The year I spent as an AmeriCorps*VISTA was one of the most definitive moments of my life. At the time I was accepted for service, I faced the prospect of graduating from college with little to no direction for the future. My family disagreed with my willingness to take a year off from college and put my graduation on hold, but I was convinced it was the right thing to do. Looking back, I can honestly say the decision to commit to service was my first real act of independence. And it was absolutely the right thing to do.
From August 1997 to August 1998, I worked with the Young Scholars Liberty Partnerships Program at Utica College in Utica, N.Y. The Young Scholars partnerships program is a collaborative project between Utica College and the Utica City School District whose goal is to meet the challenge of motivating teenage students to stay in school, earn a New York State Regents Diploma and pursue post-secondary education. At Utica College, I served the program as a tutor. AmeriCorps*VISTA stationed me at a high school site full time to expand program services for a diverse population of urban youth.
The challenge during my year of service was establishing a strong community service and service-learning component for Young Scholars students. Throughout the school year, I worked with another AmeriCorps*VISTA to coordinate various community service projects for Young Scholars students. We discovered that involving students in their community gave them a sense of pride in it. This sense of pride spilled over into students’ school communities and was reflected in their approach to schoolwork.
Make a Difference Day in 1997 was one of several memorable projects. Many of our students lived in Cornhill, an economically depressed neighborhood. Participating in the Cornhill Cleanup Project, sponsored by the Cornhill Coalition of Block Associations, gave students the chance to do something to help their own community. Despite the rain and cold, students worked with other community members to clean up trash on the streets. It also gave them a first hand look at the problem of litter and the opportunity to take ownership over the place they called home.
Their service focused on something different during a project at Adrean Terrace, a municipal housing project. Joining with AmeriCorps*VISTAs and AmeriCorps members from other areas, students collected discarded books from the Utica Public Library to create a small library at the housing project. By bringing books into their neighborhood, making written material more accessible to their neighbors, students encouraged literacy. Again, as with the neighborhood clean-up project, students had the opportunity to improve their immediate community.
As a long-term project, we helped organize a soda can tab drive. Taking our cue from an article in a service organization’s magazine, we challenged students to see how many tabs they could collect for recycling to benefit the Shriners Children’s Hospitals. This project focused on “kids helping kids.” At the end of the year, we turned the project into a miniature math lesson to calculate the number of tabs collected. Rather than take on the cumbersome task of counting the mountain of can tabs, we designed a solution involving volume. Students needed to determine the approximate number of can tabs that would fit into a cubic inch. They then needed to calculate the volume of the receptacle holding the tabs (in terms of cubic inches). This number was multiplied by the number of can tabs per cubic inch and it was found that students had amassed more than 88,000 can tabs in one year’s time.
Since the implementation of the program’s community service component through AmeriCorps*VISTA, Young Scholars students have collectively logged thousands of service hours investing in their communities. Students in junior high are now required to complete 15 hours of community service a year, with those at the high school level expected to finish 30 hours. In addition, the tradition of doing community service in our students’ neighborhoods has been expanded. For example, several times a year, Young Scholars students volunteer at a local nursing home, assisting with special events as wait staff for residents and their families.
Recently, students painted a mural in a playground frequented by Young Scholars students and their families. Students designed the mural themselves, and it was approved by the local Youth Bureau. Young Scholars students, with the help of staff, transferred their design to a blank wall and painted their inspirational message in vibrant colors.
My year of service passed quickly and seems to have evaporated into the past – it’s still hard for me to believe it ended almost seven years ago. Several of the students I worked with have gone on to complete not only high school but college as well. As for me, the direction I was so longing for has come to me. My service with VISTA was a salient clue on my journey beyond college. Currently, I am serving the Young Scholars Liberty Partnerships Program as assistant director. Each day, I see reminders of the work I did with AmeriCorps*VISTA reflected in the work I do today.