Bill Tiefenwerth understood that many military veterans often feel disconnected or even worse, devalued, after returning home from deployment.
He also understood that middle school students often are the least likely to get support from outside groups looking for volunteer opportunities.
So Tiefenwerth—who spent 21 years as founder and director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Concern—put his penchant for linking groups together to good use. He came up with an idea to pair veterans with middle school students in a program that would benefit both the children and the adults.
“There’s very little support directed to the needs of middle school students in Baltimore City. Middle School students are not a population that volunteer organizations are attending to,” Tiefenwerth says. “And veterans are having a terrible time reintegrating into civilian life, specifically when it comes to finding useful employment. I thought there are assets that these veterans bring with them—such as leadership, order, etc.—that could be shared with middle school students. These are assets that could be brokered in our schools.”
Tiefenwerth’s fellowship, Veterans in Partnership (VIP), will provide in-school and afterschool assistance to the students at James McHenry Elementary/Middle School in West Baltimore. The program, which will include physical education and enrichment programming as well as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) components, will be staffed by recently returned veterans who have had trouble finding meaningful employment.
“My work at Hopkins has always been about bringing different populations together who wouldn’t normally work together,” Tiefenwerth says. “This fits the model that I’ve been working on for years.”
The program is designed to help improve attendance, cultivate an interest in STEM-related pursuits and instill a sense of self-respect and discipline in the middle-graders the veterans will mentor. In turn, the veterans will each be paired with other veterans who are successfully employed. Those employed veterans will serve as peer-to-peer mentors and provide job counseling to those in the VIP program.
“Many of these individuals have received valuable training or done something very high tech in the military, but they find that they don’t have the right certification to get those same tech jobs now that they’re home,” Tiefenwerth says. “Our mentor vets can help them get those certifications, or they can help them with resume writing. They can also help with adjustment issues that only another vet can understand.”
In addition to James McHenry Elementary/Middle School—whose principal is married to a military man—Tiefenwerth has identified other partners that will help get his program up and running.
Stevenson University’s School of Science, for example, has developed a curriculum for the STEM portion of the afterschool program. The science school also will provide the veterans with training for the curriculum, which Tiefenwerth calls “fun, engaging and interactive.”
“The students are not going to be sitting down with a pen and pad doing math,” Tiefenwerth says. “That would be the end of the program.”
Instead, four days out of the week, veterans will be in their mentees’ classroom for the last class of the day, helping out where necessary. Then, after dismissal and a snack, they will assist with homework, and finally move into 90 minutes of STEM activities such as robotics.
The program is designed to be so gratifying and so much fun for both middle-graders and adults that Tiefenwerth hopes many of the veterans will decide they’d like to go back to school and get into education.
“We hope they’ll say, ‘Hey, I’m really enjoying this,’” Tiefenwerth says.