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Maine VolunteerFare

Oprah Smitten with Maine AmeriCorps Program Director

Published October 31, 2006

John Underwood, Director of the Maine Independence Corps, appeared on “Oprah” on October 31st with Denzel Washington – the superstar actor he mentored in high school more than three decades ago.

In a show taped earlier for today’s broadcast, Washington describes how Underwood helped him through his teen-aged years. As Washington’s 10th and 11th grade English teacher at the Oakland Academy in New Windsor, N.Y., Underwood urged his students to think of the world outside the classroom by starting off class reading the New York Times.

“The purpose of my mentoring him was to get him through the difficult times in his life,” Underwood said. “The same thing happens with national service. I have seen hundreds of young people blossom through the AmeriCorps experience.”

Washington mentions the influence of Underwood and other mentors in a new book, “A Hand to Guide Me.” The book tells how he found his own mentor in the Mount Vernon, N.Y., Boys Club, and includes stories from 70 notable Americans about how as youngsters they were mentored by a caring adult. Underwood was invited to the Oprah studio as a surprise guest – Washington was not aware that his former teacher and mentor was in the audience until the host reunited them during the show.

It is a story that illustrates how good mentors can make a pivotal difference for youth who need caring adult guidance. The Corporation for National and Community Service aims to meet the needs of America’s youth through greatly expanding strong mentor relationships. The Corporation is working with other federal agencies, and mentoring and youth organizations to spearhead a national campaign to provide mentoring services to an additional three million children and youth in at-risk environments by 2010. Underwood said mentors make a difference, particularly when teenagers are troubled.

After leaving teaching, Underwood became deeply involved the national service movement. In 1984, at age 39, he founded the Maryland Conservation Corps. Ten years later, he joined the staff of the AmeriCorps*NCCC, serving as Project Director when the campus was located at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, and then as Campus Director when the facility moved to Perry Point, MD.

Underwood moved north in 1997, joining the staff of the Maine Conservation Corps. He now serves as Program Director of Maine Independence Corps, a project of Coastal Enterprises Inc., which uses AmeriCorps members to help low-income senior citizens live independently in their homes.

He said AmeriCorps “exposes people to possible careers. It exposes people to doing things for others and for the environment. It can enable them to travel to different places while giving them a chance to open their minds. It is a wonderful experience.”

AmeriCorps is administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service, which also oversees Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America. The Corporation’s mission is to improve lives, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering. Together with the USA Freedom Corps, the Corporation is working to build a culture of service, citizenship, and responsibility in America. For more information, visit