By Amanda Cipriano
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Sunglasses, an empty coffee cup and a few spare napkins are what used to lie around Megan Heidler’s car just two years ago.
Today, her car is filled with extra socks and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – items she gives to the people in need she passes on her way to work each day.
Heidler, 24, is a service coordinator for The Choice Program, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that works with young people in at-risk environments to help them develop the skills they need to succeed in life and avoid activities that can lead to incarceration or other problems.
The 30-year-old program, which is administered by The Shriver Center at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, offers intensive case management to young people and families.
Heidler started off as a fellow for this AmeriCorps program, working hands-on with adolescents in the Baltimore area.
“I think my favorite thing is that nothing is the same and also that I can see the direct impact we have on different kids in our caseload,” Heidler said. “It could be helping them get a better grade or getting them into a safe environment if they’re having trouble at home.”
Heidler’s intensive work within the program exposed her to a side of the justice system she never saw even as a criminal justice major at Towson University.
“There is no one program that is in the field every single day, 365 days a year,” Heidler said. “We are so hands-on that we become part of these kids lives whether they like it or not.”
Laura Sahm, a supervisor of the program, said that the fellows visit with the families every day and see the youth in school at least two to three times a week.
“Fellows have the influence of being a caring adult that shows up and expects them to succeed,” Sahm said. “A lot of our youth don’t see that very much.”
Being so invested in the lives of the youth she works with, Heidler said that it was challenging because she would expect so much of them knowing their capabilities.
Heidler’s mom, Vicki Bailey, saw her daughter’s passion for her work every time they were together.
Bailey said that the program exposed Heidler to a side of the world unlike her small Pennsylvania hometown.
By visiting Heidler for a weekend, Bailey has seen her daughter’s maturation and compassion in everything she does. Bailey said that her daughter’s compassion is something she notices in herself now, too.
“There have been times where she would call me after one of [her youths] had been in court and it did not go the way she thought it would,” Bailey said. “Meg would call me from the car in absolute tears saying, ‘Am I in the right profession?’”
Because of the passion Heidler found from her kids on the job, she now wants to pursue a master’s degree in policy to help kids that are caught up in the system.
Going into college, Heidler saw herself being on the other side as a prosecutor. Through this experience, Heidler said that it changed her mind and what she is passionate about.
“It’s understanding that we should not label a person by the mistakes they had made in the past,” Heidler said. “A lot of the kids that I worked with did something to end up in the system and that’s what they’re labeled on.”
Serving with The One Choice Program, Heidler has helped bring families together and has brought troubled adolescents into a positive environment. Her influence on these children is part of what makes the program as successful as it is and keeps her in the field.
“The things that keep me striving are the small successes,” Heidler said. “I think a lot of people try to wait for one big moment, whereas with myself, I like to feed off the little things because they are more obtainable in the now.”