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Community Service Leads to Diplomas

ASSOCIATED PRESS

On the first day of school in September, student Jamil Adams pulled Brother Kenneth Cooper aside for a short chat.

“He says, ‘Yo, Brother, I don’t want to be sleeping with the home boys at the homeless shelter,’ ” recalled Cooper, a teacher at all-male Rice High School in Harlem.

But Jamil, one of the 95 seniors, wanted a diploma, so he did it. He served dinner, washed clothes, cleaned up and stayed over at the St. Joseph’s Shelter for Men. It was his assignment in Christian Service Project, a required course in which each Rice senior performs 65 hours of work for the community.

The 15-year-old program has students moving from history class into the shelters and assisting handicapped people as homework.

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“It makes things very real for the kids. . . . The bum on the corner, the drunk, the junkie--he’s your brother,” Cooper explained. “The kids find out they are really just broken people in need of healing (and) they become people instead of just faces.”

More than character building is happening here. Much of the boys’ work is centered in Harlem, where most of them live and all of them go to school. The aim is to improve conditions for them and their neighbors.

Last year, Rice seniors ran errands for elderly people after one aged Harlemite was stabbed to death. This year, handicapped kids at a nearby school are getting hands-on assistance from four Rice seniors who are teaching them living skills-- how to feed and dress themselves and tie their shoes.

“It’s a good feeling, helping other people in society,” said Brock Holloway, 17, of the Bronx. He said he is committed to working with physically impaired children at P.S. 138 in Harlem.

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“Parents think, ‘Hey, these kids are doing something positive instead of running on the street,’ ” Holloway said as he helped the youngsters get into their winter boots and coats at the end of a school day.

Cooper, a red-bearded man with boundless energy, has directed the Rice project for three years. He said: “It gives the kids a sense of self-worth--'I can make a difference.’

“I like to throw this at them: Mother Teresa was a teen-ager once. Martin Luther King was a teen-ager once. But they made choices which led them where they are.”

Rice, which 40 years ago was filled with the sons of Irish and Italian immigrants, has changed along with the neighborhood. The student body now is 70% black and 30% Latino.

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Other changes are more obvious: Across from the school, crack cocaine and pills are hawked openly. The brothers, who live in the school building, have learned to adjust. “The guy who runs numbers across the street watches the building,” Brother Myles Amend joked.

One block north, Rice seniors arrive Tuesday nights to run the show at St. Joseph’s Shelter. They serve dinner, do laundry, stay overnight and serve breakfast in the morning.

Other students take on lesser challenges.

This year three Rice seniors are helping out at a Manhattan center for infants with AIDS. John Watson spent his first day at the Incarnation Children’s Center playing with one baby and later taking him to see the center’s Christmas tree-lighting.

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“He did a great job. It was beautiful to see,” said Sister Connie, who runs the center.

Such praise for the students is not unusual. The whole program appears to have a positive effect on them. Although the dropout rate of New York City high schools is almost 30%, Rice graduates virtually all of its students and 85% of its graduates go on to college, Amend said.

The Rice message is spreading throughout the city. Each of the 60 high schools run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York now has some form of community service program, schools spokeswoman Nora Murphy said.

Meanwhile, Brother Kenneth reminds his students that it’s important to remember the lesson once the 65 hours of service are completed: “The world is full of angry, unhappy, bitter men. We need more saints,” he says.

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