For AmeriCorps members, service programs hit close to home

For AmeriCorps members, service programs hit close to home

Melissa Casper, right, of Blackstone, examines some Play-Doh with Vivianna Oyedele, 8, during a Connecting for Children and Families summer program at the Chalin-Perez Community Center in Fairmount. (Breeze photos by Lauren Clem)

WOONSOCKET – When Melissa Casper of Blackstone, Mass., was laid off from her job last fall, she wasn’t sure what she was going to do next. The former office worker was interested in making a career switch to education, but had little job experience in the field to back it up.

Then, she came across an online posting for an AmeriCorps position working in Woonsocket schools. The federal program was coordinated locally by Connecting for Children and Families, which works closely with the Woonsocket Education Department to provide summer programs and before and after-school care. Casper decided to apply, and, after some intensive training, found herself working as a teacher’s aide at Kevin K. Coleman Elementary School.

“I was changing career paths into education, and I found this, and it was the perfect experience,” she said.

Sue Shaw, CCF AmeriCorps coordinator, compares the program to the Peace Corps, but with an impact that hits closer to home. Volunteers sign up for community service roles that can last anywhere from three to 12 months and in exchange receive living stipends funded by a combination of federal dollars and local matching funds. AmeriCorps programs cover a variety of service areas across the country, from disaster relief to conservation.

“I always tell people, you’ve heard of the Peace Corps where you volunteer a year of your life to do work overseas. Well, same thing, but you’re volunteering a year of your life here in America,” she said.

In Woonsocket, two organizations, CCF and NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley, have AmeriCorps programs. As with most AmeriCorps opportunities in Rhode Island, CCF’s program focuses on education, integrating participants into their regular offerings for families. The program typically places about eight AmeriCorps members as teacher’s aides or in after-school programs during the school year, a number that more than doubles in the summer when members work in CCF’s summer programs for kids.

Though it’s often thought of as a “gap year” program for graduating college students, Shaw emphasized AmeriCorps is open to anyone over age 17 and actively recruits people from different backgrounds. These might include retirees or individuals such as Casper looking to try out a new career path. Since the living stipend is rarely enough to live on – about $7,000 per year for part-time members, more for full-time members – it typically includes those who have another source of financial support in their families or are on public benefits.

Shelbie Roy, a University of Rhode Island sophomore from Woonsocket, worked as an AmeriCorps member in CCF’s summer program this year. Roy, who is studying speech therapy, said she enjoyed serving as a mentor to the kids at CCF’s summer camps and hopes to return next year.

“I think that it’s really good to give back to the community that gave so much to me throughout my journey,” she said.

In addition to a small living stipend, she’ll receive a $1,200 education award to put toward her college classes at the end of her service. For older members not planning to pursue coursework, that award can be transferred to a child or grandchild.

At NeighborWorks, AmeriCorps members volunteer in a housing stabilization program that aims to educate the public about eviction prevention, tenant rights and responsibilities, applying for subsidized housing, financial coaching and securing jobs. Though the organization is based in Woonsocket, NeighborWorks oversees a group of 15 volunteers placed with development organizations in several communities, looking to target housing insecurity around the state.

Like CCF, NeighborWorks AmeriCorps Coordinator Joyce Welch said their program draws participants from a variety of age groups. Full-time members earn a living stipend of $557 per week and a $6,095 education award after completing the program.

“It’s a very wide range of people,” she said. “What we’ve noticed recently is people who have been through those situations are the ones helping.”

Participants in the NeighborWorks program leave AmeriCorps with a certification as a resident services coordinator, preparing them to continue a career in housing stabilization services. Though they still draw some recent graduates to the program, Welch said high education costs have made it a less popular option for graduating seniors, with many participants instead applying later in life.

“I would say it’s less popular than it used to be,” she said. “I think the rising education costs, people try to weigh their options and see what to do,” she said.

According to Shaw, the program also faces challenges as the matching cost requirements for local sponsors go up, making it more difficult for smaller nonprofits to work with AmeriCorps members. But for participants such as Casper, it remains an important career step.

As she finished her yearlong program this month, Casper told The Breeze she had been offered paid positions with Coleman Elementary School and CCF and was still weighing her options for where to go next.

“It’s just a win-win for everyone,” said Shaw. “For the students, for the teachers, for the AmeriCorps members, for the city.”

Shelbie Roy of Woonsocket, left, plays a game of Connect Four with Marcellino Mekhael, 8, during Connecting for Children and Families program at Kevin K. Coleman Elementary School.