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Do Unto Others: Students and do-gooders that turned their spring and summer vacations and leisure time into charitable endeavors

Feb 26, 2016 11:20AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Jonathan Yates

It’s a safe bet that…spending a week waking up at the crack of dawn from a bunk bed within a single room with one bathroom shared by 11 others, then hopping on a former cigar truck reeking of tobacco for an hours-long journey along bumpy, dirt roads, to work all day providing health care or building houses for impoverished villagers with only a cold hot dog for lunch…is not going to make it into MTV’s “Spring Break 2016” programming.

But Carolyn Shanks would not have it any other way.
Shanks, a senior pre-med student at Vanderbilt University and originally from Anne Arundel County, has spent her last two spring breaks in Panama and Nicaragua on community missions with Global Brigades. Based in Seattle, Global Brigades sponsors spring break and summer programs around the world. Participants pay for the “privilege” of administering health care, building houses to provide basic shelter, and digging trenches to provide drinkable water while living in spartan conditions. For the needy around the world, Shanks fortunately is not alone in her commitment to help others in what little free time she has from her studies and preparing for career as a medical doctor.

Put Me In, Coach!

Plenty of that service to others was found at the “Jeff Potter Baseball Cook-off” at Arnold Park in early July.

Jeff Potter, founder of Odenton-based “Jeff Potter Baseball” emphasizes community service, along with learning how to hit a curve ball and brush back a batter crowding the plate. A former prospect in the Detroit Tigers organization who coached junior varsity at Arundel High School, Potter has frequently and prominently quoted (on his web site) John Bunyan, that, “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”

Talking with Potter and some of his players, that spirit is very active. Jeff Potter Baseball is a traveling team. Whenever it goes on the road, Potter schedules community service events. It is this commitment to help others that has attracted players such as Cameron Parase, who was working the event at Arnold Park. Parase came to a Jeff Potter Baseball event in Reading, Pennsylvania, his home town, and was so inspired he signed up for duty.

Working as an intern for Jeff Potter Baseball before starting college at Penn State University in the fall, Parase recounted that, “I was very impressed by Potter Baseball when they came to Reading, especially their commitment to helping others.”

Working the grill at the cook-off (and doing an outstanding job with the spare ribs from personal, tasting experience), was Patrick Halligan, who used to play outfield and first base, also for Arundel High School. After Arundel, Patrick left for college at Fordham University, in New York City. Halligan fit in well with Potter Baseball and extended the philanthropic spirit while at Fordham.

He created, “Live Green, Be Green,” a group that would embark on clean-up missions around the world, he noted, while turning the ribs on the grill in his “Live Green, Be Green” shirt. After doing service work in places like Kenya, beautifying Anne Arundel County must seem somewhat prosaic.

But, like another Jeff Potter Baseball event—a painting/fundraising event in Crofton—it can result in miracles. The organization raised about $500 for the Lilabean Foundation for Pediatric Brain Cancer from the players and others putting brush to paper to create “art.” Eleven Potter players paid $20 each to paint, eat pizza, and, most importantly, raise money to research and support projects at the Brain Tumor Institute (BTI) at Children’s National Medical Center. It speaks well of the athletes in the organization to think of spending part of their summer vacation painting to help children with brain cancer.

Like Shanks, however, the players with Jeff Potter Baseball would not have it any other way.

Angel On Their Shoulders

For Michael Chansler, it was finding something for his daughter to do for a school requirement that led him to creating MyCrow Angels, a microenterprise operation centered on improving life in Guatemala through sustainable work. Chansler grew up around the world as a military child, before finally graduating from Arundel High School. He has chosen Guatemala as his special place, however, with Mycrow Angels engendering community-based industries in the rugged Central American country. Chansler’s focus now is on reusable, environmentally friendly shopping bags that are made from recycled materials.

At first, it was having his daughter do something unique with her high school project. “My wife and I did not want Jessie to collect cans for the homeless shelter like her friends. We wanted her to see what life was like in a Third World County. There is nothing wrong with helping the homeless in the States, but we wanted Jessie to be out of her comfort zone and see what life was like 24/7 in an impoverished nation,” he recalls.

