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Narrowing the Gap for Native Students in Prescott

My name is Rita Sisti, and I am an AmeriCorps VISTA member with Prescott Unified School District (PUSD). I have spent much of my year of service working to improve our district’s Native American education programs.

Prescott Unified School District’s Native American Education Program exists primarily to increase the academic achievement of Native American students within PUSD, as well as to incorporate culturally relevant activities into their education in order to improve student and family engagement.  

The need for these programs is clear. In Arizona, 35.8% of people identifying as Native American live in poverty, versus 17.4% of the overall population (source). Children living in poverty are more likely to experience a wide range of risk factors that lower their academic achievement.

What does this translate to? As the achievement gap among other racial and ethnic groups has narrowed, the achievement gap among Native American students has continued to widen (source). It is estimated that for every 100 Native American kindergartners, only 7 will earn a bachelor’s degree, compared to 34 out of every 100 white kindergartners (source). Obviously, there’s some work to do. Programs that target the needs of these students can be a challenge to put in place, but narrowing that achievement gap is worth the work.

As I wrap up my year of service, I am reflecting on everything put in place to give our program a strong foundation. My work has centered around getting our program off the ground, establishing goals for the new school year, and beginning to coordinate services for students.

I’ve really enjoyed having the opportunity to interact directly with our schools and families to find out what they need. After doing research on similar programs throughout Arizona and the country, I found out that many other programs have established libraries of books for Native American students. I loved the idea of increasing representation in our libraries for our students.  After collaborating with our librarians, we purchased over 130 books for our school libraries, focusing on books written by Native American authors and featuring modern, relatable Native American characters.

Some of the books I purchased for the library of Granite Mountain 5-6 School.

Some of the books I purchased for the library of Granite Mountain 5-6 School.

Purchasing and distributing school supplies for Native American students was another rewarding project. Having the supplies they need to learn is a great way to make sure these students start the year ready to succeed. Since increasing academic achievement is one of our primary goals, distributing school supplies fit perfectly into our program. We distributed school supplies to nearly a third of our eligible students before school started in August.

One of the most challenging parts of my project has been establishing a parent committee for our program. We want our families and students to guide our goals and activities. Finding a group of parents with the time and the desire to help us figure out how to best serve our students has been a challenge. However, after a few small meetings, we finally have a great group with big plans. As I finish up my service, I know these programs are in great hands and will only get better this school year and beyond!

By Rita Sisti, AmeriCorps VISTA, Prescott Unified School District

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Published on August 15, 2017 by Kelley Villa.

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No Vet Left Behind

“Those left behind” – we hear this phrase a lot, especially in politics. But who are the ones really left behind in a globalized, technology-driven world?

Mostly everything requires a computer these days. When it comes to employment, nears everything is done completely on a computer. To those who have grown up with the skills to learn and utilize technology, job searching, applications, emails, and social media may seem natural. It is a different story for individuals who face barriers like homelessness, incarceration, physical and mental disabilities, and a lack of proper education and resources.

The days of walking in and shaking a hand to get a job are over. Homeless individuals who are growing older have faced barriers their whole lives. They have stuck with jobs of hard work and labor, leaving them with limited options in employment. Their search for employment is difficult, due to their lack of skills, computer training, and health.

The chronically homeless, at-risk homeless, and computer-illiterate individuals seem to have been thrown into a world that is not built for them. Housing, banking, communication, resources, benefits, and assistance – almost all of it is done online. Those who have faced chronic homelessness or incarceration, especially those of older generations, are falling further and further behind in accessing the employment and computer skills they need to address the barriers that are needed for them to live resilient and independent lives. Without access to employment, computer, and education resources and skills, these barriers may go unaddressed.

U.S.VETS Career Center

U.S.VETS Career Center

Over the course of my two years of service as an AmeriCorps State member with the bridge and permanent housing program at United States Veterans Initiative (U.S. VETS), I have been working in the Workforce Department, directly assisting at-risk and homeless veterans. A good chunk of my time has been spent working with veterans on the computer.

Some individuals learn a thing or two. Some become fully capable of doing it on their own. Some do not wish to absorb anything – and that’s okay, that’s why I’m here! In two years I have searched and applied for more jobs online, have helped send more emails, and have written more resumes and cover letters for those without the experience and skills to do so, than most people will in their lifetime.

Last week, I filled out rental applications for a veteran who couldn’t write after a serious accident. I read mail for a veteran who can’t see. I have created online accounts for government websites for veterans to learn their eligibility for different programs and assistance, and seek state and federal jobs they did not know they qualified for. I teach veterans how to use their phones.

I am grateful to have been sitting in the U.S. VETS Career Center every morning for two years to assist many different types of people, with different needs and barriers, to help them with computer and employment services and skills. AmeriCorps State members provide an amazing resource to the individuals they serve directly. We need more volunteers helping provide these necessary, highly impactful skills and resources. In the Prescott area, we need more places like U.S. VETS Career Center, Goodwill Employment Centers, and TRIO Veterans Upward Bound of Yavapai College.

I would like to thank the entire U.S. VETS staff, Arizona Serve, and my fellow Prescott AmeriCorps team members for all their work and support, and helping me grow as a professional and impact our community! Most importantly, I would like to send a huge thank you to every veteran, those of whom I have worked with and those everywhere, for giving all or pieces of themselves for our country.

By Justin Nyetrae, AmeriCorps State Member, Prescott

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Published on August 07, 2017 by Kelley Villa.

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There and Back Again: A VISTA Members Tale

Two years ago today I sat in the office of the Carlisle branch of John's Hopkins Center For Talented Youth and faced a life altering decision. I had just graduated from Dickinson College and was wrapping up my summer job and I was trying to decide what I was going to do with the next year of my life.

Earlier that week I had received a call from Arizona Serve, where the Tucson branch of Americorps VISTA was located. They offered me a position working as a Community School Coordinator implementing the Tucson Community Schools Initiative at Flowing Wells High School. I would be working to bring resources and opportunities from the community into my high school for students to access in order to help ensure graduation and post graduate success, which would in turn help our students and community to end the cycle of poverty.

I thought the decision would be hard, considering I would have to move across the country to a city that I knew no one in doing a job that paid very little and demanded every members all. But I found as I sat there and thought about it that it was actually a pretty easy choice. I wanted to be working with students, aiding a social justice initiative, and focusing on sustainable efforts that work to empower the community- so I said yes and jumped right in.

When I found myself sitting on a rock in the desert a year later, on my last day before leaving Arizona, I thought about the year I had had with Americorps. I thought of the programs I had created and the students I had connected with; I thought of all of the other members I had had the opportunity to work with and all the hours we had worked hand-in-hand together to create the Community Schools Initiative from the ground up, handing it off as it began its second year; I thought about the seniors I had gotten to watch graduate, with smiles on their faces and plans for the future in place.

It was a long journey, learning a new school system and starting an initiative citywide and at my school. The lessons I learned and skills I gained working with both school staff and Americorps members have been instrumental to all the work I've done since as a teacher and volunteer.

Today I face the same decision as that of two years ago: whether or not to join Americorps VISTA, this time returning to service knowing everything I know now. And once again the decision was easy. I loved the work I did through AmeriCorps previously and the support that I found from both Arizona Serve and national members.

I didn't even need the 24 hours, when they asked if I would serve I said yes confidently. Americorps definitely isn't a picnic and there are many challenges you face in your year of service, but the rewards of creating and implementing initiatives as well as helping your community to grow are exponential.

