The Baltimore Sun: UMBC center carries Shriver name, spirit

The late Sargent Shriver helped shape center's mission of applying academic learning to public service

By Childs Walker -- January 19, 2011

Robert Sargent Shriver always knew his first destination on frequent visits to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

He wanted to talk with the returned Peace Corps workers who were furthering their education and public service as participants in the university's Peaceworker program.

"He was like a grandfather with his grandchildren," said John Martello, who oversees that program and others as executive director of the campus' Shriver Center. "It was always his idea that they would take what they had learned in the Third World and apply it to the First World, here in the U.S. He carried a message of such enthusiasm and hope. He could make your spine tingle."

Between launching the Peace Corps, leading the War on Poverty and running for vice president, Shriver, who died Tuesday at age 95, exerted a sweeping national impact. But later in life, he and his wife, Eunice, lent their names and spirit to a more intimate effort in Shriver's home state — a center at UMBC that would apply academic expertise to solving the problems of Baltimore and urban America at large.

In addition to supporting the Peaceworker program, the center houses an ambitious intervention effort for inner-city youths, helps place hundreds of students in public service internships and gives grants to science and technology initiatives at Maryland high schools.

"It's an enormous force of social change inspired by Eunice's desire to do something spiritual and Sarge's commitment to public service," Martello said. "You shake all that up, and you have the Shriver Center at UMBC."

Shriver was no absentee inspiration, Martello recalled. He and his wife called with ideas about how to improve programs and detailed questions about how many children had been helped. Well into his 80s, Shriver would drive from his home in Potomac to the UMBC campus, where he loved to tell students of their power to change the world. He might invite Martello to an Orioles game afterward, where he'd keep score and share his voluminous knowledge of baseball history.

UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III remembered how the Shrivers invited him to dinner parties at their home to talk about the university and the needs of Baltimore children. To Hrabowski, they embodied the ideal of "to those whom much is given, much is required."

"It was amazing to me how intensely passionate he was about our country's poor children and how we could do more for them," Hrabowski said of Sargent Shriver. "He brought the passion of the '60s to our discussions."

The Shrivers' son, Mark, founded one of the center's key initiatives, the Choice Program, in 1987. The program places recent college graduates in settings troubled by poverty and violence and asks them to intervene with at-risk youth. The volunteers meet seven days a week with the young people they're helping and are available 24 hours a day to address crises.

Mark Shriver and Martello saw the effort as a way of extending Sargent Shriver's vision for the Peace Corps to domestic settings.

The Choice Program, which began in Cherry Hill and spread to other cities such as Hartford, Conn., and San Diego, moved its headquarters to UMBC's campus in 1989. Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver built connections to the university while raising money and attention for their son's initiative.

For Martello, the chance to work with the Shrivers was a dream come true. He had long taken inspiration from John F. Kennedy's vision of government as a healer of social ills. In the late president's sister and brother-in-law, Martello saw people living that vision into their 70s and 80s.

So the idea for a more comprehensive center, which would carry the Shriver name and base its goals on their life mission, began to bounce around in his head. The notion excited Sargent Shriver as well.

"Mr. Shriver, while very modest and not interested in the name part, was very excited by the idea of a university-based center that would mobilize the resources of the academy to address social problems," Martello said.

The center opened in 1993 with the Shrivers on hand to celebrate. In the 18 years since, it has raised almost $90 million in government grants and private donations, has worked with more than 20,000 youths through the Choice Program, has placed more than 21,000 students in internships and service-learning jobs, and has sponsored continuing education for more than 100 returning Peace Corps workers.

The center supports a National Science Foundation program to teach technology at middle schools, a fellowship program for UMBC students to help with science and math education at Federal Hill Preparatory School and a program that turns UMBC students into coaches for the Maryland High School Assessment.

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