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August 5, 2016

AmeriCorps: What a difference a service year makes

When I think of defining AmeriCorps, I think back to 2007 — long before I joined Reading Partners — when I knew little to nothing about a program that would change my life. I stumbled upon AmeriCorps when my then-boyfriend-now-husband joined as a member with Habitat for Humanity. Over the course of his term of service I started packing away some AmeriCorps knowledge:

  • AmeriCorps members address community needs.
  • Generally, a term is about 11 months; some programs offer other options.
  • Members serve in a field of interest. Social work? There’s a program for that. Forestry? No problem. Education? You bet.
  • Members are trained to be successful and the professional development is great for recent high school and college graduates.
  • Members receive a living allowance while in service and once you graduate, an Education Award to pay educational costs or repay qualified student loans.

But the thing that really stood out to me — and still does — is this: no matter what the focus is, an AmeriCorps term is about serving your community — doing your part to effect change, address injustice, learn, and grow. Flash forward to 2008, I found myself sitting in a poorly lit conference room filled with 20 other members, reciting the AmeriCorps pledge:

I will get things done for America – to make our people safer, smarter, and healthier.
I will bring Americans together to strengthen our communities.
Faced with apathy, I will take action.
Faced with conflict, I will seek common ground.
Faced with adversity, I will persevere.
I will carry this commitment with me this year and beyond.
I am an AmeriCorps member, and I will get things done.

Since then, I’ve watched AmeriCorps grow, I’ve watched events unfold in our country, and I’ve heard the calls to action. I’ve questioned how I am making a difference and wondered what I am doing to help heal our country. What I’ve realized is this: I’m proud to work for an organization at which each year, hundreds of AmeriCorps members take the same pledge, make indelible marks on the lives of students, and are a part of a solution to break the cycle of poverty through education.

I know this from my experience and from the hundreds of stories I read from Reading Partners AmeriCorps members. Like Casey in Baltimore who wrote about the importance of building student relationships and “nourishing their unique passions,” when his student whose initial disinterest in reading turned into an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Or when Courtney in South Carolina recapped her experience with one student, whose timidity and lack of confidence melted away after months of building trust, by summing it up with this quote from her student: “Ms. Courtney, my teacher asked me a question in reading today and I was the only one who could answer it!”

These stories aren’t unique; they’re happening across the country and in our little corner of the universe, a difference is being made. And despite continuing to question if what I am doing is loud enough, big enough, impactful enough, I know that it’s a start. So I will keep elevating AmeriCorps as a way to bring people together and build empathy; and the next time I get the inevitable, “what is AmeriCorps” question, I’ll know what to say:

AmeriCorps is a pledge. AmeriCorps is a solution. AmeriCorps is an opportunity to do something.

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