I am so excited to start working as an Americorps Vista member serving at Merit Health Leadership Academy through the Maryland Out of School Time network giving back to my hometown of Baltimore. I will once again have the chance to create an initiative from it's start and to coordinate with community school coordinator's as I help Merit to create middle school programming and resources for their ongoing effort to promote post academic success in STEM career paths. I I look forward to what I know will be another rewarding and challenging year of service.

By Jessica Libowitz 

 

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Published on August 07, 2017 by Molly Sheehy.

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Food Belongs in our Bellies, Not our Landfills

I am going to propose something radical: there is more than enough food to go around, so much food that no one should experience hunger or food insecurity.

This idea is radical because it is a far-reach from our current reality. Food insecurity is when an individual (or family) consistently experiences a lack of access to affordable, nutritious food. According to Feeding America, the state of Arizona has over a million individuals who are food insecure, and solving this issue would require $543,000,000 in additional funding. This means that 17.1% of Arizona residents are food insecure. This is a huge problem. Luckily, there is something we can do about it.

Milligan organizing the food pantry at Palo Verde High School on Martin Luther King Day.

Milligan organizing the food pantry at Palo Verde High School on Martin Luther King Day.

For my year as an AmeriCorps VISTA, I have volunteered in the Food Sourcing office at the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, a member of the Feeding America network of food banks. Throughout my year of service, I have worked to establish strong partnerships with local grocery stores, restaurants, food packaging and distribution centers, as well as regional and national brands. The food bank provides a service to these businesses by giving them an avenue to get rid of food that they are unable to sell -- whether it is “ugly produce,” items approaching their sell-by date, or seasonal items that are no longer in demand. Instead of throwing this food away, the food bank is able to get this food to those in need. Through these food sourcing efforts, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona was able to source over 40 million pounds of food in 2016. Not only are we providing meals for people in need, we are reducing the amount of food that is wasted. Food belongs in our bellies, not in the landfill.

Although the food bank is able to source tens of millions of pounds of food, there is a lot of room to grow. The United States generates an estimated 70,000,000,000 pounds of food waste each year. Yes, with TEN zeros. Seventy billion pounds. That is an almost unimaginable number. If this food was distributed to those in need, rather than hauled to the landfill, we could solve the national issue of hunger and food insecurity overnight.

The truth is that food waste is generated at every step along the way, starting at the farm and ending with the consumer. While institutions like the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and Feeding America exist to divert food waste in the food supply, we as individuals could be doing more to prevent consumer-generated food waste. Consumers actually generate more waste than anyone else; more than restaurants and grocery stores combined. Buy only what you need, and if you think you will be unable to use it all, consider freezing or jarring, or sharing with your neighbor. As a last resort, food should be composted so that the nutrients can be reintroduced to the soil. If we are serious about ending hunger, we need to get serious about reducing food waste.

 

By Kevin Milligan

AmeriCorps VISTA at the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona

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Published on June 20, 2017 by Molly Sheehy.

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Lifting Your Lid with AmeriCorps and Higher Ground

 Hello! My name is Ariel Fry and I have been serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Higher Ground Resource Center in Tucson. When I first began last summer, I knew that my project encompassed creating new systems of data collection to improve the efficacy of data review and its reflection of outcomes. But, unexpectedly, I have learned many things which went beyond my assigned job description. One of those things was lid lifting.

To be a lid lifter is to be someone who shows others that they can achieve more than they had previously thought. The leadership theory comes from an experiment performed on crickets. Exemplifying that crickets naturally jump up to 6 feet high, but if a cricket is left in a lidded jar, the cricket’s environment becomes the deciding factor of the height of its jump. Within the Law of the Lid, the lid is understood to be limits. Everyone has them. In order to lift the lid, outcomes must be relevant and accessible, there must be opportunity for growth, and often structure must be established. Throughout the lesson, my team and I were taught that in order to apply it to how we teach, guide, and help our students and community, we need to constantly be lifting our own lid.

 

 Over the course of a year, Higher Ground has certainly been my lid lifter. I was given the opportunity to co-teach the class Computers and Technology for 4th and 5th graders. I taught students the basics of computer functions and applications, such as typing, blogging, using word to type and make cards. I also incorporated the program Google CS First into the curriculum, a free computer science program which teaches kids the basic functions of computer programming through coding stories, music, videos, and games. 

I also had the opportunity to lead in community building exercises and life skills building at STAR Academic High School three days a week. Neither roles were assigned in my VAD, but I was excited to have the opportunity to teach and lead. Through my experience of teaching with the trainings in mind, like lid lifting and motivational interviewing, I found it much more challenging and rewarding.

 Reflecting on the trainings that were taught at Higher Ground, I realized that none of them were your typical trainings, but more like rich life skills being taught to us with the encouragement and guidance to use the skills while you teach. This approach to teaching staff members skills that go beyond the subject of curriculum for staff and students is unique and very inspiring. Because of this experience, I will constantly be thinking not only about the life skills I was given to grow and to teach with, but also how to approach working within an organization and instilling leadership in a meaningful and impactful way.

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Published on June 08, 2017 by Molly Sheehy.

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My Time Serving as an AmeriCorps State Member with the Tucson Urban League

Hi! My name is Ryan Sermon, and I am an AmeriCorps State member serving with the Tucson Urban League. In my role as a Career Development Specialist, I work with students enrolled at Palo Verde and Santa Rita high schools and individuals receiving services from the Youth Employment One-Stop Center. The Tucson Urban League is also part of the Tucson Community Schools Initiative, which is a collaborative effort between the Tucson Mayor’s Office and Arizona Serve with the main goal of increasing workforce knowledge and readiness for youth. During one-on-one sessions, we discuss various opportunities for accomplishing their long-term goals. Workshops are facilitated on a range of career development issues, professional branding, interviewing, employability skills, job search strategies, networking, resume and letter writing.

High school students, also known as Generation Z – the newest cohort to enter higher education and the workforce, are more interested in owning a business one day and just as many hope to turn their hobbies into full-time jobs. Once students enter college, they are often unsure of what to declare as their major and as a result end up changing their program of study on average three to five times throughout their undergraduate career. To prevent confusion, especially amongst juniors and seniors, I utilize the Holland Code to help them discover and affirm their interests and skills to match a career. Dr. Holland created a system for identifying traits and grouping careers into six different categories: Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising and Conventional. Career clusters, pathways and college majors can be classified into these personality types identified by Dr. Holland.

With my remaining service time, my goal is to meet with all high school sophomores, juniors and seniors at both Palo Verde and Santa Rita high schools and develop a preliminary plan of action for each student so they feel empowered with the tools necessary to seek job-shadowing opportunities. Once the school year ends, I will focus all of my attention to working with those enrolled in the ARIZONA@WORK Pima County One-Stop Youth Employment Center’s Summer Youth Program.

By Ryan Sermon

 

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Published on May 30, 2017 by Molly Sheehy.

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Color, glitter and food: How the Santa Rita Resource Fair came to be

Can you imagine a world without supermarkets? A world where you would need to visit specialty stores, wait in line and check-out for each product you were looking for? Imagine how much more difficult it would be if you wanted to bargain hunt! Many people in Tucson are faced with a similar challenge. With transportation, time and money limitations, searching for services to alleviate those same factors is within itself a burden. The work of the Tucson Community Schools Initiative is focused on improving this reality. We leverage partnerships with local organizations and institutions to bring bundled services into the school. The idea is to make it easier for students and families to benefit from these services by creating a community school: a supermarket of services, if you will.

