Start Every Day with Hope: Children First/CIS Project POWER/AmeriCorps

Image courtesy of Children First/CIS

Editor’s note: The names of the children in this story have been changed.

AmeriCorps is a national service program that recruits members to strengthen communities through service. Project POWER is the local chapter of AmeriCorps, run through local nonprofit Children First/Communities In Schools of Buncombe County. Project POWER/AmeriCorps serves at-risk youth in schools, nonprofits and faith-based organizations throughout Buncombe County. Team members typically spend their mornings at a local school and afternoons at a nonprofit after-school program.

The primary objective of this program is to provide increased academic enrichment services and volunteer coordination to vulnerable youth in the city and county. Now in its seventeenth year, Project POWER/AmeriCorps has served approximately 16,000 local at-risk youth, helping bridge the gap and increase the graduation rate with one-on-one assistance, participation in service learning projects and developmental training in conflict resolutions skills.

Martin, a first grader from ArtSpace Charter School, worked one-on-one with Project POWER/AmeriCorps team member Claire Parrish. Martin had troubles recognizing words and sounding out letters. Together they discovered that if he broke the words down while tapping her arm, he could connect the sounds with kinetics.

Courtney Reading (1)
Image courtesy of Children First/CIS

“Once he was ready to blend the sounds, he would slide his hand down my arm and snap my wrist band,” Parrish writes. “This strategy, as bizarre as it may sound, proved to be highly successful.” Although he still struggled, focused attention and interaction with Parrish helped Martin succeed throughout the school year.

Team members are paid a living stipend of $1,052 a month, $12,100 a year and are committed to serving at least 1,700 hours annually (this breaks down to 36 hours a week, not including the many mandatory service projects). In exchange, they gain valuable experience, make an impact on at-risk youth living in vulnerable communities, learn new skills and forge friendships and relationships that can last a lifetime. At the completion of their required 1,700 hours, team members will receive an education award to be used for past or future education costs.

The impact these team members make on schools and nonprofits is remarkable. Last year, the 25 full-time Project POWER team members served over 3,000 at-risk youth in our community as classroom instructional supporters, volunteer coordinators, bookmobile leaders, after-school site leaders, school garden educators and more, and the financial value added to Buncombe County is equal to $2,006,128.68*.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the national AmeriCorps program engages more than 75,000 Americans in intensive service each year at nonprofits, schools, public agencies and community and faith-based groups across the country.

Since the founding of AmeriCorps in 1994, more than 900,000 AmeriCorps members have contributed more than 1.2 billion hours in service across America while tackling pressing problems and mobilizing millions of volunteers for the organizations they serve. In acknowledgement of the AmeriCorps 20th anniversary, we sat down with the Director of the Project POWER/AmeriCorps program at Children First/CIS, Chrissy Sibley, who served as a team member before becoming director.

When did you join Project POWER/AmeriCorps as a team member, and where were you placed?

I joined in 2011-2012 and was placed at Jones Elementary as a second grade classroom assistant in the morning and taught nutrition and fitness to kindergarten through fifth graders at the YWCA in the afternoon.

What is one of your favorite memories from your time as a Project POWER/AmeriCorps team member?

There are so many things that I look back on and loved. But the thing I think about the most are the people I served with. When you go through a program like this, you create bonds and build family. The strongest teams are the ones that lean on each other, and we still do. In fact, we still meet for Sunday dinners. I lived in a three bedroom house with four other people. My bedroom was an office, and we had another person in the garage. It’s experiences like that that make you resourceful and make you appreciate the little things.

When did you become the Project POWER/AmeriCorps director, and what are some of your key responsibilities as director?

Jake2
Image courtesy of Children First/CIS

I became director the day after I finished my service year in 2012. I am responsible for the overall program management which includes site selection, site supervision selection and training, member hiring, supervision and support, as well as reporting to the North Carolina Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service. This is for the 50 team members and 20 community partnerships.

Typically, how many applicants do you get in a year?

We usually get about 420 applicants from all over the country each year. Applicants start by going through the AmeriCorps portal at my.americorps.gov . Once I receive their application, I send them an email requesting their resume, phone accessible references and their answers to a series of reflection questions. If they return all these materials in time, I request an interview either in person or via Skype if they live out of town.

Is there any one thing in particular that you are looking for when choosing Project POWER/AmeriCorps team members?

The most important thing I look for is in how the applicant responds to the question: Why do you want to be in this program? and What do you hope to get out of this program? If an applicant doesn’t know the answers to those questions, that’s a red flag. We don’t want a member to finish their year of service and be the exact same person they were when they started. We have an eclectic group of people that come in each year, and no two groups are ever alike. But they are here to better themselves and better the community. We want to help them do that. Team members also have to be open new experiences, open to learning and open to serving individuals that are different from themselves.

What do you think is the most valuable takeaway from spending a year to two years as a Project POWER/AmeriCorps team member?

I think it is seeing, firsthand, the resiliency of children. You watch the children go through so many changes, and you see their ability to bounce back. This is to be admired. Each day, you start with hope. As an observer, I see our members serve these children and increase their own resilience in the process.

What value does the Project POWER/AmeriCorps program add to our community?

The impact our team members have in the community is great. It’s not just the Project POWER/ AmeriCorps program, but all of the AmeriCorps programs. We provide teacher support in classrooms, create and sustain school gardens, implement environment education and provide site leaders for after-school programs. The list is endless, and it’s not just while the team members are serving for their year. After their term of service is completed, many of them stay in the area continuing their work in the schools and nonprofits. Many of our local teachers and nonprofit leaders served time in AmeriCorps. They may graduate from their service, but they never stop giving.

What is the one thing you would like us to know about the Project POWER/AmeriCorps program?

A year of service is not an easy commitment. When you see someone in service, put yourself in their shoes for a moment. It is easy to take people for granted at times; this happens to teachers, parents, coaches as well as service members.  These individuals give up a lot to provide our community with services that otherwise would not exist.  Thank you to all the national service providers, as well as anyone else who is trying to support this wonderful community and the children in it.

 

* Value of a Volunteer Hour, by State: 2013- North Carolina- $21.04- Source: https://www.independentsector.org/volunteer_time. Volunteers Recruited: 1138, Volunteer Hours Served: 26,546. Total Value of Project POWER/AmeriCorps Recruited Volunteers: $558,534.60, Total Member Hours Served: 68,802 Value: $1,447,594.08 Total Value to the Community: $2,006,128.68

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