Growing up in Arlington, Nicole Merlene was instilled with a sense of civic responsibility from an early age. As a student at Yorktown High School, she volunteered for Arlington Academy of Hope and Best Buddies.
"If you are from Arlington or somewhere similar to Arlington, you know you are in a fairly fortunate position in the grand scheme of things. We have a great school system, accessibility to public transportation and a safe community," she says.
Merlene studied public policy and economics at the University of Delaware. After assisting in roles for the states of Georgia and Delaware, she moved back to the D.C. area for her current policy job with Invest in the USA (IIUSA), a trade association that advocates on behalf of the United States' immigrant investor program.
Settling into her life as a young professional working on Capitol Hill, she rented a place in Rosslyn. She joined the North Rosslyn Civic Association (NRCA) and was elected to the board as secretary. Always interested in being involved in her community, she also sought volunteer opportunities, but found it difficult to find a good fit. For instance, one organization required an FBI background check that took about six months. Merlene went through the process, but wished it could be easier.
"Many young people want to be told exactly where they should go and what they should do to help the community," she says. "I was looking for something a little bit more like that and it just didn't exist."
She found the right volunteer fit when her friend, Sam Dietze, returned from a work trip to Panama where he had encountered Active 20-30's Panama City Chapter. He learned that Active 20-30 is an international community service organization with chapters all over the world. Founded in 1922, their mission is simple: to serve local communities and develop young leaders. The Panama City Chapter encouraged Dietze to start his own chapter in D.C.. Surprised that no D.C. chapter existed, Dietze decided to do just that. Merlene signed on as a founding member and now serves on the Board of Directors.
It was a year and a half ago that Dietze founded Active 20-30 of D.C. With guidance from some international chapters and the hands-on efforts of a small group of committed local volunteers, Dietze, Merlene and the rest of the team launched their first project, a book drive for a bilingual charter school in Northwest D.C.'s Columbia Heights neighborhood called CentroNía. Active 20-30 helped build a bilingual library for the school, collecting more than 1,000 books in a short time.
"We put together an Amazon list and asked people to order books from that," Merlene says. "You can get some older children's books very inexpensively on Amazon. Some cost as little as $1, so a $10 donation can go a long way. We also received significant help from our partners in Panama City, for which we were very grateful."
More recently, Active 20-30 took on another project in Eckington, a neighborhood in Northeast, D.C., at a STEM charter school. The school had fallen into disrepair and the team felt they could do something to help improve the environment. Partnering with Lowe's, they pulled together a team of about 50 volunteers to plant a learning garden. Merlene remembers being unnerved when she learned that a shooting had taken place at the school the previous weekend.
"The school had become a place where people--mostly adults--would come to loiter after school, do drugs and drink," Merlene says. "It was bad. We got there, and there was still a bloodstain on the blacktop where we were working."
Active 20-30 spent two weekends weeding the area and building the garden. They put up a colorful chalkboard paint wall and repainted the walls outside. Merlene says there haven't been any complaints about loitering since they were there, so the garden seems to be making a notable difference in the community.
Merlene says they have a core group of 10 very involved volunteers who do the organizing and planning, and about 50 or 60 people who come out for events. They can always use more help! If you'd like to join, visit Active 20-30's Facebook page or email Merlene directly. She happens to be the membership chair. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.