I’ve had the privilege to serve at Santa Rita High School as the Community School Coordinator for the past 10 months. It has been both challenging and rewarding. To give you an idea of the ways I’ve been challenged and rewarded, I’m going to tell you about the Santa Rita Resource Fair.

Throughout the school year on a bi-weekly basis, we have held small scale events open to students and their families. There was a lot of trial and error at play. They were held at different times on different days of the week.  Also, different marketing strategies were employed. One thing became very clear: students were greatly incentivized by food. It’s only natural for a hungry teenager to follow their stomach. Just think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you want to assist a student in their self-realization, take it step by step and make sure there is food!

Keeping this present and remembering how my younger self’s mind would wander during class, I knew we needed to restructure our approach. I had the privilege to meet with some students to brainstorm what a successful event would look like. Their input was crucial. As suspected, the first suggestion –unanimously declared – was food. Then we got into other suggestions: “make it visual,” “make it interesting,” “make it interactive,” “make it relevant…” In other words, don’t push a lecture. One of the students smiled and said “color and glitter!” I knew she was onto something. What if the event was more like a carnival, where everything was in the form of a game? The kids smiled “don’t forget about the food!”

I brought this idea to the staff and asked for suggestions, information about previous events and approvals. They were on board!  Thus began the logistics mapping.  I was quickly provided with a date, time and place to move forward with. This information was inserted into a letter requesting donations. The principal lent his signature to give it more authority, and off they went. I began reaching out to my AmeriCorps contacts in different partner organizations. I wish I could have experienced their reactions as they read that the event was to be a carnival style fair and their tables were to be game booths. Luckily the majority was on board without hesitation.

“Food.” The students’ voices echoed in my mind. I began calling all of the restaurants I could think of. There were so many scribbled on my notepad, many of which I crossed off after receiving a negative. Perhaps an Excel sheet would be more effective. And so a donation tracker was formed. Soon letters were coming in with various admission passes: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Live Theater Workshop, Tucson Museum of Art, Reid Park Zoo. Even gift cards from Beyond Bread and Costco. Emails poured in inviting me to pick-up other donations:  Mama’s Hawaiian BBQ, Roadhouse Cinemas, The Loft, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Brooklyn Pizza.  Follow up calls revealed my luck with some restaurants for food donations: Serial Grillers, Chipotle, Chick-Fil-A, Marco’s Pizza. I couldn’t believe how giving these places could be.

 Knowing this was going to be a reality, I started to confirm with various organizations and institutions. They asked questions and submitted their games to make sure we were speaking the same language. I was impressed. A flyer was created to include all of the confirmed partners and donations. Word spread quickly. Flyers were sent home, posters put up on campus and teachers were notified. The campus was buzzing.

Flyer for Santa Rita Resource Fair 

Flyer for Santa Rita Resource Fair 

April 28th, the big day had finally arrived. Other AmeriCorps members helped deliver the food donations and take part in the event. Organizations arrived and set up. Staff stood-by for the great student release. And before I was even aware, the courtyard had flooded with students. At first, they walked around with curiosity. Then they began to participate. Students were throwing footballs with Army soldiers, doing yoga and filling out checks with Junior Leaguers, trying on firefighter gear, sketching with FIDM. All the while they were learning about different services like the Community Food Bank and Youth on Their Own. They got to explore their own interests beyond high-school such as attending U of A or Pima, NAU or Prescott College, becoming a police or a lawyer. 

Students practicing yoga at the Resource Fair 

Students practicing yoga at the Resource Fair 

Food, right? Well, with each participation at a booth the students earned a ticket. If enough tickets were earned, they were able to exchange them for food. The food distribution windows were continuously busy throughout the bulk of the event. After the big rush simmered down, the remaining students received prizes. I could hear them still talking about the event as they walked away.

Snapshot of the Santa Resource Fair

Snapshot of the Santa Resource Fair

As I had mentioned, it was challenging. I had to create some unfruitful events before I realized my aim was off.  It was extremely rewarding to see their excitement over this particular event. It was also a great learning experience. Maybe I thought I knew what would work, but it was best to hear it directly from the people I aimed to serve; or in the words of Ignacio Estrada “If a child can't learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

By Camille Santiago 

AmeriCorps VISTA at Santa Rita High School 

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Published on May 22, 2017 by Molly Sheehy.

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Grow it Yourself: Building Community at Compass Affordable Housing

I moved to this funky little pueblo six months ago to explore the mountain ranges, eat delicious food, grow a garden, and take on poverty. Tucson is an affordable city (relative to the rest of the country), and yet, much of its population lives in poverty. This little hub of activism thrives, but poverty is widespread, and a huge community has emerged to address it. Tucson's charm brought me here, and now, it is the context where I reconsider poverty’s causes, how to address them, and the frustrations that come along with both.

Here at Compass Affordable Housing (CAH), I work in Tenant Services. The mission of Compass Affordable Housing, Inc. is to improve the quality of family and community life by developing, producing and managing low-cost affordable housing with support services. We strive to increase efforts that make housing affordable on the local, state and national level. As I approach the end of my service, I contemplate what this service really means. Mostly, I wonder: what makes more sense: reacting to poverty or preventing it? I’m learning now that working on both fronts is necessary, complicated, and far from easy.

“Low-income” is more than just a quantifier. People are not defined by how much money they make, and yet, this experience defines large parts of their reality. Are their basic needs being met? What about their other needs? Where does my role as VISTA fit in?

We at CAH works on both fronts - preventing poverty where we can, and responding where needed. Affordable housing -housing that does not cost more than 30% of one’s income- is in short supply nationwide. So, CAH builds these properties, and tailors services onsite to meet unique needs. We try to meet the basic needs, and discover the other ones that - like people who live there - are more complicated. What are their goals, and what’s our role? Do they need help writing a resume or finding work? What if they lost their job, and are just short of rent this month? And further - are they hungry, and don’t have the time or money to get to the grocery store? These are small bits of opportunity where Tenant Services steps in to react to crises. We try to build small bridges to success to connect people to the many resources here that exist, and seek out where they don’t to be more creative in the future.

A snapshot of a beets, parsley, carrots and lettuce from the community garden at Alvord Court Apartments

A snapshot of a beets, parsley, carrots and lettuce from the community garden at Alvord Court Apartments

If half of what I do is responding to need - be it hunger, financial crisis or personal crisis, the other half is trying to prevent that need and build community. Our pantry and employment centers react to hunger and unemployment, but the community garden and the volunteering required to grow it provide proactive steps against both. The wider issue of food insecurity is systematic on the Southside of Tucson. With our community garden, can we both feed and build community? Everyone has their own needs for food, but maybe once those individual needs are met, the wider sense of community can grow along with their fresh veggies.

Understanding poverty means understanding widespread inequity, having patience with imperfection, and having the endurance for long-term community-building and resource development all at once.  Tenant Services is about more than measurable outcomes; we meet people where they’re at, and try to partner with them when and where we can. In the end, their success is their own.

By Elaine MacPherson, AmeriCorps VISTA at Compass Affordable Housing 

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Published on May 15, 2017 by Molly Sheehy.

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Valet VITA Program at United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona

With spring in Tucson comes warm(er) air, saguaro blooms and, of course, taxes.  Every April, like clockwork, Uncle Sam sends the Internal Revenue Service to collect citizens’ due contributions to our society. To many Americans, however, it seems that all Uncle Sam sends is anxiety and confusion.  For this reason, United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona (UWTSA) is one of the thousands of organizations across the country that facilitate the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.   

