From exposure of local nonprofits around Bloomington, the organization “AmeriCorps” has been tossed around in conversation. I was first introduced to AmeriCorps when my sister, Stephanie, decided to move to Bozeman, MT to serve. Watching her pack up her life in Bloomington to serve a low-income community amazed me. At the time, I didn’t understand but I’ve come to realize it’s a duty you choose for yourself. I can only hope to have the same ambition as her after I graduate.
To those that aren’t familiar with AmeriCorps, I hope this post can educate, raise awareness and maybe even inspire you to serve!
What is AmeriCorps?
My AmeriCorps defines it as “a network of local, state, and national service programs that connects over 70,000 Americans each year in intensive service to meet community needs in education, the environment, public safety, health, and homeland security. AmeriCorps’ members serve with more than 2,000 non-profits, public agencies, and community organizations.”
Types of Programs
Interview with Stephanie Keene
Why did you decide to serve for AmeriCorps?
Joining AmeriCorps is something I had envisioned for myself since my sophomore year at IU. After researching service programs online, I realized that AmeriCorps was an excellent way to dedicate myself to service in low-income communities. Opportunities were available all over the country, including Alaska and Hawaii, which made AmeriCorps very appealing. Affecting the lives of an entire community by implementing and running innovative programs is an opportunity fresh college graduates do not see often.
What were the main factors in helping you decide which program to serve in?
It’s important to first distinguish which branch of AmeriCorps to serve in: NCCC, State/National, or VISTA. I chose VISTA specifically for its ability to promote capacity building. I also wanted my service to take me somewhere new and exciting, so I focused my search on positions in the Pacific Northwest. From there, I narrowed down my choices to health-related positions that met my personal interests.
What led you to choosing the Community Mediation Center in Bozeman, MT?
Bozeman was actually not my first placement choice. I was approved to go through at the Health Department in Sidney, Montana, but was unable to secure affordable housing due to the Bakken oil boom. Getting shut down at Sidney surprisingly led to a lot of phone calls from other AmeriCorps sites across Montana looking for a VISTA. I ended up choosing the CMC because their proposed research study sounded like an amazing project. I wouldn’t be serving in a health position, but I knew I could get a lot of unique research experience there.
Can you describe what your typical day was like at this nonprofit?
A typical day can be hard to define since my VISTA project was unique. From what I understand, there are not a lot positions out there that conduct research studies, especially ones approved by the Institutional Review Board. My responsibilities changed depending on how far along I was on my project. For instance, I could spend one day immersed in a research database but the next editing program materials to be more readable for clients. However, since the organization was small, I did help out with regular office functions. This gave me the chance to interact, albeit briefly, with the population I was serving.
Which of your contributions as a VISTA are you most proud of?
Establishing a new method of client education was my proudest achievement. It was a six month effort that involved lots of research, development, editing, and coffee. Seeing something concrete come out of all that work and knowing that it has the potential to impact local families was truly rewarding.
Which aspect(s) of the VISTA program were the most challenging?
Keeping personal finances in line was tough because VISTAs are required to live at 200% of the federal poverty level. To illustrate AmeriCorps’ “modest living allowance,” I took home about $800 each month after taxes. Of course this amount varies by region, but you’re not getting much. To save money, I chose to bike and walk rather than own a car. I enrolled in the Federal SNAP program to pay for food. While these aren’t the best circumstances, it’s a helpful reminder that this is what life can be like for the disadvantaged.
What advice would you give to those interested in AmeriCorps?
If AmeriCorps has piqued your interest and you have a passion to serve, I urge you to check out my.americorps.gov to look at available programs. There are so many projects in a wide range of service areas and states that you can definitely find a project to suit your needs and career goals. Don’t be afraid to travel across the country for it! It may also be helpful for you to reach out to current and former members for information. You may be surprised at how many there are in your area.
How has AmeriCorps made an impact on your life?
AmeriCorps has done many great things for me. First, my project helped me realize a career goal — I wanted to be more involved in research. As a result, I’m applying for graduate school in the fall. Second, AmeriCorps brought me out to Montana, where I discovered hiking is my new favorite hobby. Talk about an incredible recreational paradise! Lastly, I’ve met many caring and dedicated individuals in Bozeman. It is my relationships with these people that continue to inspire me to serve others, both on a personal and professional level.
Shannen Keene is a junior from Ellettsville, IN pursuing a degree in Community Health. Bloomington has taught her the value of diversity, culture, and good food. After graduation, she hopes to work for a nonprofit organization in Nashville, TN. Until then, her days will be filled with ice cream and watching Scandal.
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