Category: Thankful for AmeriCorps

It Is a Privilege to Serve – submitted by Ruby Bodeker

It is a privilege to serve.

I knew this to be true when I made the decision to join the AmeriCorps Partnering to Protect Children (APPC) program in late summer 2019 and serve the communities of Benton and Iowa counties.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, much of my work involved building awareness of suicide prevention and increasing volunteer capacity for my host site—I was proud to serve, my goals were worthy.

But I didn’t quite get it.

Serving under a disaster declaration has shown me how much of a privilege it truly is to serve and how important APPC is to our state.

In October 2019, I assisted my site supervisor in planning, recruiting for, and hosting a Community Partnership for Protecting Children (CPPC) 101 Immersion workshop. One of our attendees was Angie Albright, Food Operations Manager at HACAP Food Reservoir

HACAP—a Feeding America member—is a community action agency serving seven counties in eastern Iowa including both counties in my service area.

I knew there was hunger in my community—I taught for four years in a local elementary school with a high percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch—but meeting Albright and learning about the work HACAP does via its monthly mobile food pantries and Operation BackPack program expanded my knowledge exponentially.

Pre-COVID-19, the child food insecure rate in Benton County was 14.9% and the Iowa County rate was 15.5%.

This amounts to more than 1,500 kids considered food insecure in my community before the current economic downturn.

Iowa’s overall child food insecure rate was estimated to be 15.3% prior to the pandemic.

There is a cost to doing nothing when it comes to food insecurity. I’ve seen it firsthand as a teacher.

According to the Food Environmental Alliance, food insecure children are more likely to exhibit tardiness, absenteeism, poor social interaction, aggression, inattentiveness; food insecure children also exhibit poorer health outcomes in general.

It makes sense—it’s hard to think clearly, to act rationally when you are hungry.

And this applies to adults as well. When you’re hungry, the tiniest things can grate on you.

And sometimes those tiniest things can become your children.

When Governor Kim Reynolds redeployed Iowa AmeriCorps members for disaster assistance on March 20, 2020, I was already in the throes of assisting my site supervisor in determining how best to help our community.

Several faith leaders and librarians had reached out to CPPC directly, asking how they could best ensure children in their communities continued to receive nutritious lunches.

Because of my host site’s working relationship with HACAP, we were able to activate quickly and assist the Marengo librarian and her local Ministerial Alliance in setting up Operation Sack Lunch—a grab and go lunch program offered outside the public library every weekday since March 13, 2020.

More than 90 lunches are served daily at the site—a small town located in a rural county. The local school district has a free or reduced price lunch eligibility of more than 37%.

The call by our governor for AmeriCorps members to redeploy to one of Iowa’s six Feeding Iowa Food Banks was an easy decision for me to make and an opportunity I felt privileged to have.

Since redeployment, I have served more than 70 hours with the HACAP Food Reservoir warehouse in Hiawatha and participated in four massive drive-thru mobile food pantries in Linn County—the labor market for many residents of my APPC service area.

I have also assisted with pop-up pantries in three of Cedar Rapid’s urban communities.

During several of the pantries in May, I worked alongside members of the U.S. Army National Guard’s Alpha Company 248th Aviation Support Battalion/Task Force Log. Their support was invaluable as we worked to get food to those who desperately needed it.

During my first few days in the HACAP warehouse, I was exhausted. It involved a lot of heavy lifting, bending, walking, and repetitive motions. But I knew how fortunate I was to be able to do the work, to serve during a disaster, to be healthy.

My interactions with those who attended our pantries were always positive.

Many would roll their windows down halfway and tell me ‘I don’t know how to do this’ or ‘I’ve never had to visit a food pantry before, please tell me what to do’.

Some had tears in their eyes.

Many attendees were veterans.

Those for whom English was not their first language would more often than not try to give me photo identification—by law no pantry that receives USDA TEFAP commodities can require photo identification. I always just shook my head no and they smiled.

So many had children bouncing around in the back seat.

I felt my primary task was to be kind. To be warm. To show them it’s okay to need help. Several people at every pantry would thank me for being kind.

I always waved and spoke to the kids in the vehicles. Ask them about their life at home, if they missed school, how they were feeling.

I never once had a caregiver rebuke this communication. More often than not they would roll the back windows down and smile while the kids chattered to me about everything and anything.

Standing in those parking lots as hundreds of cars lined up ahead of the pantries, the inequity in our country was illuminated for all to see.

But it’s important to remember that need was always there, it was just invisible to a lot of people.

Children were food insecure in my service area before COVID-19 and they will continue to be food insecure on the other side.

My own family has needed supports during this time as my husband’s hours have dwindled.

There were many mornings that I thought about not working at the food reservoir anymore, staying home, serving by telework only.

But I would remind myself as I swung my legs out of bed, feet throbbing from the long day before—it is a privilege to be healthy, to be able.

It is a privilege to serve my community and so I do.

Submitted by Ruby Bodeker, AmeriCorps Partnering to Protect Children & Benton-Iowa Decat/Community Partnership for Protecting Children

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.