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AmeriCorps: 20 years of building community and a life-long legacy

Today marks the 20th Anniversary of AmeriCorps. It is hard to believe that this Clinton-era initiative has grown into a major driver of non-profit service delivery all across the United States.

I love AmeriCorps, I’m just old enough to have missed the chance to serve right out of college and while I’m not someone with many regrets, this is one of them. Spending a year working hard (and for a very small stipend and education award) for the betterment of your community is an experience that I believe, if more of us had, would lead to a healthier America. How can you not love an initiative with a pledge “to get things done for America.”

As I reflect on this momentous 20 years, I can’t help but think of all the ways I’ve gotten to interact with AmeriCorps

My Grandpa Carl was a Civilian Conservation Corps (the precursor to AmeriCorps) member in the 1930s. Up to the day of his death, he said he was a democrat because Franklin D. Roosevelt created a program for him to get the skills and work ethic to get a job. With great pride he would say he was an employee of the City of Los Angeles for those 30 year of civilian service and work. He often reflected that if he hadn’t had those skills, he wouldn’t have owned a home, sent his kids to college nor enjoyed the self-esteem he had between jobs. He was always proud of me for the work I did to support the service movement.

For 15 years I have worked in the National Service movement–running a Retired Senior Volunteer Program in Portland; hosting capacity building VISTAs at Seattle Works to help connect more young people to volunteer service; helping to launch HandsOn Networks TechCorps in Seattle while at NPower; and, now, having the honor of watching our AmeriCorps team play a critical role in connecting families to health and food resources at WithinReach. The impact these service members have had on our community are highly valuable and the skills, experiences and networks that have been built will be valuable experiences the take with them throughout their life.

I am privileged to sit on the Governor’s Commission for National and Community Service. In this role, I have the distinct opportunity to help support the service movement in Washington State. Each month, I hear amazing stories of AmeriCorps members making an impact on our community–from environmental restoration; to helping kids learn to read; to building volunteer programs; and supporting returning Veterans in enrolling in college. The work is amazing and we are blessed as a state to have one of the most robust Corps in the country.

Happy Birthday AmeriCorps! I can’t wait to see the impact of the next 20 years.

Tags: 20th Anniversary   AmeriCorps   Civilian Conservation Corps   VISTA   

Americorps Team 2013: Thank You For Your Service

For the last 6 months, I have had the privilege of supervising six incredible people: Donna Quach, Sam Lee, Samantha Novak, Francesca Murnan, Hayley Berra and Nika Gannon. These six Americorps members have dedicated 10½ months of their lives to the full-time service of our country and specifically to the residents of King and Snohomish Counties. Each member has gone above and beyond their required 1700 hours of service to the community, and they have each made a huge impact.
Our AmeriCorps members go in person to food banks, libraries and job centers and truly make the connections our families need to be healthy. A core value of our outreach model is to meet our clients where they are —whether that means standing in line at a food bank when the temperature reaches freezing, or spending a hot summer afternoon at a local library in order to ensure that a family has the resources they need to meet their nutritional needs.
Here is a story from Samantha Novak that embodies the impact of their work:
While at outreach I was referred a woman named Jenny. Jenny was actively fleeing a violent living situation, and had her ID, cell and wallet taken away from her by the person she was running away from. She was living in the streets and couch surfing after having left her abuser.
I was able to be a calm support for Jenny to help her plan next steps, including where to access food on a daily basis and where to find her closest community clinic for STI testing. I also provided her with contact information for domestic violence support. Because she did not have a computer or phone, my assistance was vital in helping her coalesce her panic into a plan. In the following days, she called me various times from different borrowed phones, and I was able to continue to assist her through the process.

I was able to intervene at a tipping point, where she was actively in crisis and didn’t know what to do. Though my assistance was mostly in providing information, I think it was the right information at the right time.
For me personally, this interaction helped me to see how important our work really can be. We have the potential to make a very measurable impact on lives that are in a delicate position. Being able to provide accurate, specific information in times of crisis is an important role that I feel lucky to be able to perform.
This work is not easy and the pay is not why folks choose to volunteer for AmeriCorps. The modest living allowance leaves very little room in the budget for things other than rent and groceries. AmeriCorps members do this work because they are dedicated to jump starting their careers in the direction of social change and social justice. Members of our team this year are pursuing Law, Social Work, Domestic Violence Advocacy, Healthcare and Nutrition careers.
This is my opportunity to publicly thank our 2012-2013 Americorps team. It has been an incredible year, they have done amazing work and WithinReach will miss each of them!

Tags: AmeriCorps   Outreach   

Reflections sparked by the Bridges out of Poverty Training

Three years ago in February, I met a 65 year-old woman, Berta, whose husband’s health was failing. She had recently lost her job of fifteen years and was told it was a result of the recession. She felt like it had more to do with her age. Before that month she had never asked anyone for help, but when I met her she was in line at a food bank. She shared that the food bank was a true lifeline that allowed her to keep enough food in the house and without it, she and her husband would have gone hungry. However, the food bank was packed with standing room only, and on days like that, everyone is tense. All Berta could think about was the fact that the last time she left her husband alone for a few hours, he had fallen broke his wrist and now Berta could see no way of paying off the piles of bills.

I started at WithinReach, fresh out of university, as an AmeriCorps service member. In college I had spent a great deal of my time dedicated to studying the social and political systems of the outside world in courses like Political Science, Spanish and Religion. I also worked at the Diversity Center where we created programming aimed at exposing students and community members to the beauty of diversity and to the prominent influence of privilege and oppression in our world. Pacific Lutheran did a great job of opening my eyes to the complexities of our world…but after my first few months as an AmeriCorps at WithinReach, I was ready to preach about how a person has to be “in it”–living and working with people like Berta–before you get even close to being able to understand the reality of our beautiful yet broken world. I have lived in that mindset ever since the beginning of my service, but after attending a fabulous training in March, my hard-line stance has started to become tempered.

This past March, I went to a training called Bridges out of Poverty. This two day seminar, facilitated by Jodi Pfarr, was specifically directed at service providers and it presented a wealth of tools for understanding and combating poverty. I had so many “aha!” moments, that I came to realize that after three years of working in the field, I had become complacent. I got lost in the grind of reality and forgot to pursue the knowledge and theory that would keep me learning about the systems and the roadblocks of oppression and poverty. I had forgotten that a person needs to balance both living “in it” and getting “above it”, in order to be able to reflect on solutions to our society’s problems.
Berta’s story is one of many that have stuck with me through the years. I feel good about the fact that she and I worked through the application process for Basic Food (food stamps) together, and that she was able to supplement the food she got at the food bank with more fresh fruits and vegetables from the grocery store We also talked about creating a payment plan in order pay off the bills she owed.

I wonder how things turned out with Berta and her husband and I obviously still think about them from time to time. Reflecting back, perhaps her story is so powerful to me because it is so similar to many other stories that I have heard and been part of since. The cycles and patterns of poverty are definitely what impact me most. However, working at a place like WithinReach–a place that provides opportunities to grow with trainings and experiences like Bridges out of Poverty–I am confident that I will continue to work as part of the solution.

Tags: AmeriCorps   Basic Food   Jodi Pfarr   poverty   

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