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Boston Youths Serve Community

OUT on the playing field near the Samuel W. Mason elementary school in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood, Maurice Robinson yells out encouraging words and advice to a group of third graders engaged in a spirited game of touch football.

A winter wind and a thin layer of snow over the playing field don't seem to bother Maurice, a 19-year-old Boston youth, who is enjoying the game as much as his lively group of youngsters. Serving as a mentor for these children reminds him of the close relationship he has with his 14-year-old brother, says Maurice.

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"My little brother and I, we have a lot of good times together, and I like the idea that I can take that and share it with other kids," he says.

Maurice and nine other young people about his age are stationed at the Mason school as part of a unique community-service program called City Year.

Based in Boston, the program places teams of young people from different cultural and economic backgrounds, aged 17 to 23, in community-service work for nine months. Participants receive a $100 weekly stipend and a $5,000 grant upon completion of the program.

City Year participants do all sorts of community work including organizing recreational programs for senior citizens, restoring playgrounds and parks, repairing and painting shelters for the homeless, and serving as teachers' aides in Boston's schools. The idea is to get young people more involved in community work while encouraging a spirit of teamwork, racial harmony, and social awareness.

City Year co-director Michael Brown says one of the most valuable benefits for these young people is the experience of rubbing elbows with others who come from a variety of backgrounds - from young people who have joined gangs to young people who have graduated from prep schools. City Year accepts recent high school graduates, college students, or students studying to pass their high school equivalency tests.

INTEREST in City Year is growing. The program began five years ago with a 50-member summer pilot group. For the 1992-93 corps, 200 young people were accepted out of more than 1,000 applicants. Mr. Brown hopes to expand the program to 500 openings by next fall as well as organizing City Year programs in other communities.

City Year, which is funded mostly by private grants, operates on a $6.1 million budget. It was named a "national demonstration" program by the Commission on National and Community Service this year and awarded a two-year grant of $7 million.

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City Year gained national attention after President Bill Clinton said he would like to use the Boston program as a model for a national community-service program. Clinton first visited the program in December 1991 and liked what he saw. A month ago, Al From, the president's assistant transition director for domestic policy, visited the City Year program to discuss plans for a national initiative.

"When I met with the kids, they said when they started the program, the black kids would sit in one corner, the Hispanic kids in another corner, and the suburban kids in another corner," Mr. From says. "But after intensive training [and the program got going], they learned to work together in teams. That's a good thing for this country."

EACH morning at 8:30, rain or shine, all 220 members gather at Boston City Hall Plaza to do calisthenics. The group then splits into teams of 10 members each to work on community projects throughout the city. On Fridays, participants take a break from their chores for "enrichment day," which includes workshops on racism, sexism, violence, drugs, and other issues. In January, all corps members work on individual internships.

Co-director Brown says the program helps young people build confidence in themselves through service to others.

"[City Year] says to the young person, `Well, whatever issues you may be dealing with, we're not going to talk about that right now. In fact, we've got to get right to work. Otherwise there won't be an after-school program for those children or that vacant lot - that trashed lot - we're going to turn that into a playground. Let's get to work. And of course you can do it.' So immediately they look beyond themselves, and they realize they have potential and power that they never thought they had," Brown sa ys.

Here at the Mason school, Maurice and the other City Year team members are each working on internships that include helping kids with homework, indoor games, and art projects.

City Year corps member Preshanti Aryal is taking a year off before college after graduating from a prep school in New Hampshire. At first, her parents were against her joining City Year, since the idea of taking time off before college was simply "unheard of" in her family, she says. Now, they have come to appreciate the program, she says.

Another participant, Hector Galarza, grew up in Mission Hill, a tough Boston neighborhood. He acknowledges that at first he "was prejudiced toward whites." But now, he appreciates this whole new circle of City Year friends, who are so different from the ones he hung around with before. "They are like my mothers and fathers and brothers who keep me going, and I never had that before," he says.

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