This tax season, UWTSA pledged to prepare income taxes for any Tucsonan household that brought in less that $64,000 of combined income absolutely free of charge. United Way was able to stay true to this charge by training and mobilizing over 100 volunteers and setting up shop at 22 community locations.

As I learned early in my service, two of the biggest barriers to people receiving services they need are transportation and availability.  For this reason, I threw my focus behind improving our “Valet” VITA service.  In our Valet model, clients can come into a site, sit through a 20 minute intake interview, and then have their documents scanned into United Way’s secure cloud-based system.  From there, volunteers can remotely prepare the returns without the taxpayer needing to be present.

Spencer Buys, AmeriCorps VISTA at United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, at the Joel Valdez Main Library helping out a community member with their taxes

Spencer Buys, AmeriCorps VISTA at United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, at the Joel Valdez Main Library helping out a community member with their taxes

Contrast this with our traditional model that can take up to 3 hours, in which clients sit through the interview, preparation and quality review before leaving with their return, and we see that clients save more time to spend taking care of work and family.  Further, while our traditional model requires static, immovable locations, our Valet model, in which all required materials fit in a briefcase, allows us to set up “pop up shops” all over Tucson. This effectively mitigates clients’ transportation barriers.

When I arrived at United Way, Valet VITA was a well-oiled machine, but there was still room for programmatic improvements. Chiefly, my supervisor had highlighted the current document management system for Valet returns as clunky and inefficient.

During the tax off-season, I researched dozens of document management platforms with the hope of streamlining our tax preparation workflow. With collaboration from the IT department, we settled on Zendesk: a ticket-based helpdesk with customization features.  We built out multiple iterations of our workflow, attempting to maximize automation and simplicity to make the tax preparers’ jobs easier. My final product involved a complex line of triggers and automations across multiple platforms. The extra work on the back end paid off, however. Our tax preparers found the new Zendesk platform to be more efficient, intuitive, and organized.

By the end of the season, 413 tax returns were filed with the IRS through the new Zendesk system, a 55% increase over last year’s system. Those 413 Valet returns brought back $559,341 in refunds to working class families in Tucson. We can take the tax time savings of these 413 clients even further by considering their alternative options of a paid preparer. With an average cost in the neighborhood of $250 per return, the free service offered by United Way saved clients an additional $82,600. When we combine the total refunds with the taxpayer’s ability to take advantage of free service delivery, we see that the Valet VITA program created close to $642,000 in value for the Tucson community.

Each year, important tax credits accessed by filing are highlighted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities as the single most powerful tool to help families escape poverty. I’m proud that, as an AmeriCorps VISTA, I had the unique opportunity to contribute to such a wide spanning and effective initiative.

By Spencer Buys, AmeriCorps VISTA at the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona 

 

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Published on May 10, 2017 by Molly Sheehy.

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AmeriCorps NCCC: Our Time Working in Tucson

My name is Emma Hodgson and I am a corps member in AmeriCorps NCCC. NCCC stands for the National Civilian Community Corps. The National Civilian Community Corps consists of teams of 18 to 24 year olds who travel around the country doing different service projects for organizations in need. It is a ten month commitment and the teams have three different projects throughout that time. Alpine 7, the NCCC team I’ve worked with for the past four months, arrived in Tucson on January 8th and will be leaving Tucson on March 31st after twelve weeks of service.

During the time that the team has been here we have accomplished more than I could’ve imagined. Our job has been to work at eight different high schools on beautification projects, tutoring and more! In addition to that we have become IRS certified and have been filing taxes for low income families through VITA, as well as calling parents and encouraging graduating seniors to apply for the FAFSA  (Free Application for Federal Student Aid.) One of our bigger hands on projects was helping open the new College and Career Center at Palo Verde High Magnet School. We assisted with organizing college materials, painting murals and decorating the center to make it look as welcoming as possible to the students who walked through the doors. We also began work on a College and Career Center at Catalina Magnet High School as well.

The work that we have been doing for Tucson Community Schools Initiative has really touched everyone on the team. I remember looking around the College and Career Center at Palo Verde for the opening ceremony and realizing that there would be students coming through those doors for years to come trying to find help with their post graduation plans. There are so many graduating seniors that struggle finding the support that they need and now they can have it. This would give students a chance at a better and brighter future than they might not have had otherwise. I also noticed our impact during tutoring sessions at the schools. Twice a week the team has been going to Desert View High School to help students with ACT prep. Standardized testing has always been a struggle for me and it was no different for these students. Colleges put so much pressure on students to be the best that they can be for the ACT and SAT that it’s hard for them not to be overwhelmed. By giving them feedback on test taking strategies and going through the test with them helped students feel less nervous. Being more confident on this test and doing as well as they can could be the key to opening up more opportunities for graduating seniors.

The entire team can agree that working with the ELL (English Language Learner) students was by far the best part of our time in Tucson. We were given the chance to work with the ELL students during class time at both Catalina Magnet High School and Palo Verde High Magnet School. We would assist with the lessons that students were being taught in class as well as practicing conversational English with them. I have said this to the team many times and this won’t be the last; I feel that during our time with the ELL students we have been learning just as much from them as they are from us. One thing that really stood out to us all is that all the ELL students really want to be at school. You can tell just by the way they talk to us that they really want to be there. At my high school back home most people went to school but only because it was required to go to school. Students at my school  were not as enthusiastic as the ELL students here. It made me realize how much people take things like education for granted. Another thing that many people take for granted in the U.S is safety. One of the ELD teachers at Palo Verde gave us a book filled with the stories of past ELL students in her class to read. I remember one of the students was from Iraq and was remembering what it was like to have bombs going off just outside there house. Just going to get groceries or going to school for this student was life threatening. They continued by saying how they liked living in the United States because of the fact that they didn’t have to worry about bombs anymore. That one sentence has been repeated over and over again in my head over the past several weeks and will forever be engraved in my brain.  I will never know what that is like to be in danger for just stepping out onto my doorstep. My neighborhood back home is very safe. You could probably take a walk by yourself at night and be fine. It made me reflect on all the little things in life that I have taken for granted each day. I joined AmeriCorps NCCC in hopes that I would figure out what I wanted to do with my life. This experience made me want to look into doing more work with refugees as a job.


It is week nine of the team being here and the topic that we have all been dreading has been brought up; saying our goodbyes to the students and staff that we have worked with here. There are students and staff at each of the eight high schools that have played a role in making our time here in Tucson so memorable. In the next couple of weeks we will have to say goodbye to it all. It has truly been a blast working on this project from hands on work on school campuses to calling parents to make sure that their kids are being offered Federal Student Aid. It has been tiring and challenging at times but I am a true believer in the idea that the hard is what makes it great. Tucson is a great city and I cannot wait to come back to visit or possibly even move here in the future. Regardless, I will be coming back to Tucson in one way or another.

Alpine 7 working together to clear the gardens at Pueblo Magnet High School. 

Alpine 7 working together to clear the gardens at Pueblo Magnet High School. 

Susanna DeLoera and Sarah Conley painting the new College and Career Center at Catalina High School. 

Susanna DeLoera and Sarah Conley painting the new College and Career Center at Catalina High School. 

 Alpine 7 heading out for another day of work

 Alpine 7 heading out for another day of work

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Published on March 21, 2017 by Molly Sheehy.

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AmeriCorps Week in Prescott

AmeriCorps Week in Prescott

On March 10, 2017, Arizona Serve's Prescott team partnered with the Coalition for Compassion and Justice to revitalize and rejuvenate a gardening space to be used by CCJ staff and clients.

