Buncombe County has benefited from 20 years of Project POWER/AmeriCorps service in the community

MAKING COMMUNITIES STRONGER: “There is no selfishness with [AmeriCorps team members]," says Kate Justen, executive director of local nonprofit FEAST.  "They are obviously not doing this work for the money. They just want to make their communities stronger and more sustainable.”
MAKING COMMUNITIES STRONGER: “There is no selfishness with [AmeriCorps team members]," says Kate Justen, executive director of local nonprofit FEAST. "They are obviously not doing this work for the money. They just want to make their communities stronger and more sustainable.” Photo courtesy Children Children First/Communities In Schools

“Being able to celebrate academic achievements with the children I work with every day is an incredible feeling,” says Ashley Ehlers, a team member from the Children First/CIS Project POWER AmeriCorps program. Ashley was placed as a volunteer coordinator at Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity in the mornings and as a site leader for the Children First/CIS afterschool learning center in the afternoons.

She recalls talking to the children in the after-school program about the importance of learning. “Every quarter when report cards came home, I spoke to the students one-on-one to discuss their grades and determine goals for the next quarter. This individual attention seemed to help them realize the importance of getting their homework done.”

But she remembers Darin, a fourth-grader who wasn’t interested in school or his grades.

“He was the student who struggled most with his homework, and I worked one-on-one with him daily. I asked him what his goals were, and he just shrugged.” But one day he sat down and started reading The Cat in the Hat by himself. She noticed that he needed less help with sounding out the words, and he exclaimed excitedly, “I can’t believe I’m reading right now! All by myself!”

Despite being in the fourth grade, he had never been able to read on his own. Because of the tireless and consistent tutoring Ashley was able to provide and the bond they had developed, Darin was able to improve his reading and, in turn, gained a new interest in learning.

Darin was just one of the 2,805 students served by the Children First/CIS Project POWER/AmeriCorps team members last year. These are students who need extra attention both in school and during after-school programs. And as classroom sizes grow while funding shrinks, Project POWER/AmeriCorps team members fill in the gaps to give students the extra help they need to succeed.

“When our most vulnerable youth get the support they need to thrive, their chances for success are greatly increased,” says Children First/CIS Executive Director Allison Jordan. “For 19 years, the Children First/CIS Project POWER/AmeriCorps team members have provided this support as mentors, tutors, enrichment specialists, volunteer managers and garden supervisors in schools and after-school programs — all at a minimal cost. The impact they have in shaping our community is huge — not only during their years of service, but for years afterward. Many of them stay in Buncombe County and get jobs, start businesses or work in our schools and nonprofits.”

Often described as the “domestic Peace Corps,” AmeriCorps is a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that administers national service programs such as AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Project Conserve. Team members commit to serving 1,700 hours in a year, or roughly 40 hours a week, while earning a living stipend of only $13,100 a year —which is less than minimum wage.

During their service year, they are placed in schools and communities where needs are high and resources are scarce.

President Trump has submitted budget proposals that include eliminating the Corporation for National and Community Service and its vital programs. This would be a devastating loss for thousands of our local children, our veterans and the environment.

Take action! Contact your representatives and ask them to protect this program that turns minimal financial investments into huge returns for our most vulnerable children, veterans and the environment. Unlike many federal grant programs, the federal investment in the AmeriCorps program generates matching support from private, philanthropic and local sources. Every dollar invested in national service results in returns to society: higher earnings, increased outputs and other community benefits.

“These AmeriCorps team members want to leave their mark,” says Kate Justen, executive director of local nonprofit FEAST, which has a Project POWER/AmeriCorps team member placed as a garden and cooking educator at Hall Fletcher Elementary School. “There is no selfishness with them. They are obviously not doing this work for the money. They just want to make their communities stronger and more sustainable.”

Local nonprofit Children First/Communities In Schools has been facilitating the Project POWER/AmeriCorps program here in Asheville for almost 20 years.

Each year, Children First/CIS recruits 50 Project POWER/AmeriCorps members to work full or part time with at-risk youth, typically placing its team members in schools as academic enrichment specialists, volunteer coordinators, garden managers or oftentimes, all of the above.

In the past five years, Children First CIS Project POWER/AmeriCorps team members have served over 17,000 at-risk students in Asheville/Buncombe County – enough to fill the U.S. Cellular Center in downtown Asheville 2.25 times.

You can be the change you want to see in the world and join the Project POWER/AmeriCorps Team 20. Applicants must be 18 years or older. To apply, go to childrenfirstcisbc.org/programs/project-power or contact Ashley Maney at 828-335-8247 or AshleyM@childrenfirstbc.org.

A former Project POWER/AmeriCorps team member, Jordan Diamond, sat down for an interview at Amplified Studios to talk about the impact the Project POWER/AmeriCorps program has had on her and the students she has served. Jordan has come full circle as a former Project POWER/AmeriCorps team member and is now a site partner supervisor of a Project POWER/AmeriCorps team member for FEAST (Fresh Easy Affordable Sustainable Tasty), which empowers youth and families to grow, prepare and enjoy fruits and vegetables through hands-on cooking and garden education in schools and after-school programs.

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.

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