It is not partisan.
It does not cater solely to the old, young or anyone in between.
It is for everyone.
The AmeriCorps initiative – part of the Corporation for National and Community Service – is one of the most widespread, versatile service programs in America. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, AmeriCorps has helped more than 900,000 members contribute more than 1.2 billion hours of service across the United States.
Iowa State University boasts one of AmeriCorps’ most wide-ranging, unique programs. Rather than serve one narrowly targeted area or one specific program, the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach Program serves communities and programs across the state of Iowa.
Last year, 4-H Outreach Program members reached more than 17,000 Iowa youth, with more than 10,000 participating in six hours or more of AmeriCorps programming. Members managed more than 900 volunteers and spent 6,000 hours completing 138 community projects.
“The program is sometimes hard to talk about, because all of our members do something different,” said ISU AmeriCorps Outreach director Judy McCarthy. “It makes it really difficult to say we did one big thing, because we’re doing something different in each community.”
The AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program is unique in its approach. Rather than serving as a host site for a single program, it functions as an intermediary, sending members across the state to programs that apply for its services.
The program has members at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach county offices statewide. Current member and ISU alum Rebecca Roberts said she is beginning her second year in Hamilton County, working in local schools and also teaching children gardening programs.
It also sends members to programs like Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness (a coalition that promotes local food, healthy living and physical activity in a six-county northeast Iowa region) and the Centerville School District in southeast Iowa.
Megan Woodward, a recent women’s and gender studies graduate of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, was looking for the next step after college graduation.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?” she said while taking a break from a recent service project at Iowa State’s Reiman Gardens.
After taking a year off to ponder her next move, she found the answer with the AmeriCorps program.
Woodward is beginning her second year in the Decorah school system, working with Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness. She’s integrated into all Decorah schools “in some way, shape or form.”
"This AmeriCorps program combines everything that I like to do – working with kids, gardening, farming, the food system, producing food,” she said. “So it’s the perfect combination of everything I’m passionate about.”
Woodward teaches lessons, manages Decorah’s school garden, does cafeteria taste testing and helps with field trips, among other duties.
“I love the flexibility of it, I love that I get to do a ton of different things,” she said. “Most days, it’s spent in the classroom or outside. It’s a varied schedule and I appreciate that. I’m not tied down and am autonomous in what I get to do.”
Working with AmeriCorps has helped Woodward realize that she’d like to be a school wellness coordinator, or work with garden or food programming for children.
“This is my second year doing it and it’s like, ‘OK, what am I going to do for a job that I love doing as much as this?’” she said.
Woodward is one of five AmeriCorps members with Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness, and the program’s presence in southeast Iowa is even greater.
A longtime participant, Centerville has increased its participation from three to six AmeriCorps members. The program began in Centerville’s elementary school, but now covers the entire school district.
“It allows a connection with our school,” Centerville junior high principal Bruce Karpen, the district’s AmeriCorps coordinator, said. “It helps our community members that participate as AmeriCorps members gain skills through our ISU AmeriCorps program, and they’re going to college in the evening. We have college-aged kids through retired people in our positions, and the education award ($5,600 for a full-time member) is enticing to many. It’s basically service learning. It’s been a very good program.”
Tom Davis is an excellent example. A former science and math teacher in Colorado and Illinois, Davis recently retired following a 28-year career with the Coors Brewing Co. in quality control. Davis and his wife moved to Centerville, and saw an ad for AmeriCorps. For the lifelong volunteer, the program was a natural fit.
Davis helps struggling students with their schoolwork and also encourages participation in community service projects.
“I think with any volunteer work, you get a lot more out of it than you put into it,” he said. “It’s a feeling of satisfaction. Working with the students, working with kids, I was out of that for 28 years. It’s nice to get back into it.”
In Centerville, AmeriCorps members provide academic support at the elementary level by doing things like listening to children read, and also offer community outreach and after-school programs that Karpen says “helps kids learn and appreciate things that are appropriate in a setting outside of the household.”
“Here in southeast Iowa we have a higher than average rate of poverty, and this is a connection for kids in life,” he said. “We strive not just for education from books, but value the connection and development of skills.”
The AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program is an excellent value for Centerville for improving students’ overall performance and skills, and allows Centerville Schools to support, in McCarthy’s words, “a lot of programming they would not be able to do, opportunities for youth to participate that wouldn’t be happening if AmeriCorps wasn’t there.”
In Karpen’s eyes, AmeriCorps benefits Centerville long after its members’ terms have wrapped up. He says he “seldom has to educate” his community on the AmeriCorps values.
“You walk around and know people who have been AmeriCorps members and it’s pretty neat,” he said. “I get to know people that I hire and work with and it’s pretty neat that several have gone on to be teachers and experienced kids and learning. It’s a melting pot of people that have been in that position. There’s no stereotypes. It’s been youth, it’s been mature people – that’s what’s been good.”
“We rely on different businesses, different community organizations, donations that help with different things,” he said. “Whenever you go to them and say you’re with AmeriCorps, it’s always like, ‘Yeah, AmeriCorps. We know AmeriCorps. So I think everyone’s really aware of what we do.”
Those who are interested in the AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach Program are culled from a selective application process (for both participants and host sites).
McCarthy says about 90 percent of members finish their terms with AmeriCorps successfully, and there are specific qualities that the program desires.
“We want someone who has a commitment to service,” she said. “We prefer to have members who want to work in the national service program, not ones who can’t find a job someplace else. We want someone who is willing to commit to a full year, not someone who’s just going to be around until they find a full-time job. Also someone who is interested in working with youth, is energetic, who’s enthusiastic about what they’re getting into and what they’re going to do.”
McCarthy estimates Iowa State populates 15-20 programs statewide per year: the positions are paid for with a combination of grant money and funding. She says turnover is consistent. Some sites choose not to participate again, while others experience enough success that they are able to replace AmeriCorps staffers with permanent full-time staffers doing the same job.
And while the program impacts the communities it serves, it also impacts its members.
AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach Program members give – but they receive, too.
“There’s a higher percentage of ongoing volunteerism in their communities than in the average population,” she said. “So definitely, in terms of the members, it promotes community activism, connections to the community and commitment to service within those communities. I feel like it is, to some extent, a training ground for the future community leaders. Because they become aware of the needs within their community.”