Celebrating service in education for AmeriCorps's 20th anniversary

by Jared Paben

Celebrating service in education for AmeriCorps's 20th anniversary

Jake grew up in poverty, and he previously looked to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with life’s circumstances.

But the 21-year-old formerly incarcerated man with a 4-year-old daughter found hope in a College Survival class. The class is for GED graduates who seek assistance through SE Works, a community-based workforce development corporation in Portland.

"At first I still struggled to stay clean. It wasn't the easiest thing to do,” Jake wrote in an essay. “I am now involved in this program. My journey to greatness has begun."

His story stuck out for Lissy R., an AmeriCorps member serving through the Oregon State Service Corps at SE Works. She is just one of our many AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps VISTA members serving in education settings in Oregon. As part of the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps, the Corporation for National and Community Service and its partners are highlighting the educational impacts of our AmeriCorps programs in every state during the month of February.

At Oregon Volunteers, 43 percent of the member service time that’s funded through our office is devoted to education – by far the largest single category.

Following are a few of the stories told by local members about how their efforts in education are changing lives. The stories range from one about a preschoolers in Head Start experiencing the joy of learning outside of the classroom to an activity that welcomes parents to their kids’ school while teaching them important skills.

Jordan J., United Communities AmeriCorps, based at Douglas County Museum

(Jordan provides expanded educational activities for children throughout Douglas County. His first big project is delivering curriculum to Head Start classrooms followed by a field trip to the museum.)

When the preschoolers visit the museum for their field trip, they get a little packet of materials to take home to their parents; this includes a ‘key words’ sheet, a coloring page, and a free family museum pass.

On Wednesday, a little boy from the field trip the previous day brought his parents, and when he saw me he ran up to me yelling, “Look! I brought my parents. My dad is super cool. Where are the snakes again?”

And his parents gave me a curious look, wondering who I was. I told them that I visited their son’s Head Start class and did the field trip the other day.

They said, “Wait. You’re Mr. Jordan? He hasn’t stopped talking about you.”

But they looked shocked that I was so young and perhaps so casually dressed. But it was a really great moment because although the teachers say I’m doing a great job it really doesn’t matter to me unless it’s really inspiring the kids to learn in environments outside the classroom. Seeing a kid excited to teach their parents everything they know is just such a fulfilling sight.

Lissy R., Oregon State Service Corps, based at SE Works

We had an amazing month in the youth program. We launched a "College Survival" class for our GED graduates, with lessons that include goal-setting, time management, and navigating campus resources. Almost every student in the class is a first-generation college student. The class acts as a safe space for these students to ask questions about their upcoming college experience.

For the first class, we created an art project on the theme of "motivation." I asked students to think of what motivates them to go to college, and we reflected on how their inspiration will help them focus on their goals while in school. Some answers from students were:

  • "I want to be the first in my family with a degree."
  • "I just want to be successful.”
  • "I want my dream job."

Korina K., Community Partners VISTA at College Possible

As a Community Partners VISTA, the ACTs (college entrance tests) are a pretty big deal to me. When testing day rolls around, I spend a lot of time planning to make sure things go smoothly; to have an event come together flawlessly is my ultimate VISTA dream. Sometimes, however, there are things that just can’t be planned for.

On the morning of the second practice ACT, it seemed like my wishes were being granted as everything was going off without a hitch at Gresham High School. It wasn’t until my fellow proctor, Ashley, nonchalantly turned to me and said, “I hope they remembered to turn on the heat in here,” that I felt my insides turn to ice – literally.

We started the test on time and I crossed my fingers that Ashley’s words weren’t foretelling the coming of the second ice age. But while students finished up the English section, I had yet to hear the comforting whistle of the school heating system kick in.

I kept expecting some kind of complaint from the students who remained bundled up in scarves, ear muffs and winter gear throughout the test, but the mutterings of resentment never came.

Eventually Ashley unearthed a beautiful treasure from the classroom next door – a space heater – which students eagerly crowded around during breaks and, other than the occasional exclamations of how cold it was, retained their good humor.

This is a perfect example of how our students show up in every sense of the word. Regardless of the day, time or temperature, they are not only committed to doing their best, but also overcoming any challenges they face. Throughout the three and a half hours of the test, I watched the 20 students work diligently, without complaint, to successfully complete another ACT. In reality, my best days at work are not when all the logistics fall perfectly into place, they’re days like this when our students remind me of their unwavering determination and willingness to do whatever it takes.

Paige H., Oregon State Service Corps, based at College Possible

(Click here to see her story on the College Possible website.)

At the suggestion of one of my students, I decided to have an optional “Scholarship Application Party.” Scholarships are not a big part of the College Possible junior curriculum, but my ambitious students were already excited to begin financing their college educations. In preparation for this event, we spent about 15 minutes in session going through a massive packet of scholarships my students were likely to be eligible for. Students pored over the list long after I had dismissed session, proving once again their unwavering commitment to college graduation.

In late session, our group was quietly taking notes on scholarships when my student Quentin interrupted, “When I have kids, I’m gonna make them do this. I’m going to find scholarships for kindergartners and just do that for every year they are in school.”

In our organization, we talk a lot about ripples: how the work our students do in College Possible not only changes their lives, but breaks the cycle of poverty for generations to come. Quentin’s comment was a stunning example of just that. He will be the first in his family to graduate from college, and—as a 16-year-old who is busy balancing his wrestling career, a demanding class schedule, and College Possible’s intense after-school curriculum—is already thinking about how his future children will finance their college educations so they can be college graduates like their dad. Like Quentin, all my students at David Douglas High School, and thousands more College Possible students across the country, are creating ripples that extend far beyond themselves. They are changing the college-going culture at their schools, bringing powerful stories to hundreds of college campuses, and making our economy a more diverse and productive place once they graduate.

I cannot wait to watch Quentin continue his journey, and I hope to still know him years from now when he has the opportunity to watch his own children walk across the stage to receive their college diplomas.

Dora P., Metropolitan Family Service (MFS) AmeriCorps, based at Earl Boyles Elementary

(MFS AmeriCorps members serve in Community Schools to build student and family engagement in their school and community.)

I have been teaching an Adult Knitting Group at Earl Boyles and it has been really great. Some of the parents who come are experienced, and some are brand new to knitting and crocheting.

One of the largest challenges has been to teach knitting with a language barrier. My Spanish knitting vocabulary is nada. This has made for some interesting lessons, with a few people in particular.

After the first group, I was feeling that they hadn't figured out how to knit, and they were getting frustrated. When they left the group that night, I wasn't feeling very hopeful they would return for our next group. But they did! And they brought with them finished products, with questions of how to cast off and finish their work.

I was thrilled to think that these women had continued to try and found success on their own with their knitting projects. This same pattern happened with the next two groups, and now mothers stop me in the hall with their scarves and hats to show what they've made. Knitting is a very practical skill to have, and I think it has been a positive addition for these women who have joined the group. I only hope that it continues to grow.

Posted on February 27, 2014 in AmeriCorps.