Cheri Isenhart, 13, had always had trouble relating to older people, says her mother, Jean. Without grandparents living nearby, the eighth grader wasn't familiar with the problems of growing old, her mother said.

But this fall, when Cheri's school, the Chesapeake Middle School in Pasadena, Md., set up a volunteer community service program, she volunteered to work at a nursing home.

"I cried the first two or three weeks," Cheri said of her initial visits to the elderly residents of the Meridian Nursing Center in Severna Park. "They're in there and they're lonely."

Now, she said, she looks forward to talking with new acquaintances at the home about what life was like before she was born.

"Just seeing them smile -- it's really neat," said Dawn Bowen, a fellow eighth grader who also has volunteered.

Thelma Duncan, a career counselor at the middle school, started the volunteer program, one of the first in the state, after Maryland Superintendent of Schools David W. Hornbeck unsuccessfully tried to establish a community service requirement for graduation from public schools. No academic credit is given for participation in the Chesapeake program and tasks are performed after school or on weekends.

Forty-eight students from the school have become volunteers and 20 more have signed up, Duncan said. In addition to visiting nursing homes, students are volunteering to work in county parks programs and as tutors to fellow students.

"I wanted them to reach out and touch people in a special way," Duncan said. "I was involved in that way as a child and it never leaves you."

Volunteering is part of the school's career planning program, which includes teaching students job skills and how to prepare resumes.

"They learn a lot of employment skills, how to make contact with people," Duncan said. "There are intangibles such as respect and character-building."

But there is also something more to be gained, she added: "People have to be trained in responsibility toward each other."

"For some of the nursing home residents these kids may be their only contact with the outside. They are really filling a tremendous need," said Pauline Miller, whose son, Mike, was a volunteer at nursing homes with the county's Pets-On-Wheels program for a year and is now in Chesapeake's program