Grateful My Time in Service Led Me Full Circle – submitted by Donya Jenkins-Gai

Donya blog post 1.8.20
Donya, Abubakar and Medina at the Citizenship Ceremony

I moved back home to Des Moines in 2014 after serving three service terms in AmeriCorps in New Orleans. I went there because I wanted to do my part in helping the city to rebuild after Katrina. Since I still had service on my heart I applied for a position at Oakridge Neighborhood Services. I had worked there many moons ago so I thought this would be a good place to serve. I applied for the VISTA Community Outreach Lead position where my responsibilities were to find resources for ESL class participants. I had always had a passion about knowing my community and its resources because I always loved to help people when they had a need so I thought this would be easy peasy for me. I also do not meet a stranger so working with refugees and re-learning my community was right up my alley. Well, I learned very fast that befriending the refugee community was not as easy as I thought only because (I believe) my personality is ummm, big I will say. After I took a breath and took a step back and took my time to get to know the class participants and the residents in the community we began to gel before I knew it. I was being invited into homes for meals, the children would run up to me and give me hugs, and I was given cultural attire.

Oakridge Neighborhood has 300 units with over 1,000 residents from many different countries and so many languages that I cannot begin to count. Just a beautiful bouquet.  Well I served in that role for two years and met many community members including my now husband from South Sudan. One family in particular pulled at my heart. Their baby boy was super chunky and cute (all of the kids were super cute and sweet). I give nick-names and the baby boy’s nick-name was “potato” because he was healthy and heavy.  Dad spoke the best English in the home and worked a full-time job. He would come to ESL class when he could but Mom was faithful during those two years. Mom came in any type of weather with “potato” in his stroller and their three or four year old (who was not too sure of me almost the entire time lol). Close to the end of my second term we did mock interviews with Mom because she was looking for a part-time job. Boy was I excited for Mom because she has a very quiet personality and was VERY self-conscious about her English skills even though she spoke well. Oakridge also had a free driving course for the residents and Mom took the class. I cannot express the feeling I had watching Mom gain confidence in herself and her abilities. Mom got a job and her license. I departed Oakridge Neighborhood to serve as a VISTA Leader at Volunteer Iowa in which allowed me to learn my community in other ways, to network with different community leaders and learn how to advocate and support the service members when needed.

These two things together are important because I re-learned my community from my service time at Oakridge Community and Volunteer Iowa in which prepared me for my current job at MercyOne as a Community Health Worker. My job is to connect our patients with community resources for ANY need, and I mean ANY need. I also advocate for them when asked and be a support to them when needed. Well, while at work I was walking down the hall and who do I see in a room? I saw shy Mom at the clinic with her eldest child. We embraced each other and kissed one another and hugged some more.  Mom told me she and her husband were going to their Citizenship ceremony the next day and she wanted me to come. (Typing this is making me cry again). Between my happy tears I said yes, where and what time? Time and place, if I didn’t work in the role that I was prepared for I wouldn’t have bumped into Mom and been invited to share in their life milestone.

I am ever so grateful for the opportunity to serve in which built my skills and allowed me to network in the community. I didn’t know where those service opportunities were going to take me, but I landed on my spot. I am yet serving my community and because of those service terms I am an asset to my community in which I am truly thankful.

Happy Serving,

Donya Jenkins-Gai

Community Health Worker

Volunteering While on Social Security Benefits – submitted by Disability Benefits Help

Top Tips to Know When Volunteering on Social Security Disability Benefits

If you’re currently receiving Social Security disability benefits, you may be wondering if you’re allowed to volunteer without jeopardizing your benefits and health insurance. The answer is—yes! Thousands of people on Social Security disability volunteer every year. Volunteering is a great way to give back to your community and feel good about the work you’re doing. Here are some tips to keep in mind if you’re considering volunteering:

1. Volunteer with an Accredited Organization

While you don’t have to necessarily volunteer with a nonprofit, you want to make sure you are not doing any volunteer work that would be otherwise paid. For example, if you “volunteer” at a law firm and file paperwork, your benefits could be in jeopardy, as you’d be performing duties most secretaries do. Cleaning up a park with a group on a Saturday, however, would be fine.

2. Consider Your Disability

If you’re receiving Social Security disability benefits for a spinal cord disorder, but volunteer at an organization where you’re required to lift heavy packages, it’s possible the SSA will re-evaluate your claim and determine if you’re really ill enough to receive benefits. You should always ensure the tasks you do while you volunteer is suitable for your disability. If it’s too much work, you can always speak with your volunteer coordinator to find something that’s a better fit for your skillset!

3. Take it Easy

Much like point #2, you should not volunteer for a significantly long time. Volunteering for a couple of hours per week is of course fine, but if you were to volunteer 80 hours per week, you’d raise some red flags at the SSA. The SSA would likely ask, “if she can volunteer for that long, why isn’t she able to find a suitable desk job instead?”

