“It’s time to explore!” Melissa Prosnak exclaims to the group of 20 children lined up along the foyer of the Asheville Museum of Science. Dressed in a white lab coat, she is ready to guide them through the museum’s many exhibits showcasing Western North Carolina environments and topography, a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) lab which houses an Epilog laser cutter, robotics, hurricane simulator, gem and mineral exhibits, fossil dig and even a replica of a Teratophoneus dinosaur skeleton.
Melissa is a team member of Project POWER/AmeriCorps, a program of local nonprofit Children First/Communities In Schools. She is placed at AMOS as an AmeriCorps educator. On a typical day as an educator for the science museum, she runs the after-school programing for nine different school sites, facilitates field trips, creates activities for the STEM lab and creates curriculum based on experiential, hands-on learning. She loves every facets of the position, but her favorite is watching the children get excited about earth sciences.
“We have set it up so the children create their own curriculum for the 10-week after-school program,” she says. “It’s more fun and useful for them if they have ownership of their curriculum. After-school can be challenging in that they had a long day at school, so we try to inject fun into science so they don’t feel like they are learning. But they are definitely learning!”
AmeriCorps is a national service program that recruits members to strengthen communities, build leaders and expand horizons. Children First/CIS runs the Project POWER/AmeriCorps program here in Asheville. Each year, it recruits 25 members to work with youths living in vulnerable conditions, typically placing its team members in a school as a teacher’s assistant, volunteer coordinator or garden manager. In the afternoons, they are placed as site leaders and facilitators at nonprofit after-school centers or other youth-centered programs.
Many of the AmeriCorps team members are recent college graduates equipped with an abundance of passion, commitment and enthusiasm for making a difference in the world in which they live. The team members commit to a year of service, earning a living stipend of $12,100 a year. They serve 1,700 hours of service at their placement sites, which breaks down roughly to 30-40 hours a week, a full-time job. Last year, the Project POWER AmeriCorps team members spent roughly 43,000 hours serving more than 2,400 students in local schools and nonprofits.
Kim Clark, the operations manager for AMOS and Melissa’s direct supervisor, believes that having a Project POWER/AmeriCorps team member is invaluable. “Here at AMOS, we have a small staff with the goal of reaching as many children as possible. The Project POWER/AmeriCorps team member is a huge part of helping us serve our mission and a huge asset to the community,” she says.
Last year, AMOS served over 6,000 students in nine schools. Its mission is to be Western North Carolina’s home for experiential science learning, discovery and exploration. Exhibits and programs at AMOS help inspire children to realize that science can be fun, achievable and an option for their future. By attracting students to local science, technology, engineering and math career paths, AMOS helps close the achievement gap, helping the WNC community flourish.
“Having a Project POWER/AmeriCorps team member on our team is instrumental in helping us build capacity,” continues Kim. “They have a passion to serve and make a difference. It’s a cost-effective way to build capacity for your organization. They come to us with experience and are qualified to work with children. They have a lot to contribute.”
The cost for an organization or school to have a full-time Project POWER/AmeriCorps team member for a service year is only $9,500. The team member earns about $12,000 a year, and the remaining cost is paid by the federal government. The organization gets a dedicated, full-time member on their staff at a low cost with a high return, while the cost to the federal government is minimal. Total funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps and a similar program, is just .03 percent of total federal spending, according to Voices for National Service, an advocacy group.
When asked why she joined Project POWER/AmeriCorps, Melissa says, “When I graduated college I knew I wanted to work with a nonprofit, but I didn’t have the connections to break into the professional sector. Project POWER/AmeriCorps has groomed me to be more professional, and I’ve gained insight in what it means to work in the fast-paced nonprofit environment. If you want to learn and grow in a specific community and you know what you want to do, but you’d like to try it out first while gaining knowledge, experience and making connections with like-minded people, then Children First/CIS Project POWER/AmeriCorps is definitely the program for you.”
What does the future hold for Melissa and Kim? Currently, the leadership at AMOS has plans to hire Melissa as a staff member pending grant funding. This will allow Melissa to continue doing the work she is passionate about while saving the organization the stress and expense of transitioning her position and training new staff. This is not unusual for Project POWER/AmeriCorps team members and their placement sites. After a year to two years at their placement site, they become ingrained in the culture of the organization, are trained for the position and become part of the work family. This benefits the team member, the site placement and the community, as more people dedicated to making our surroundings a better place for all children are able to live and work in Buncombe County.
What you can do:
• Become a Children First/CIS Project POWER/AmeriCorps team member and apply for Team 21. Go to www.childrenfirstcisbc.org/programs/project-power by Aug. 3.
• Do you run a nonprofit or school? Become a site placement for a Children First/CIS Project POWER/AmeriCorps team member and build relationships, connections and capacity for a very low cost. Contact Eva Lineberger at EvaL@childrenfirstbc.org or 828-259-9717.
• Support AmeriCorps. Contact your federal representatives and let them know how important this program is for the health, safety and success of all children. Call Sen. Richard Burr at 202-224-3154 and Sen. Thom Tillis at 202-224-6342.
Jodi Ford is the outreach and engagement coordinator for Children First/Communities In Schools, a local nonprofit that believes all children deserve to reach their full potential. The organization helps achieve this by surrounding children and their families with supports that help them succeed in their schools, communities and homes. With staff placed in schools and communities with a high number of students receiving free and reduced meals, Children First/CIS helps children and families meet their basic needs, provides educational supports and teaches parenting and resiliency skills. Along with direct services, the organization provides strong advocacy to local and state leaders to ensure public policies are in place to support families. To find out more, go to www.childrenfirstcisbc.org.