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Teens learning to give back to community

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Baltimore — When Rumbidzai Mangwende decided to apply for the Elijah E. Cummings Youth Program, she didn’t know what to expect.

But much to the now-20-year-old’s surprise, she gained lifelong friends, mentors and invaluable experience that prepared her for life.

“There were so many milestones the program provided me with that I wouldn’t have had access to because of my social or economical background,” Mangwende said. “This program gave me the empowerment that people do want to hear my voice.”

Nearly 25 years ago, U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) worked with the Baltimore Jewish Council to create the Elijah E. Cummings Youth Program, a two-year fellowship program offered to rising juniors in high school who live or go to school in Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, which encompasses just over half of Baltimore City and parts of Baltimore and Howard counties. The fellowship aims to help the teens become leaders and promote greater religious and ethnic understanding.

Every spring, about 60 youths apply for about a dozen openings, said Kathleen St. Villier Hill, the program’s executive director.

The application process requires letters of recommendation and an interview with the board of directors. Before Cummings died in 2019, he met every interviewee, Hill said, and if they were accepted into the program, he also wrote each student a letter of recommendation for college. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who succeeded Cummings in the 7th District in 2020, has since stepped into the role.

Once accepted, students attend twice-a-week meetings where they learn skills such as storytelling to help them land jobs, and how to podcast.

They also give back to the community by doing neighborhood cleanup events or preparing for their 3½-week trip to Israel where students get to meet with another group of youths from that country. Although the program is supported by the Baltimore Jewish Council, St. Villier Hill said most who apply do not come from a Jewish background.

“We are trying to build bridges between different communities,” St. Villier Hill said. “The whole idea is: How can you build relationships with people who are different from yourself?”

Mangwende, who is now a junior at Cornell University, said she still remembers her interview for the program.

The Randallstown native said her stomach was in knots, knowing Cummings was sitting at the other end of the table. But she said that interview was the start of her understanding the importance of cultivating her story and being able to use her voice to tell it.

Now studying finance, Mangwende said the fellowship — thanks to trips to Congress, the Annapolis State House and Baltimore city hall — gave her the ability to be confident in unfamiliar situations.

She also absorbed the importance of not being afraid to ask questions or lean on others for support.

“I learned so much about how to work with people who are different from you,” she said. “I was taught how to take a problem and try to solve it but also be open to other solutions.”

—Baltimore Sun