12 AmeriCorps VISTA and State members came together to complete 4 projects: mulching soil, removing invasive juniper bushes, creating 5 straw bale planters, and planting a garden bed.

These projects will beautify the space around the CCJ Thrift Store and hospice center, making the space more cheerful and productive. Eventually, CCJ clients hope to grow flowers to sell at the farmer's market, as well as healthy foods to provide for clients of their Open Door community pantry.

Everybody helped out -- even our dog friends.

Everybody helped out -- even our dog friends.

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Published on March 17, 2017 by Kelley Villa.

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Taking Action with FAFSA Data

Hello! My name is Jenn Schilling, and I am an AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the Metropolitan Education Commission in Tucson. In my VISTA role, I build capacity for the Metropolitan Education Commission’s Regional College Access Center by developing data collection and analysis capabilities, formalizing our peer mentoring program, and creating workshops and materials to support college access. The Metropolitan Education Commission is also part of the Tucson Community Schools Initiative, which is a joint effort between Tucson Mayor’s Office and Arizona Serve that aims to increase graduation rates and connect students with postgraduate pathways to success through developing partnerships between community based organizations and the eight participating high schools.

In February, I received an email from the Arizona College Access Network that included a link to an awesome dashboard from the Be a Leader Foundation in Phoenix that shows FAFSA completion data for high schools in the Phoenix Union School District. In my role as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Metropolitan Education Commission, and given my background in data and analytics, I thought to myself, "How can I create something like that for us and our partner schools?"

The Metropolitan Education Commission engages with schools throughout Southern Arizona and assists students with all steps of the college process, including college applications, scholarship applications, and FAFSA completion. Every week the U.S. Department of Education publishes data on FAFSA submissions and completions at high schools in each state. Using this data along with senior class cohort sizes at each of our partner schools, we can show the percent of a senior class that has completed the FAFSA, weekly FAFSA completion numbers at each high school, and the progress a high school has made towards meeting last year's FAFSA completion rate.

 

I developed three dashboards using Tableau Public to convey these metrics. The Tableau Workbook is connected to a Google Sheet that contains the data, which makes updating the data each week very easy. In addition, using Tableau Public and Google Sheets meant that this solution was free to create.

The dashboards provide the data from the U.S. Department of Education directly to our partner schools so that they do not have to spend the time pulling and filtering the data - they can simply find their school on our dashboards; we've already done all of the processing. The dashboards also provide information on week to week progress and highlight bright spots where schools are exceeding last year's completion rates. In addition, the dashboards help the Metropolitan Education Commission focus our services on the schools that need the most help with the FAFSA.

We created a page on our website to host our FAFSA Dashboard so that our school and community partners can easily access the reports. FAFSA completion is so important because it is strongly associated with postsecondary enrollment and completion. According to data from a longitudinal study from the National Center for Education Statistics, 90% of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA enroll in a post-secondary education program immediately after high school, compared to 55% of high school seniors who do not complete the FAFSA. In addition, 52% of students who complete the FAFSA complete a bachelor's degree within six years of enrollment versus 44% of students who do not complete the FAFSA

I hope that presenting the FAFSA completion data from the U.S. Department of Education through these visualizations will help both the Metropolitan Education Commission and our school partners increase the number of students who complete the FAFSA and successfully enroll in higher education.

 

 

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Published on March 13, 2017 by Molly Sheehy.

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A Great AmeriCorps Journey

My service as an AmeriCorps VISTA was both challenging and rewarding. I was exposed to a brand new language and new ways of getting things done. It was no longer hands on and I could no longer get my uniform dirty. I started my service as a VISTA with the intention of not comparing it to my previous State AmeriCorps service, from Pima College Adult Education, and I must say it helped coming in without expectations because it got me ready to work.

I was given the title of Community Resource Developer and I did my service at the Mayor’s Office for the Tucson Community Schools Initiative. I never had an office and never did I had in my vocabulary, words such as, funding, grant proposals, sustainability, capacity building, data entry, and so on. As a VISTA, not only did I had an office but it was also on the tenth floor in the City Hall of Tucson with an amazing view that made me fall in love with the city even more and my vocabulary not only expanded but it evolved to a higher and smarter level, one that I could not think of reaching as an English Second Language learner. During our AmeriCorps Civic Leadership Trainings, I got the opportunity to connect with other AmeriCorps members and I realized that I was part of something big and great named Arizona Serve and that my fellow teammates ranged greatly in age and experience which gave me the opportunity to learn so much from them. During my service, I did not hesitate to ask questions and I valued every professional development opportunity my team leaders provided because it was in these trainings and meetings where I got to see myself grow and become more useful for the Initiative.

I must say that AmeriCorps has been a great learning opportunity from the beginning. It got me out of unemployment, poverty and put me right into higher education. AmeriCorps also provided the opportunity for me to meet passionate and intelligent people whose goals are to improve the community. Without AmeriCorps VISTA, I would have never met my supervisor Karla Avalos the Community Organization & Development Director, a strong and hardworking woman who I highly admire, or Meg Riley, the Program Manager Community Schools Initiative, who is very knowledgeable and provided me that sense of belonging the instant she became part of our Tucson Community Schools Initiative Team. Also, Maryann Phininzy, Program Coordinator for the AmeriCorps Program in PCC Adult Education, a woman who became more than a mentor but a guidance in life and a reminder of my strengths when I am in most doubt. Last but not least...AmeriCorps VISTA gave me the opportunity to meet and work with coolest guy in Tucson, Mayor Jonathan Rothschild whose agenda includes the welfare of the people and his generosity cannot be measure with a few words but perhaps an entire book that describes his constant hard work to keep this city afloat. Serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA and Resource Developer for the Tucson Community Schools Initiative, allowed me to grow professionally and got me prepared even more so to get things done.

Catalina Llamas, Sylvia Baiza and Xail Hernandez in a beautification project in 2012 (person taking the picture is Maryann Phininzy)

Catalina Llamas, Sylvia Baiza and Xail Hernandez in a beautification project in 2012 (person taking the picture is Maryann Phininzy)

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Published on March 11, 2017 by Molly Sheehy.

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Volunteering, Managing Volunteers, and the Larger Meaning of Service

I came to be an AmeriCorps VISTA through a rather circuitous route. For 15 years I was an academic archaeologist, and spent three years as an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and teaching at a university. My research focused on ancient social issues that increasingly seemed too distant from the pressing social needs of our current world. Over time my personal and professional goals became so misaligned, that I decided to take a personal leave of absence from the academic world. After a year of reassessing my life, I decided to shift gears and become a VISTA. I had already contemplated taking a vow of poverty and dedicating my efforts to service, so being a VISTA seemed like a good fit.

Currently I am serving as a volunteer coordinator with Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest (LSS-SW) in Tucson, Arizona. Like many non-profit organizations, LSS-SW relies on tremendous community support, including volunteers, to accomplish the work that they do. And that’s where volunteer coordinators like me come in. My project is to help build a strong, sustaining volunteer program in Tucson for the divisions of LSS-SW that operate here. But I view what I’m doing in more general terms –help to connect people willing to serve their community with those in the community who need help.

