As his college graduation approached, Jesse DeOms was thinking a lot about what he wanted to do with his life. His mind kept turning back to a pivotal experience from his past: the years he spent volunteering at Bridges.
“In a lot of ways, that’s where I was happiest,” says Jesse, a 2007 alumnus of St. Paul’s School who graduated last spring from Vanderbilt University in Nashville with a triple major in applied math, economics and engineering science and a minor in computer science. Though many career paths would have been open to him, he says, “there’s a certain clarity that comes with the purpose you feel working with kids.”
Jesse volunteered from the summer after his freshman year in high school to the summer after his freshman year in college, by which point he was the head counselor. Now 22, he is in his first year teaching high school physics at Mergenthaler Vocational-‐Technical High School through Teach for America.
At Bridges, Jesse started out volunteering with sixth-‐graders in the summer of 2004. He was still making the social adjustment to high school at the time, says his older brother, Nate DeOms, and “it was really good for his confidence being a mentor.”
As the years passed, Jesse’s responsibilities grew and along with it his passion for the work. He helped orchestrate activities, from dodge ball to hiking, and as head counselor, he oversaw other St. Paul’s volunteers only slightly younger than himself.
Jesse had a knack for picking up on the challenges his students were navigating at home, recalls Bridges Director Rob Paymer. He would stay late into the evenings to talk when he sensed something was wrong. One summer he checked in daily with a boy who seemed irritable – and, it turned out, was getting up in the middle of the night to administer medication to his grandmother.
“He’d have his eight and a half hours a day at Bridges, but he took it home with him and was thinking always about what more he could do for the kids,” Mr. Paymer says.
Jesse is as funny as he is analytical, Mr. Paymer adds, and he also stood out for such antics as a meticulously plotted water balloon attack: “He’ll be a great educator because he’s a very balanced individual. Certain things have to be very serious and he gets that, but then he also tries to just get people to enjoy themselves.”
In college, Jesse was involved in some volunteer work in Nashville, and he was recruitment chair of his fraternity. But he still felt something lacking and was looking for an opportunity after graduation that “I could really put my heart into.” His experience at Bridges gave him the perspective he needed to choose 10 Teach for America, which places recent graduates of the nation’s top colleges and universities as teachers in high-‐need public schools for a minimum of two years.
Nate, who also volunteered for Bridges and is two years older, says the program enabled Jesse to step into his natural role as a leader, paving the way for his new career. “It’s neat hearing him talk about Teach for America now,” Nate says. “It sounds like he’s 10 years older than I am. All Jesse talks about now revolves around education.”
The sons of a mechanical engineer, the DeOms brothers grew up in the Towson area near Loch Raven Reservoir. Jesse says the message was impressed upon them from a very young age that education should be their top priority, and success in education would lead to success in life. He realized at Bridges “that’s not always the message that’s conveyed to kids in the city. It’s a really hard message to emphasize because there’s so many more immediate needs.” He says the experience “opened my eyes in so many ways to life outside of prep school, county life.”
Jesse spent five weeks over the summer training with Teach for America in Philadelphia before beginning at Mervo, a magnet school that focuses on career preparation. He is teaching physics to ninth graders who will then move on to biology. “I’m going to teach them the skills they need to go into that biology room and run the show,” he says. “Bridges prepared me really well to come into teaching with the mindset of having an impact.
Maddie McClinton initially signed up to volunteer at Bridges because it was a nice way to get all her required community service hours done in one summer. She had no way of knowing how deeply the students would touch her heart.
In the three years since, the 17-year-old senior at St. Paul’s School for Girls has signed up again and again to keep coming back to Bridges. With no younger siblings or cousins, the program provided her first experience working with children, and she loves it so much that she now plans to become a teacher. Caring and energetic, she recently elicited this letter from a sixth-grader:
I really enjoyed you being my counselor this Bridges program. I really had a great time with you! I remember that game of hide and go seek, when the project fell off the table. I didn't tell you this but I was scared out of my mind when it happened. None of us touched it, so I thought there was a ghost around. You always knew when something was wrong, and you would always talk to me about it. You’re a very caring, fun, thoughtful person, and I look forward to working with you again.
A tour guide at her school, Maddie loves welcoming people to a new place. So it was a perfect fit that her first summer at Bridges, she was placed with the youngest children, fourth-graders, during their first two weeks in the program. “I didn’t know what to expect and tried my best to be as perky and nice as possible,” she recalls. “They all wanted to be there, and that was the thing I really liked.”
Maddie has requested to be with that same group of students every year, and she feels honored when they are excited to see her. “She’s done a lot of volunteer work for many years, but this was altogether different where she was working with kids, not just walking in a walk or collecting food, but building relationships,” says her mother, Susie McClinton. “She’s had those relationships now for three years. It’s just been a really positive way for her to have a purpose and commit to something she feels is really important.”
Last winter, Maddie gained a greater appreciation of what her students feel like coming to St. Paul’s when she began taking a bus to tutor some of them at their home school, Harford Heights Elementary. “I’ve been welcoming the students to my school where I always felt comfortable, but going into their environment was kind of eye-opening,” she says.
Academics have always come easily to Maddie, and the tutoring has helped her to understand different learning styles. Working with a little girl struggling in math, she took the initiative to make multiplication flashcards and quiz her on them because she sensed no one else was going to.
During the summer sessions, Maddie arrives at Bridges at 7:45 a.m. and stays until 5 p.m. She greets the students at the bus, takes their breakfast orders, and assists during their classroom lessons and recreational activities. “They’re long days, they’re exhausting, but it’s really special and what you get out of it at the end is so remarkable,” she says. Accompanying Bridges students on field trips has made Maddie realize the experiences in her own life that she takes for granted. “We went out on a boat with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and some kids hadn’t been to the beach or on a boat before,” she says. “I’m trying to make those kids’ experiences the best they can be. I just want to make those days as special for them as possible.”
On ordinary days, Maddie enjoys accompanying the students to their academic classes, helping the teacher organize the room and watching the learning taking place. “Everybody loves Maddie,” says Jonathan Lindsay, whose fourth-grade math class she assisted this summer. “She just has a heart for kids.”
A native of South Florida, Maddie and her parents and older brother moved to Lutherville when she was in fourth grade for her father’s job in hotel management. Her brother is now a freshman at the University of Miami, and Maddie hopes to join him in Florida to study education in college.
She’s thinking she might want to teach middle school English, but she’s keeping her options open. She points out that many of her classmates have been similarly impacted by Bridges, as evidenced by the number of seniors writing college essays about it.
As president of her school’s community service club, Maddie gave a speech this fall to encourage younger St. Paul’s students to get involved. “Learning more about myself with every session, Bridges has taught me more than I ever imagined,” she wrote in her prepared remarks. “Bridges is about new experiences and opportunities that not only enrich the mind, but also help students and volunteers alike examine their own character and behavior in order to achieve their personal best."