How Volunteering With AmeriCorps Prepared Me For Life

Getting Things Done—that’s the AmeriCorps way, and motto. Never heard of AmeriCorps? To keep it simple, it’s essentially the domestic PeaceCorps. Like the PeaceCorps, AmeriCorps offers a variety of programs: education, environmental, health, or social based, all through the AmeriCorps VISTA program, State and National, FEMA AmeriCorps, or NCCC AmeriCorps.  During a term of service, one would work 35–40 hours a week, (and get paid lower than minimum wage, although they usually help out with housing) to reach the required amount. At the end of the service year, you receive a sum of money for either paying off student loans or furthering your education. From January 2013 until the end of July 2013, I was a proud AmeriCorps service member, and am now a proud AmeriAlum (welcome to the ultra cool compounding lingo of the AmeriFamily).

So, why did I decide to become essentially a professional volunteer? Because, really, that’s what AmeriCorps members are: If I wasn’t at my site, then I was probably taking part in a community service event over the weekend. So, why the hell didn’t I just volunteer on the side, such as on the weekends, like any normal person would?

Well, for one thing, I was fresh from my college days, and looking for a job. With the job market being in the pits, the professional world was a scary place for someone who essentially lived in a college bubble. All I had going was an internship at a Nature Center, with not much else on the horizon. I have always been passionate about volunteering, although I’m not sure if that is an innate part of me. It could be that my mentors and teachers were always pushing me to volunteer, so at the time it felt odd if I was somehow not giving back to the community.

Either way, after years of volunteering at a local theater, with a homeless coalition, zoos, wildlife rehab centers, and doing beach cleanups, becoming an AmeriCorps member (a professional volunteer) not only made sense, but it excited me. This was especially true since I would be joining a literacy program. Seriously, if I’m not reading, I’m either sleeping or thinking about reading. I wanted to join a program that would (hopefully) make others just as excited about books as I am. So, when I found out that there was a local Literacy Coalition in my area, and that I could work there as an AmeriCorps member, it all just seemed too perfect.

My term of service started out a bit unconventionally: I joined the group of 39 members just about halfway through the 12-month term of service. Usually, you apply to the program you want to join, you send in your basic application materials, sit through at least one interview, and are then invited to join. From then, at my program at the Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County, the 40 members are placed at their sites (where the AmeriCorps member will serve and work), after each site conducts their own interviews. The sites where my fellow AmeriMembers served included schools, libraries, family literacy programs, and adult literacy programs. But, since I joined already five months in, I was placed in the only open spot: Gulfstream Goodwill Industries.

Gulfstream Goodwill (GG) is a program that encourages and prepares young adults (18–22) with learning disabilities for an independent life. It places them in jobs and trains them beforehand, while educating the students on types of meals to cook and how to maintain a healthy house. GG is also a school. Even though the students have graduated from high school already, GG reviews and refreshes their reading and math skills. At GG I worked with students with one‐on‐one tutoring sessions, on a wide range of literacy topics. I tutored them on what they needed help with, but also what they wanted to learn. I realized that the best means of instilling a love of learning is focusing on topics they actually wanted to learn about.

My greatest contribution to the students at Gulfstream went beyond tutoring. I chatted with them, ate lunch with them, and actually listened and played games with them. Some of them lived in group homes, and received very little, if any, positive social interaction. Many of the students who lived with their families hardly ever left their house, except for school. Several of my students had never been to the beach, despite living less than 10 miles from it! So every time I went in to my site, I knew that I added variety to their days, and served as a motivation for them to get up and to try to learn or do something new.

It’s now been over a year since I’ve last seen all of my fellow service members, or even been down to my site. But because I became part of one of the best (probably) AmeriCorps programs in the nation, my experience has left its mark. The Director of my AmeriCorps program assisted all 40 of her members to prepare for the future by mentoring us on personal and professional growth. I’ve also learned about myself—my boundaries, my goals, and emerging with full realization of what an effect mentor can have on a child. And it goes without saying that the people I met in AmeriCorps—from my site, my fellow members, and those I met around the community—have become professional references, professional connections, and most importantly, friends.

If you want to give back to your local community, or to serve for a cause you believe in, please visit their website for more information.

Kristin U.
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