Refugee Focus and Aging & Disability are the two divisions of LSS-SW that operate in Tucson. Most of the LSS-SW volunteers in Tucson give their time at Refugee Focus, which resettles refugees and provides support to them as they integrate into our community. In 2015 there were 21.3 million refugees in the world. Though the final statistics are not yet in for 2016, we do know that the previous year’s number was surpassed back in October of 2016. Arizona is 6th in terms of states that welcome refugees in the U.S., and Tucson is one of two cities in Arizona that welcomes refugees to our community. Volunteers, who must meet high vetting standards, are essential to assisting them in achieving self-sufficiency. Part of my work entails implementing a volunteer management program that ensures highly vetted volunteers are connected to vulnerable individuals and families faced with the daunting task of integrating into our community in a very short period of time. Poverty, among other problems, looms large.

Aging & Disability is just now beginning to mobilize volunteers to enhance their work, which centers around in-home care for homebound seniors and disabled persons, including operating part of the Meals on Wheels program in Tucson. Since 26% of seniors in Pima County live alone, in-home care and related services are important for helping seniors remain in their homes versus going to care facilities. Working with their Luminaria program, I’m helping to bring in their first volunteers, who will offer friendly voices over the phone to homebound clients. That friendly voice might be one of the few sources of regular contact for homebound individuals. Hopefully the work that I do will lay the foundation for the expansion of the volunteer program to include more roles to serve seniors and disabled individuals, who sometimes find themselves close to poverty, hungry, or neglected.

In the course of my day as a VISTA, I may not give my time and energy to direct service with refugees, seniors, or the disabled in Tucson. But my efforts are building a framework so that the volunteer program can continue long after I’m gone.

Part of what I appreciate about working with LSS-SW is that they offer a range of services to different groups of people with different needs. Working here has opened my eyes to the realities of refugee resettlement, aging, and disability; the challenges that various groups face in our community; and how those realities, challenges, and experiences intersect with poverty.

Part of what I like about being a VISTA is that in the course of my interactions with others working on issues of poverty I’ve learned about so many other issues: homelessness, fair housing, economic and food insecurity, mass incarceration, mental health, and racism. I’ve also had the opportunity to think more about the history and theories of non-violence. I intend to continue to work on social justice issues, and to pursue non-violent approaches to making social change.

It took me a while, but it appears that things are beginning to align.

 

Margaret and Tony, both AmeriCorps VISTAs, doing volunteer recruitment at the Peace Corps Fair at the University of Arizona

Margaret and Tony, both AmeriCorps VISTAs, doing volunteer recruitment at the Peace Corps Fair at the University of Arizona

By Margaret Brown Vega, PhD 

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Published on March 09, 2017 by Molly Sheehy.

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Palo Verde’s New College and Career Center!

For many high school students, the college-going process may seem quite daunting and overwhelming, especially if students are the first in the family to attend a university. Many high schools in Tucson have a designated space for students to explore their post-secondary opportunities and plan how they will accomplish these goals. This month, Palo Verde High Magnet School reached an exciting, new milestone with the opening of the College and Career Center. What was once a simple vision became reality following winter break, with the support of our incredible school community and amazing AmeriCorps team members.

BEFORE: Volunteers during the MLK Day of Service on January 14th, 2017, revitalized the neglected, empty space that became Palo Verde’s new College and Career Center.

BEFORE: Volunteers during the MLK Day of Service on January 14th, 2017, revitalized the neglected, empty space that became Palo Verde’s new College and Career Center.

AFTER: The Dedication Ceremony of the new College and Career Center on February 2nd, 2017.

AFTER: The Dedication Ceremony of the new College and Career Center on February 2nd, 2017.

 

In December, I spoke with the school counselor and asked if we could create a College and Career Center for our students here at Palo Verde. The counselor showed me this dark, neglected space which had incredible potential. That afternoon, I drafted a proposal for the space, created plans for the designs and layout, and scheduled a meeting with our principal. The next day, we proposed this idea to the principal, received immediate approval, and met with our extraordinary AmeriCorps staff to coordinate the execution of this center through our annual MLK Day of Service and the AmeriCorps NCCC Alpine 7 Team. After winter break, numerous volunteers attended the MLK Day of Service on January 14th. Volunteers gave the space a new look with a fresh coat of paint and organized countless college materials. During the following two weeks, the Alpine 7 team devoted their time to help implement the mural designs and set up this beautiful new space. Finally, we received numerous donations from wonderful partners, such as Dunn Edwards Paint, Fountain of Life, Starbucks, Fry's, and countless universities. This center is truly the perfect example of community in schools. Many student organizations, faculty, staff, custodians, counselors, and administration contributed to making this center a success within several weeks.

AmeriCorps NCCC Alpine 7 Team hard at work in Palo Verde’s new College and Career Center.

AmeriCorps NCCC Alpine 7 Team hard at work in Palo Verde’s new College and Career Center.

On February 2nd, we hosted the Dedication Ceremony of the new College and Career Center, which attracted over 50 attendees including Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, university representatives, district representatives, school administration, faculty, staff, student organizations, and numerous AmeriCorps members and staff. During this ceremony, Mayor Rothschild described the transformation of this space from dark, neglected space he first saw it during the MLK Day of Service. Mayor Rothschild also stated how important this center, the services offered here, and the roles of our Student Ambassadors are in the lives of our students. Ben Olsen, Director of Arizona Serve, echoed this by discussing the success of the Tucson Community Schools Initiative over the past two years at Palo Verde. Finally, Principal Eric Brock discussed the significance of this center for our students and how far Palo Verde has come in recent years, which could not have happened without his outstanding leadership and dedication to our students.

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Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, Director Ben Olsen, and Principal Eric Brock speak during the Dedication Ceremony of the new College and Career Center.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, Director Ben Olsen, and Principal Eric Brock speak during the Dedication Ceremony of the new College and Career Center.

Operation AmeriCorps Members during the Dedication Ceremony of the new College and Career Center.

Operation AmeriCorps Members during the Dedication Ceremony of the new College and Career Center.

Transformed from a dark, neglected room in Palo Verde’s basement, the new College and Career Center is now a vibrant, welcoming space for students to explore opportunities in higher education, scholarships, financial aid, and employment. On every surface, there is a plethora of information for students to research.

 

Student Testimonials:

“The new College and Career Center has created the perfect spot to gain access to colleges and scholarships that I was originally unaware of. It is very creatively designed, which makes for a comfortable environment.” –Nsabimana Virginia

“It is very reassuring to know that students have a support system at our school and a place where they can go to get the help they need.” –Eric Oum

On every wall, there are inspiring graphics for students to envision themselves attending various institutions. In the past few weeks, the center hosted numerous trainings, steering committee and team meetings, university representative visits, partner organizations presentations, and the brand new Career Connections workshop series. Students immediately began using the center to explore their post-graduation opportunities, and seeing their eyes light up as they walk into this rejuvenated space made our team's efforts very rewarding. We are eager to see what the future holds for this center and for our remarkable students as they pursue their dreams.

All the best,

Frannie Neal

 

 

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Published on March 07, 2017 by Molly Sheehy.

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A Year of Learning and Re-Learning

Hello, my name is Krystle Preston. I am an AmeriCorps VISTA member at Compass Affordable Housing in Tucson, Arizona. When I first started my year of service, I thought it would be just a year of gaining work experience and nothing else, boy was I wrong. I am at the end of my year of service and I cannot express everything that I have learned or re-learned. One of my favorite quotes, “Develop a passion for learning. If you do you will never cease to grow.” Anthony J. D’Angelo. My year as a VISTA has allowed me to grow as a person. Before this year I would always be pushing for the next moment, never enjoying or even noticing the current moment in time. Now I live my life day to day fully emerged in each moment. I also have expanded my friends to include people of all walks of life. 

