The Best Ambassadors

Photos courtesy of AmeriCorps 

 

Working for minimal wages, AmeriCorps members are an invaluable asset to scores of the state’s nonprofits, schools and public agencies

 

 

Three years ago, Christina Saadeh stared at her computer screen and scrolled through pages of job listings.

 

A recent graduate of the University of Delaware, Saadeh had decided she didn’t want to pursue a career in her major, athletic training. Instead, she says, she was looking for a job “with purpose.”

 

Then, on Idealist.org, she started to run into AmeriCorps programs seeking members. She applied to one and was brought on board at Connecting Generations, a Wilmington-based youth mentoring program established in 1990. Through AmeriCorps, she became a CG mentor coordinator at Richardson Park Elementary School for one year.

 

A federal agency, AmeriCorps annually connects more than 80,000 Americans with year-long service opportunities at nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith-based groups across the country. Since the program’s founding in 1994, more than 800,000 AmeriCorps members, from ages 17 and up, have contributed more than 1 billion hours of service.

 

Saadeh’s days started at 7 a.m., when she prepared for 80 high school students, split into three groups that arrived at three times during the day. She’d oversee the sessions and interactions between mentors and students, making sure the experience ran smoothly for both. 

 

During her year she worked more than 40 hours each week while earning a living allowance that was less than minimum wage. But the financial shortfall, however burdensome, wasn’t what stuck with her.

 

“You’re not putting anything into savings,” says Saadeh. “But it ultimately didn’t feel like too much of a sacrifice, seeing the difference it was making in the climate of the school. You realize that this is the one life that you have and you can do anything in it, and I wanted to make a difference.”

 

Influencing People’s Lives

 

AmeriCorps was a good starting point to launch her into other areas, Saadeh says. After her term ended in 2012, she headed to Kenya for a year as an English and math volunteer teacher. She sees herself continuing in the humanitarian or non-profit sector, which is a 180-degree turn from the health and medical field in which she started out.

 

“I knew throughout the course of that year and when it was done that I could never just have a position that didn’t directly influence the lives of people for the better -- specifically kids,” Saadeh says.

 

Saadeh’s story is just one of countless inspiring AmeriCorps experiences from around the state and the country. The rewards are not without great personal sacrifice and challenges to most members, but their unrelenting passion and diligence have helped dozens of successful nonprofits to thrive and survive.

 

“The idealism and commitment to serving the community that our members bring to Delaware helps Delaware get things done that may not happen otherwise,” says Gene Danneman, AmeriCorps program officer at the State Office of Volunteerism. “They do it with enthusiasm, hard work, sacrifice, and bring us their energy, talents, ideas, and organizational skills.”

 

AmeriCorps members are required to serve 1,700 hours per year, which equals a fulltime job, although most willingly volunteer far more time. They catch what Nancy Greene, programs manager at Sussex County Habitat for Humanity, calls “Habititus” – seeing a need and filling it, regardless of the fact that they’ve put in more than the required hours.

 

Benefitting Four Nonprofits

 

There are currently about 100 Delaware Corps members in state-supported AmeriCorps programs at four nonprofits: Connecting Generations, Habitat for Humanity, Ministry of Caring and Teach for America.

 

Benefits to AmeriCorps members include student loan forbearance, and those who complete their year of service receive an education award scholarship, which this year is $5,550*.

 

Nationally, depending on the program, members typically earn a living allowance of around $12,100 for the year -- less than minimum wage. (Each nonprofit is expected to match AmeriCorps funds – which come through grants from the federal Corporations for National Community service – by at least 26 percent, and Connecting Generations and Habitat are both at a match of more than 40 percent).

 

This leaves Corps members eligible for social services and state benefits, like food stamps and healthcare assistance.

 

“We definitely lived more simply,” says Saadeh, who roomed with UD students in Newark during her term. Other members live in shared housing, or at home, while some try to make it on their living allowance.

 

“It’s just not enough money to survive on,” says Tara Wiggins, Connecting Generations’ AmeriCorps Youth Ambassadors program director. “It’s a difficult adjustment from typically being a college student, and now having to figure out how to provide food, shelter and transportation and all that on this modest living allowance.”

 

Organizations utilize AmeriCorps members, Wiggins says, because they offer an opportunity to provide additional support services to the community, without having to sap their resources. Schools are not likely to have a fulltime person dedicated to being a mentor coordinator, which means the only way that most participating schools are able to have somebody come in and provide mentoring to their students is to have an AmeriCorps member on staff. In turn, schools are asked to give a $10,000 matching cost to support members.

 

Asked if it’s fair for a government institution to offer so little to people who selflessly give themselves to idealistic causes, Danneman says, “We all make choices in life and prioritize different things. For one year or more some people choose to live very frugally to serve their community and receive their education award.”

 

Greene says people at Habitat call this “living in poverty as those they serve.”

 

While acknowledging that it’s a huge sacrifice to serve for a year, Greene says it’s not really service if you’re not giving up something in order to serve.