4. Don’t Volunteer for a Family Member

Again, it’s important to volunteer with a local and accredited nonprofit in your area, like the United Way. If you’re claiming to volunteer for a family-owned business, the SSA may assume that you’re actually being paid for your work and investigate your case again.

While it may seem like there’s a lot you need to watch out for, volunteering really is easy while you’re receiving disability benefits. When you’re working with a great nonprofit there is no reason to be concerned that the SSA will revoke your benefits. Cleaning up a river, reading to children, feeding the elderly, and caring for pets are just a handful of completely acceptable volunteer activities. Just be sure to not overexert yourself or perform any duties that are outside the scope of typical volunteer experience! When you volunteer, you’ll have the satisfaction of helping others that need aid and making a difference in your community. If you have any further questions regarding your Social Security and volunteer work, you can call the SSA toll free at 1-800-772-1213 or schedule an appointment at your local SSA office.

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I Am Thankful for My Son’s AmeriCorps Service – submitted by Mike Ralston

My wife and I first learned about City Year when our son, Benjamin Ralston, was a freshman at Loras College in Dubuque. Ben approached us about taking time off from school. He had learned about an AmeriCorps program called City Year, in which young adults from all over America work with students in areas of concentrated poverty. The adults provide academic and social-emotional support to the students in a school-based setting.

While the program sounded idealistic and substantive (and it sounded like darn hard work), I was against letting our son leave school for a year to participate. Eventually, we gave permission for Ben to apply for City Year. He was ecstatic when he was accepted and sent to inner city Chicago.

While in Chicago, Ben worked with early elementary school students. He and his group of City Year corps members worked in a school with young children, nearly all of whom were persons of color, were poor, and were academically challenged. All the City Year corps members worked hard and very long hours, including many weekends.

Ben loved it.

It was clear these young adults had a lasting and transformative impact on the Chicago students.

In the end, Ben loved it so much he signed up for a second year and was named a senior team leader. This time, he was sent to the south side of Chicago, to a different inner city elementary school. The year was much the same. A great deal of hard work, but very rewarding. My wife and I visited and saw first-hand the impact the corps members had on the lives of the students.

Ben’s experience taught him (and us) many things. He learned the importance of hard work and commitment. He learned that he can impact other lives. And he learned how grateful he was for all he had experienced.

Everyone in our family became fans of City Year. I am grateful for Ben’s experience and know that it impacts his life to this day.

Mike Ralston

Lessons Learned During My AmeriCorps Experience Will Last a Lifetime – submitted by Ryan Wise

RyanMWise-2019 Photo Crop HeadshotMy AmeriCorps service as a Teach For America corps member in Tunica, Mississippi in the late 1990s had a profound impact on me. This was my first professional role after college and it was a foundational learning experience that has shaped my career.

As a high school social studies teacher, my primary focus was on improving the quality of education my students received.  I also had the opportunity to work with Habitat for Humanity in my local community. I saw first-hand the intersection of issues like housing availability and quality, food insecurity and educational opportunity. Making these connections helped me realize the need for a comprehensive approach to strengthening state education systems.

I’ve carried this holistic approach from my time as an AmeriCorps member into my role as director of the Iowa Department of Education. Our focus at the Department is on ensuring that every learner in Iowa is safe, healthy, engaged and prepared.

This vision includes ensuring students develop the skills and content knowledge they need to be successful in and beyond high school. It also means creating a safe and welcoming environment in every school, supporting students’ physical and mental health needs, and providing rich and rewarding learning opportunities that make connections between the classroom and the community.

While my AmeriCorps experience concluded nearly twenty years ago, the lessons I learned and the commitment to service I made will last a lifetime.

Ryan Wise, Director, Iowa Department of Education

AmeriCorps NCCC Led Me Down My Career Path – submitted by Julie Struck

In the beginning, serving a year in AmeriCorps NCCC was a whirlwind of “new” … new city, new people, new places, new challenges. And as I settled into my new routine, I discovered how the unknown of this new adventure quickly channeled my ability to gain new skills, make new friends, create new solutions to challenges, and develop an appreciation for my new community. I wasn’t sure what I was doing except that I took a pledge to “Get things done” and what this meant was not fully realized until one day sitting with my team in Bozeman, MT, working alongside a family whose home was being built through a collaboration between AmeriCorps NCCC and Habitat for Humanity. We built the house from the frame to putting the last-minute touches on the paint in the bedrooms. My team, Sun 8, were only there for 8 weeks but the impact of our work would last a lifetime, and for that one family, it meant turning a house into a home.