I was born and raised in rural Michigan. I received my graduate degree from Michigan State University in Social Work in the summer of 2015. Life was full of interesting moments that taught me to be open and accepting of other walks of life. This openness was one of the reasons that I chose to come to Tucson, Arizona. Tucson is a sprawling city full of diversity and acceptance. I came here with an open mind and a willingness to learn as much as I could about this city and about the population that I would be serving. After graduation, I had spent months applying for jobs with no luck and no job offers. After every rejection I asked for constructive feedback and they all said that I needed more experience. A friend told me about the AmeriCorps program and I figured it would be a great way to gain experience and it also offered me the chance to travel.

Compass Affordable Housing goals and values include improving the quality of family and community life by developing, producing, and managing high quality, service-enriched affordable housing.  I was mainly focused in our sober living apartment complex offering supportive servicesWe serve individuals from all different religious, political and ethnic backgrounds. However, the two main similarities between all tenants is that at least one tenant in each household is living in recovery from drugs or alcohol and that they are low income.

I learned throughout my year that many of my early perceptions of this population were not true.  I worked hard to get to know the tenants and their own, unique stories. I learned that these people were a testament to perseverance and masters of adversity. For instance, many of the tenants during their time of addiction burned multiple social connections. When they became clean they were left to struggle to build a healthy lifestyle on their own. Many cannot and do not succeed without social supports. Yet, the people here at Glenstone Village have succeeded at living in recovery and a lot of that is due to the support system that Compass Affordable Housing offers.   In my time at Compass Affordable Housing, I developed a great respect for the tenants. By knowing the tenants on a personal level it helped me to foster the motivation to develop programs and events for the tenants that would best serve them.

My project for the year had four main aims: develop volunteer opportunities and opportunities to network with outside businesses and nonprofits for tenants, update company policies and procedures, and finally help build better models for tracking data. Throughout my year, I successfully address these aims. I recruited and managed a core group of volunteers for tabling and presentation activities, updated the company policies and procedures with the thoughts of tenants, interns and volunteers in mind, and built excel spreadsheets and organized binders for better tracking systems.

I came in thinking that this year would just be about learning work skills. I didn’t know that instead I would learn what it meant to change one’s life 360 degrees. I learned what it meant to ask for help. I learned what it meant to be truly open minded. I learned that people are human, we all make mistakes and sometimes we just need someone to listen and offer a hand back up. I learned of true understanding. My VISTA year has helped me to re-learn and rewire to take life day by day and to appreciate everyone and everything in my life.

 

By Krystle Preston

A tenant at the end of one of our art therapy sessions.

A tenant at the end of one of our art therapy sessions.

A picture of a tenant and I after one of our physical health walking club events

A picture of a tenant and I after one of our physical health walking club events

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Published on March 05, 2017 by Molly Sheehy.

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There’s more to education than meets the eye

Courtesy of Arizona State Director of Homeless Education, Frank Migali.

Courtesy of Arizona State Director of Homeless Education, Frank Migali.

Hello, my name is Jennifer Harte and I am an AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the Prescott Unified School District. My position as the Family Services Coordinator for the district’s Family Resource Center (FRC) has been very rewarding so far. The FRC has only been open for about a year now, so I have been able to help the space grow while also being able to help families get what they need.

I came into the position after the FRC was open only a few months, so I wanted to do local research to make sure I could help it function to the best of its ability. The main goal of the center is to get our families the resources they need to make sure their children stay in school, despite hardships they may face. This includes providing clothing, school supplies and hygiene products.

After visiting other resource centers around Arizona, I wanted to bring more to the FRC by providing workshops and collaborative events for families and community members. I set up the Shop with a Ranger program; Arizona Rangers personally take families shopping for the clothes they need. I also have partnered with multiple organizations to provide resources to our families that the district can’t supply. Establishing community relations for the FRC is not only vital to keep it up and running, but is also an important way to make the community aware of the hardships families in our communities face.

During the holidays I coordinated our First Annual Family Resource Fair where families could pick up free Christmas presents for their children while also talking to tabling organizations like the Goodwill Career Center, Yavapai County Community Health Services, and various after-school programs.

Most of the contact I have is with low income or homeless families, who I have been able to help in a variety of ways. Being able to make the process of going to school easier for these kids has really been the best part of my position so far. About 50 families have been qualified homeless since the beginning of the 2016 school year, but keeping them enrolled in school is the responsibility of everyone in a community. Every child deserves the opportunity to be educated to their full potential.

Jennifer Harte and Paul Katan with first Arizona Ranger to do the "Shop with a Ranger" program.

Jennifer Harte and Paul Katan with first Arizona Ranger to do the "Shop with a Ranger" program.

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Published on March 04, 2017 by Kelley Villa.

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A Letter of Gratitude to AmeriCorps

"A Letter of Gratitude to AmeriCorps" 

 

Dear AmeriCorps, 

Happy AmeriCorps Week!  I feel so lucky to be part of this celebration for a second year.  I wanted to take a moment to thank you during this week that celebrates where you've been and where you're going.  

After graduating from college, I was unsure of where I was going, but you gave me purpose.  I have been able to gain professional experience while applying what I learned in the classroom to a real-world environment.  Through the lens of "Make Poverty History", I have the ability to give back to my community and country through building capacity and sustainability at a social services nonprofit.  You forced me out of my comfort zone and pushed me to do things I would normally be afraid to do, and I am a better person for that.    

Since I grew up and went to college in Tucson, I thought I knew everything there is to know about my hometown.  You humbled and matured me by showing me my community from a new and different perspective.  I was able to see the struggles of those around me that were once invisible to me.  I was no longer able to protect myself in my own bubble and had to see the sometimes harsh reality.  The best part, though, is that you taught me there is something we can do about it.  I have had this opportunity to work towards a better and brighter future because of you. 

I have grown in so many ways throughout the last year and half-more than I could have ever imagined when I started-and, what I would like to say to you, AmeriCorps, is THANK YOU!  Thank you for giving me lifelong friendships, a fresh perspective, determination to keep moving forward, and direction for the future.  Thank you for existing and giving me and so many others the chance to learn and grow through national service.  Thank you for being a companion and teacher and for making me a better me.  I will carry what you have given me into my next steps and beyond, and I feel so honored to be part of your journey.  

Always, 

Laura 

 

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Published on March 03, 2017 by Molly Sheehy.

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An AmeriCorps Journey

Hello, my name is Patrick Studdert-Kennedy, and I am currently serving as an AmeriCorps State Member at Higher Ground in Tucson, Arizona. This year at Higher Ground marks my third consecutive year serving with AmeriCorps, developing and empowering youth through national and community service.  It is through AmeriCorps that I have become passionate about working with youth, especially creating relationships and facilitating programs that foster opportunities for them to gain skills and evolve into productive members of society.  

One aspect of AmeriCorps that I really love and that has kept me coming back over the past few years is the opportunity to immerse myself amongst different people, cities, food, weather, and traditions.  That first move from Vermont to Arkansas was a pretty big cultural and geographic change, but it quickly turned out to be one of the most overwhelmingly positive experiences I could have ever given myself. I still think about the kids I taught and mentored at Cloverdale Middle School every day. The truth is, even though I was there to help and teach them, they ended up being the teachers and I the student. They taught me how to be outgoing and have confidence in myself. They taught me how to have patience and figure out how to solve problems. They taught me how to respect, and eventually love a place and culture that I never would have known anything about if I were still living 1,500 miles away at home.