 

“I had heard that before: ‘Why don’t you pay them more, they’re that valuable.’ Yes, they are valuable,” Greene says. “But it’s the same thing as volunteering, basically – a living allowance that can facilitate that volunteerism. But I don’t think a whole lot of people volunteer for the money.”

 

Green is delighted to point out that Sussex Habitat has been able to bring onto staff 25 percent of AmeriCorps members who have served in her program, and 36 percent were able to find jobs in other nonprofit areas.

           

Greene notes that AmeriCorps members are asked to perform at a professional capacity almost instantly, since many nonprofits are run by fewer than a dozen fulltime staff members.

           

“We need them to step up and to provide us with a professional level of service,” says Greene, who says Habitat has 21 members state-wide.

 

    

Connecting Generations, for example, currently has 13 AmeriCorps members – called Youth Ambassadors – who run 18 sites throughout the state. The nonprofit can afford six fulltime staff members, so it’s clear just how necessary Corps members are.

 

Youth Ambassadors like Saadeh manage volunteer mentors by recruiting them, interviewing and matching mentors and mentees, scheduling, and supporting mentors through their year-long journeys. Youth Ambassadors also host service projects in schools, support volunteerism within the community, and attend monthly meetings and training with other members, and help to spread the word about AmeriCorps and the Youth Ambassador program.

Wiggins, who started out as an AmeriCorps member, is personally familiar with the drive that pushes these relentless, seemingly inexhaustible people.

 

“It’s this amazing thing that you can see in a person,” Wiggins says. “This passion for service and this passion for youth development. There’s no way that you could do this position and not have this passion.”

 

She says having direct contact with the children every day also helps to keep members motivated; they see the grades change, the personality and behavior change, the attendance improve.

 

“The look in those children’s eyes, saying, ‘This is someone coming to spend time with me, this is my special time to have attention and to feel loved’ --those moments can never be taken away,” says Saadeh.

 

At Teach For America, AmeriCorps’ largest program nationally, Corps members are the sole people onsite teaching in an area’s highest-need schools. 

 

Currently, nearly 60 AmeriCorps teachers and 13 alumni serve more than 7,000 students in 23 district and charter schools across six districts in Delaware. 

 

 “Every time I see stories about this ‘entitled generation,’ I wish they had worked with my AmeriCorps team for just one day,” says Greene. “I know that the young men and women I work with every single day prove that there are altruistic people out there who want to better their community, and they’re working hard to do it.”

 

Greene says that when members move on after their term, they have experience well beyond their counterparts in a first-year job situation. Running family services, working at build sites, or as volunteer coordinators, AmeriCorps members are on the front lines of making Habitat’s mission a reality: creating a world where everyone has a decent place to live. 

           

“It’s amazing and very heartwarming to me,” says Greene. “That’s what has kept me in this role for five years. I would rather make less money serving here alongside the AmeriCorps members because they’re what gets me up in the morning – their enthusiasm and sacrifices. We want them, when they leave, to be professionals and to carry the message. They are our best ambassadors.”

 

At 53, Jacquie Sanders thinks it’s the right time for her to be giving back to society by serving as an AmeriCorps member at Habitat. She began as a volunteer more than two years ago, came on as a Corps member last summer, and built a new program -- something members often do, Greene says. Sanders is a team build coordinator for her program, Veterans Build Committee, which involves building homes for and by veterans.

 

It’s a “pay it forward” philosophy, the way Sanders explains it: “You see what you’ve been able to do with your life and you know that if you can give other people the same opportunities, then perhaps they’re going to be the next person to do something amazing with their life.”

 

One misconception members have, she says, is that people often don’t realize they don’t get paid, that it’s just a living wage. Work schedules are never normal, events are at all hours, and members do everything at poverty level. 

 

“AmeriCorps members do it with an open heart,” Sanders says. “You give a lot of time, because you believe it’s the right mission.”

 

Sanders, who previously worked as a director of operations for a retail company, is inspired by stories of families she works with, like those whose children are beating the odds and starting college.

         

“That isn’t what you get in the profit world,” Sanders says. “You don’t see the smile on the faces of the kids picking out their bedroom colors before they’re even in their house.”

           

Steffi Holmes, a Corps member who served with Connecting Generations from 2012-2013, says that although she still intends to pursue her initial career in singing and teaching music, she also plans to work with youth and in volunteerism and community involvement.

           

“AmeriCorps gave me a perspective that I cannot ignore. I believe in service and helping our fellow man,” says Holmes. “We are all neighbors, whether or not we know each other, and I know that kindness can change a person's life.”

           

For those interested in serving locally or nationally through AmeriCorps, go to nationalservice.gov/programs/americorps for more information.

           

For volunteer information or to learn more about Connecting Generations, Habitat for Humanity, Teach For America, and Ministry of Caring, visit their websites at connecting-generations.org, habitat.org, teachforamerica.org, and ministryofcaring.org. Connecting Generations is always searching for volunteer mentors.        

*For those who serve in AmeriCorps and are over 55 years old, the education award, if not used by the individual, can be used by a child, grandchild or foster child.

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