Gamma ray astronomer Dr. Neil Gehrels’ parents were very community service oriented. “My father, also an astronomer, helped dissident scientists from behind the Iron Curtain during the Soviet era and was active in education for poor children in India. My mother was a high school French teacher and a guiding light for hundreds of adolescents during their difficult years,” said Gehrels. It is not surprising, then, that Gehrels and his wife and children are continuing the family tradition by serving the communities near Goddard.[image-51]
From 1996–2004 when he left for college, Gehrels’ son served on the Port Towns Youth Council. Established in 1997, the PTYC focuses on economically disadvantaged kids living in the port towns of Bladensburg, Colman Manor, Cottage City and Edmonston, Maryland. All of these towns are on the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. and are part of the Anacostia Trails Area that ends in Laurel, Maryland near Goddard. “The PTYC is a wonderful, non-profit organization that tries to improve the lives of people, especially kids, in these port towns.” said Gehrels.
Every month, Gehrels and his family performed community service for the PTYC. They planted trees, picked up trash, helped at a homeless shelter, brought food to homebound seniors, assisted at a wellness clinic where kids learned about healthy eating and exercising, and took groups of young people canoeing on the Anacostia.
“For some of these kids, it was the first time that they had ever been on the river, said Gehrels. “It opened their eyes to their environment, especially when they saw wildlife such as blue herons.”
After his son left for college, Gehrels became a member of the Executive Committee for the PTYC on which he still serves. The group helped renovate and promote a local park known as River Front Park at Bladensburg Harbor. “River Front Park is mostly for the neighborhood, but some of our Goddard physicists also go sculling there in the mornings,” said Gehrels. “It used to be so neglected, but now it is a beautiful river park.”
Gehrels also brought his community service spirit to Goddard. In 2005 after his son graduated, Gehrels helped develop a summer intern program for high school students from Port Towns to work at his labs at Goddard. “We try to find one or two promising kids, usually seniors, who have had some hurdles in their life, someone who could use some special attention,” said Gehrels. The internships teach these kids test-taking strategies, laboratory skills and people skills.
“Their mentors at Goddard provide a daily role model of a successful person in science that they have never had before,” said Gehrels. “We have had students in the program who are now in college studying engineering and science.”
Gehrels is extremely happy that his interns stay in touch with him and each other though the PTYC, and that everyone returns for the annual graduation ceremonies that are akin to a family reunion. “It’s really neat that my children get invited to the Council’s annual graduation dinner. All these kids come back from college and attend with their parents. Everything is very parent-child oriented,” said Gehrels.
Three generations of Gehrels have given back to their community through community service. “The example of my kids’ grandparents and parents, and their own experience with the PTYC, has had a profound influence on my kids’ lives. As a result, I believe they will always be community service oriented,” said Gehrels.