Serving as a VISTA one summer in Little Rock

Serving as a VISTA one summer in Little Rock

From there, I've served in Colorado, Missouri and now Arizona, each experience unique in its goals abut consistent in its impact--for the communities I am serving but also for myself. It was in Colorado that I began my AmeriCorps NCCC journey, a program that engages AmeriCorps members in team-based service projects; a program that lasts all day, every day for 10 months, allowing its members the opportunity to travel around the United States and participate in different projects for a few months at a time. From Colorado, I went to Missouri where I served with an urban farm in Kansas City that uses sustainable living and home repair to transform the lives of community members. In NCCC, I was able to continue to experience new cultures, different people and diverse communities.

Working with NCCC on the roof of a house in downtown Kansas City

Working with NCCC on the roof of a house in downtown Kansas City

About to crawl under that trailer and put in some insulation for a man in Kansas City

About to crawl under that trailer and put in some insulation for a man in Kansas City

Meeting Bill Clinton in Little Rock at the 2015 City Year Red Jacket Ball

Meeting Bill Clinton in Little Rock at the 2015 City Year Red Jacket Ball

My experience so far serving at Higher Ground has been just as challenging, exciting, and rewarding as my past work. I have gotten the opportunity to work in two different local high schools on a daily basis, to serve as a high school enterprise coordinator and as a behavioral health technician, recording student behavior and coaching them to learn new behaviors and explore socially acceptable norms. Every day at Higher Ground, I learn something about myself, something about the community and something new about people. I look forward to seeing where this project will lead me next, and what kind of relationships and memories I will carry with me. 

By Patrick Studdert-Kennedy

 

 

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Published on February 07, 2017 by Molly Sheehy.

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The MLK Day of Service: Carrying Dr. King's Legacy Forward

          Nearly 49 years after Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his final speech in Memphis, Dr. King's legacy of hope and compassion continues to inspire communities throughout our country and around the world. His timeless ethics transformed the country by leading the Civil Rights Movement to victory, and although his life was cut tragically short, Dr. King will always be remembered for pulling the needle of the American moral compass northward. Dr. King did not only spur a social revolution into being; he also spurred a revolution of the spirit. On January 14th 2017, members from across our community gathered to commemorate Dr. King's passion for service at Palo Verde High Magnet School. The annual event is sponsored by AmeriCorps, and the invaluable support from our school, became the largest service event for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the state of Arizona this year.

The Palo Verde High Magnet School auditorium just before the Opening Ceremony commenced.

The Palo Verde High Magnet School auditorium just before the Opening Ceremony commenced.

          Despite the chilly, grey, early Saturday morning, students, staff, volunteers and community members spilled into the auditorium for the Opening Ceremony. Student Ambassador and Event Emcee, Eric Oum, greeted the crowd and directed attention toward the purpose of the gathering: to honor Dr. King's legacy through collaboration and community service. Through a beautifully crafted video, Eric interpreted Dr. King's final speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," and incorporated thoughtful commentary dubbed over clips of footage from the Civil Rights era. Assistant Principal and former AmeriCorps volunteer, Renee Arakaki, then took the stage to relate the core principles of AmeriCorps to Dr. King's vision for a better society by analyzing the AmeriCorps creed one line at a time, demonstrating the value of community service and the potential it holds to bring people together and eliminate injustice. Renee offered concrete examples of how Palo Verde and AmeriCorps this year have jointly combated poverty, through biweekly Resource Events, the establishment of the daily After-School Meals Program, and the creation of our brand-new College and Career Center. Two extraordinary Palo Verde students followed with poignant, original poetry performances, relating modern day themes to the Civil Rights era and recreating provocative images from the 1960's Civil Rights marches. Finally, Stefanie Mach, former Arizona Representative, took the stage with a casual, yet powerful demeanor that left the audience in awe. Through a tale of immense personal achievement over self-doubt, Ms. Mach emphasized the importance of looking beyond ourselves to the greater concerns of society and how accountability to each other creates great change. Her speech completed one of Dr. King's quotes very aptly: "An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity" 

Attendees of the Opening Ceremony pose for a picture before the educational workshops.

Attendees of the Opening Ceremony pose for a picture before the educational workshops.

          After the opening ceremony, volunteers and community members participated in two sessions of 11 educational workshops sponsored and led by AmeriCorps members.  These workshops covered vital issues including Food Equality, Refugees in Arizona, Alternatives to Violence Project, Health and Education in Low Income Communities, Financial Empowerment, and more.  These workshops served to better inform each volunteer of the importance of their work in a local, applicable context and how Dr. King’s vision could best be applied to specific situations.  Our workshop leaders artfully created interactive presentations for approximately 15 people per session, each from a different background with a unique understanding of the issue at hand. Thanks to the leaders’ hard work, the volunteers moved forward to the service projects with enthusiasm and a deep passion to serve. 

AmeriCorps Members from the University of Arizona, AmeriCorps Members/Regional College Access Center (RCAC) Student Ambassadors, Resource Navigator/Event Host Frannie Neal, and Mayor Jonathan Rothschild pose for photo during afternoon service projects.

AmeriCorps Members from the University of Arizona, AmeriCorps Members/Regional College Access Center (RCAC) Student Ambassadors, Resource Navigator/Event Host Frannie Neal, and Mayor Jonathan Rothschild pose for photo during afternoon service projects.

          Following the educational workshops, volunteers had the opportunity to socialize and relax during lunch before the main event: the service projects.  For Palo Verde, this included a variety of activities: painting the sun-worn doors in the courtyard, cleaning various areas around the campus, beautifying the wetlands at the heart of campus, reorganizing classrooms at teachers’ requests, and beginning to paint and set up the new College and Career Center.  While participating in the service projects and observing the amazing teamwork apparent among the volunteers and our incredible staff, we felt that we truly appreciated the goals articulated by each of our outstanding speakers, and indeed espoused by Dr. King himself.  It was a stunning example of community cohesion and a testament to the immense change people can accomplish by taking action together.  This reminds us of another very popular quote of Dr. King’s: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”  Although each project contained a variety of small and seemingly insignificant tasks, they amounted to a rejuvenated school atmosphere and community when combined. 

From left: School Coordinator/Event Host Brandon Di Gregorio, Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, Resource Navigator/Event Host Frannie Neal, Assistant Principal/AmeriCorps Supervisor Renee Arakaki, and Student Ambassador/Event Emcee Eric Oum. 

From left: School Coordinator/Event Host Brandon Di Gregorio, Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, Resource Navigator/Event Host Frannie Neal, Assistant Principal/AmeriCorps Supervisor Renee Arakaki, and Student Ambassador/Event Emcee Eric Oum. 

          When the service projects were finished for the day, we all reconvened to reflect on the values of Dr. King and how to further continue his legacy in our everyday lives.  This moving reflection period reaffirmed the sense of community we all felt individually throughout the day and brought them into the open.  Although exhausted from the day’s various activities, we successfully completed what Dr. King urged us all to do: to rise above our individualistic concerns and contribute to a greater purpose.   This service day was a perfect example of a community coming together, and it truly could not have happened without the incredibly generous support of our school administrators, faculty, staff, student groups, custodians, sponsors, Arizona Serve staff, fellow AmeriCorps members, and Mayor Jonathan Rothschild.   As the hosts of the event, we are very happy to say that our collective effort paid off.  Thanks to the closeness of our community, we carried on Dr. King’s legacy today, and will continue to carry this out in the future.          

All the best,

Brandon Di Gregorio & Frannie Neal

 

 

 

 

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Published on February 02, 2017 by Molly Sheehy.

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