was enough. We took some residents out on field trips to the Dollar Store and the Botanical Gardens. That was fun. We were the fourth AmeriCorps team there and another came after us. Next year's Corps will probably continue the project. Q What did you learn there?A I've learned to question reality. Many of the residents are schizophrenic and often do not live in the same world as the rest of us. I can't begin to pick a story ... One resident believes she owns the building and fires people at whim.We had a tearful parting. We were crying, the residents were crying, the staff was crying. One of my team mates vised again when she got to Washington. She had never experienced that kind of unconditional love before. Q You know there's a lot of political controversy about AmeriCorps. Do you think it's a worthwhile enterprise?A I think it's incredibly worthwhile. The amount of good it does in our communities far exceeds the dollar value. In the long run, it can save money by motivating people to help themselves, which is a key idea in NCCC.Just at the level of mixing together people from different religions, cultures and economic backgrounds, NCCC is a success. Those men in North Carolina certainly got some new ideas, and just in our teams, we learned to deal with differences. If the funding is cut for next year, it will be because politicians want to kill the program. It makes me want to cry. Q What's next in your life?A We had one more project, helping to renovate a daycare center on the former Navy Base at Charleston. It's for the local community and its college. For us, it was easy duty, living on the base in "our own" rooms - meaning we had a set place with just one roommate. We were cleaning up a daycare center that had been discussed since the base shutdown several years ago. We also got to work with children at another center. Easy.Then on August 1 we graduate. We'll have a ceremony with parents invited. Q And then?A I'm applying to the Peace Corps. I want to continue my service.Q Are you an idealist?A No. But everything you do makes a difference. Some people don't want to change and you can't do anything about that but others just need some help.Q Will you ever use your marine biology degree?A Yes. I'll probably get involved with fisheries in the Peace Corps.Q How long will you do that?A It's a two year commitment. That's if I get accepted after the one-year application process.Q What will you do in the meantime?A Help you and Dad renovate our house.AmeriCorps is administered by the Corporation for National Service. For application information, call 800/94-ACORPS or visit the web site at www.cns.gov

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