Research toward that end led to a group called From Houses to Homes. “What we liked about From Houses to Homes is that virtually all the funds went to into the mission: we are talking 99 percent. My wife and I were not going to donate to a charity with a massive overhead,” Chansler emphasizes. “I get that you need good people, but Jill and I wanted our money going to helping out those in need, not paying for perks for the CEO.”

That led to a three-week summer trip for Jessie and Jill, Chansler’s daughter and late wife.

“Jessie and Jill had a great time building houses in Guatemala. What made it even more special is that it was the last extended period she got to spend with her mother before she passed away,” he shares. “As a result of the wonderful experience that Jill and Jessie had, I started going down and building homes in the villages.”

But that still was not enough for Chansler, who was very active in charity work while at Arundel High School. There was a fundamental issue remaining after the homes were finished, he notes. “There was not a sustainable industry for the people. So one night at home back in the States, I heard an announcement that plastic bags were being banned in the area. That made me think of the empty coffee bags in Guatemala and how they could be used to carry items,” Chansler recalls.

Next was the purchase of heavy duty sewing machines that were carried down, in parts, in luggage by additional volunteers to the villages in Guatemala.

Now stylish bags are made and sold in the United States as a result of Chansler’s efforts. He points out that, “We are supporting three families and have built five houses as a result of MyCrow Angels. What we need is to get into Trader’s Joe’s or Starbucks to take it to the next level!”

MyCrow Angels is already at “the next level” in terms of commitment from its volunteers, though.

His non-profit now has more students spending their spring breaks and summer vacations in Guatemala, in addition to accessorizing with the handbags from MyCrow Angels. Chansler emphasizes that, “Jessie would bring friends and fellow students on what are ‘high impact adventures.’ This was my idea to allow for five days of fun and five days of work to help others. From that, more than 50 homes have been built from volunteers ranging from the age of nine to 68.”
What inspires those like Shanks, Parase, Halligan, and others to sacrifice so much immediately in high school and college when the rewards seem so far away, both in distance and time?

As with anything having to do with high school and college students, social media has its role. It is much easier now to drum up support. Too often, just the negative aspects of social media are emphasized when it comes to young adults. But there is no denying how effective Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms have been in rallying forces for a worthy cause.

There has always been the more basic desire to “be part of something bigger,” especially for those still in school. Many schools emphasize public service. Potter has teamed up with The Harbor School in Annapolis on many rewarding projects. Shanks came upon Global Brigades during freshman orientation at Vanderbilt. Arundel has long offered public service efforts. Local schools have done an admirable job in getting students involved in efforts to help others. Annapolis resident Stephanie Fitzgerald spent two weeks volunteering at the Montana Cheyenne Indian Reservation to fulfill her service hours for McDonough School, as just another example.

The Chesapeake Bay region also breeds public service. It is home to many serving their county at installations such as the Naval Academy, the National Security Agency, Fort Meade, and many others. The preponderance of civilian government workers also results in a commitment to helping others. There are local physical gems that bring out the nurturing instinct. As just one example, anyone who has spent any time on the Bay, enjoying what is has to offer, is likely more willing to do all that they can to protect it.

There is also a more personal, more emotional, commitment for many. In many cases, just as country singer Hank Williams, Jr. belts out, “It’s a family tradition.” Shanks’ father is an anesthesiologist who has traveled to Vietnam in support of the mission of “Operation Smile,” which treats facial deformities such as cleft lips and cleft palates for children around the world. Her sister is in medical school and dedicates what precious little time she has to spare over summer break toward helping others. As a general practitioner, her mother has done much in the way of public service for the local community.

That is much the same for Chansler and others. Both Chansler’s father and brother are career air force officers. Based in Saigon, his father performed communications security during the Tet Offensive in early 1968. And his sister is a psychiatric social worker with the Veterans Administration, specializing in helping soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan heal from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Often times, however, the rewards from these mission trips have to do with another type of family unit.

For Shanks, this came after a day of exhausting construction work, laying down a concrete floor and finishing off a house for a villager in rural Nicaragua. “He looked at us with tears in his eyes and he thanked us profusely,” she remembers. “And then he said we were welcome back in his home at any time…we would always be family.”