The last few months of my service were most impactful and led me down my career path. I was helping tutor 2nd graders in a classroom in Aurora, IL, when I heard the news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. What I know now but didn’t know then was this was a turning point for my career in public service. As a trained disaster volunteer, I traveled first to Washington, DC, and then to New York City where I spent the remainder of my term of service helping families who lost loved ones and individuals who lost their homes and jobs because of the tragedy that occurred on September 11, 2001. Since my days in AmeriCorps NCCC, I have worked to serve the people of Iowa through service with Volunteer Iowa, the American Red Cross, and the Rebuild Iowa Office. I currently am serving as a Program Officer with Volunteer Iowa helping leverage AmeriCorps VISTA to fight poverty in Iowa, and if and when disaster strikes, I help to support communities to be better prepared to support volunteers in times of disaster.

AmeriCorps NCCC provided me the opportunity to network and meet people that would eventually become my employers. It’s not surprising how one year of service has turned into a lifetime of friendships in both personally and professionally.Struck_Julie

A Parent’s Perspective – submitted by Randy Evans

When my daughter Katie received her degree from Iowa State University in 2007, the recession had pretty much sapped many employers’ ability to fill job vacancies. I wondered what she would do, and my ulcer was working overtime.

I was not aware of AmeriCorps or the National Civilian Community Corps. But Katie was, and she mentioned her interest in applying for the program.

The rest is history.

Little could I imagine the adventures that were ahead of her as she packed her bags and prepared to head off to California to begin her AmeriCorps service. I could not foresee how her AmeriCorps experiences would refocus her priorities in life.

It wasn’t long after she arrived in California before she and her AmeriCorps team members headed to Louisiana to help in the aftermath of the devastating hurricanes that had pounded the Gulf Coast.

It was there in Louisiana and Mississippi that accounts came back to Iowa of what AmeriCorps members mean to people whose lives are touched by these dedicated young people.

Katie and her AmeriCorps colleagues spent weeks working along the Gulf Coast, helping Habitat for Humanity bring safe and sturdy housing to the hard-hit region.

One day in the checkout line at a grocery store illustrates the impact these young people were having on the region. The checkout clerk noticed the AmeriCorps emblem on Katie’s shirt and told her, “Thank you for all you are doing down here.”

Hearing about that encounter, my wife and I realized that the service by Katie and the other people in AmeriCorps was incredibly important beyond just the houses they were building to replace those left in rubble by the storms. These AmeriCorps members also were helping rebuild the spirit of the people along the Gulf of Mexico.

We smiled with parental pride when Katie called home one evening in 2008 to update us on her work. She and her team members had been living in spartan conditions in a vacant school building. This particular week, she and her friends were delivering construction materials to keep hundreds of volunteer homebuilders well-supplied.

The volunteers came from across the United States to work alongside former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn during the Carter Work Project, an annual week-long Habitat for Humanity event in which Habitat’s most famous volunteers led the hands-on work of constructing much needed homes for people in need.

Katie described seeing the Carters and the other Habitat volunteers hard at work as the AmeriCorps members ferried supplies to the construction sites.

That was not the only time we beamed with pride during her AmeriCorps service.

We eagerly shared with our friends her accounts of learning to frame and roof new houses, of her patient explanations to the uninformed among us of the differences between plywood and OSB lumber, of hanging doors and building shelves as the houses neared completion.

My guy friends were flat-out envious when I told them about Katie running a forklift and a Bobcat.

Even smaller events were fodder for proud parental memories — like the day Katie worked with First Lady Michelle Obama on a playground construction project in San Francisco, or the hours that she and her AmeriCorps team members spent clearing storm debris from around the homes of grateful elderly people in Louisiana, or the weeks they spent mentoring kids like Rico, Jack and Javaughn at a Boys & Girls Club in California.

While Katie talks about these memories, too, she also talks about the lessons she learned from the people she was serving during her two years with AmeriCorps.

And that, in this parent’s view, is the best capsulation of the value of this wonderful program.

AmeriCorps Youth Launch Members Throw End of Summer Community Night

2019 Lamoni graduates Dixie Dykens and Kallie Kinney chose to spend their summer after graduation as AmeriCorps Youth Launch members. Together they wrote a grant and planned an End-of-Summer Community Night in the Park that turned out over and above any of their expectations. The evening began with a 5K Color Run and a Mini for the Minis Triathalon for kids 11 years of age or younger. A free meal  was served to over 250 people. Games and activities such as a watermelon eating contest, tye dye t-shirts, face painting, twister and hopscotch painted on the grass, water guns, donuts on a string, and a 3-legged race were enjoyed by “kids” of all ages.

Community Partners participated in the event as Lamoni Parks and Rec cooked and provided the free meal; LoLoSnow provided samples of shaved ice; Southern Iowa RSVP volunteers served the meal; Lamoni Fire Department brought trucks and a Slip and Slide; and Decatur County Natural Resources provided an outdoor movie in the park at dusk.

Post submitted by Shirley Kessel, Graceland University AmeriCorps Youth Development Specialist Shirley Kessel