- The Washington Times - Monday, July 27, 2009

The days of relaxing by the pool, lingering in the mall or hanging out at the local recreation center are long gone for 10 Alexandria teens.

Instead, these teens are taking the first step toward becoming community leaders and activists by volunteering their time this summer to inform and educate minorities in Alexandria about available health care and educational services.

The teens, all students at T.C. Williams High School, begin each afternoon with an hourlong workshop and discussion before going out to pound the pavement, knocking on doors and passing out fliers in hopes of breaking social barriers that prevent minorities from reaping the benefits of what the city has to offer.

Margie Obeng says she loves to volunteer and would like to see a positive change in the relationships between the black and Latino residents.

“I want to bridge the gap between African Americans and Latinos,” Margie said. “I feel if we can close that gap, we can get a lot of things accomplished.”

The teens agreed that the hardest part about going out in the community is unanticipated encounters they may face when reaching out to someone who isn’t interested in what they have to say or doesn’t have time to speak with them.

“You find out the different attitudes of people. Some people might slam the door in your face, and other people spend time and are really interested,” said Ginno Hoarocc. “There’ll be people trying to get you off-track, and you have to learn how to handle it,” she added.

Although the teens must give up their freedom during a restless summer break, they said they are embarking on a rewarding experience that will help them in their future endeavors.

“It’s a really different way of spending summer … even though sometimes we’re tired and we just want to hang out, you have to save it for the weekend,” Margie said.

The high school students are vying for the ultimate reward, a full scholarship to a college of their choice, but they also enjoy coming to the program to work toward a common goal with their peers and have fun while doing it.

Although most of the volunteers are rising juniors, all said they aspire to get to college and make a difference in the lives of others. The youths’ six-week journey began with a trip to New York City to participate in a three-day training program to prepare them for the rigorous work they would face in the coming weeks.

In a brightly lit room at the Tenants and Workers United headquarters in Alexandria last week, the 10 volunteers eagerly filled out financial aid forms and chose hypothetical first-semester college courses in a workshop designed to help them gain an understanding of what it takes to complete a Federal Application for Student Aid and begin college.

Jennifer Araujo said, “Together there’s power.” She added that the more the teens work together the more people they will be able to reach and help.

The youths also are learning how to manage paperwork and possibly start their own public-service organization. Involvement in the program has sparked interest in Dora Tweneboa, who wants to organize a similar teen group in Africa.

The three to five lucky recipients of full scholarships will make seven-year commitments to the Community Organizing for Education and Democracy project at Tenants and Workers United. Additionally, the teens will have academic support, an internship with the organization every summer throughout their college careers and the guarantee of a job with the organization upon graduation from college.

Program adviser Esteban Garces emphasized that the goal is to “get them to college and prepare them for a career in public service.”

These 10 teens are determined to be successful and are relinquishing their normal summer routine to give back to their communities and work hard for the opportunity to attend college free of charge.

Rene Rivera is the only volunteer who will be graduating in 2010, and he said he is appreciative of all the useful advice and tips he is getting through participation in the program.

“This is helping me out, because I might go to [Northern Virginia Community College]. So I’m actually getting firsthand experience,” he said.

Evelin Urrutia, youth organizer for Tenants and Workers United, said, “They represent the diversity of Alexandria and have potential to be strong leaders in the community.”

• Dominique Kelly is a writer living in Prince George’s County.

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