“What are you doing to get us out of here?” asked a young man sitting in front of me. Four boys in identical tan jumpsuits and orange plastic shoes crossed their arms and stared at me. Surrounded by concrete walls marked only by the occasional gang symbol, I began my year of service with AmeriCorps inside Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility, Indiana’s location for its most troubled juvenile offenders. Beginning in October 2006, I supported the expansion of Aftercare for Indiana through Mentoring (AIM) into Madison, Delaware, Henry, and Grant counties. During my term, I met many young people who struggled to visualize lives without criminal activity. I heard repeated stories of poverty, learning disabilities, mental health issues, gangs, and substance abuse. During my visits, we talked about these things, but more importantly, we talked about how life could be different after incarceration. Initially, the young men and women looked at us as a way out of the facilities, but eventually, it grew into a much more substantial relationship where these teenagers told us about their dreams and plans for the future.
As an AmeriCorps member, I had very little experience working with youth and no experience with the juvenile justice system. However, the AmeriCorps motto resonated with me. I knew that inside of me was a desire to “get things done for America.” This remains clear to me when I think of one young man’s story. My AmeriCorps partner and I had decided to hold a dinner for all of the young people who had returned to Anderson in the past few months. This young man was especially eager to help us cook, and he was telling me how he intended to be a chef someday. He loved watching his grandmother cook, and he had learned some special recipes from her. I turned to him and asked, “So, what would your gang members do if they knew you wanted to go to college?” We had never directly spoken about his gang involvement before, and I wasn’t certain he would answer my question. He thought for a moment, and then he said, “Well, Miss Sarah, I think they would support that, but if they needed me to do something, I’d have to go back to them.”
I tell that story a lot because it reminds me that there are still things that need to be done for America. Right now, I’m doing everything I personally can to make sure that Indiana youth have a way out of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Ideally, I want to make sure that they never find their way in. Before meeting the AIM teenagers, I was unsure about how to best serve as an advocate for youth. I had joined AmeriCorps to serve my community while further defining my future career interests. AmeriCorps taught me a lot about what I didn’t know. It taught me that I needed new skills in fundraising, program development, volunteer management, strategic planning, financial management, and human resources. After 1700 hours of national service, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in public affairs with a particular interest in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.
When I chose my graduate program at IUPUI’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, I used a portion of this blog post as my personal statement to illustrate how my AmeriCorps term shaped my commitment to continuing my education. I fully believe that national service helped me get into graduate school as a fully funded IUPUI Jaguar, and I am grateful for that. I can think of a multitude of Indianapolis nonprofits who benefit from AmeriCorps programs, and in turn, that benefit is passed on to the community. AmeriCorps has a rich history of individual stories like mine. I don’t intend to share my political views on this blog too often, but the idea that funding for a national service program could completely disappear is a serious potential tragedy. While other countries are requiring their young people to give back, our legislators are sending the message that service and giving back to the community just isn’t important.
To this day, I’ll do anything possible to find a solution, a resource, or someone else who can help if it means that one more young person will have something that they need. Five years after the start of my term, I’m about to graduate with my MPA in nonprofit management, and I still credit AmeriCorps with a very valuable contribution to my career and personal development. “Getting things done for America” is something that all AmeriCorps Alums still take very seriously. When we were officially “sworn in” at the first retreat, we vowed to honor that commitment throughout our year of service and beyond. I’m still honoring it, and I know there are countless other Alums who do, too. If you look in the career history of many of our city’s young leaders, you’ll find the common thread of an AmeriCorps experience. We’re still getting things done for this community every day.
To find an AmeriCorps opportunity in your community, visit Americorps.gov
To learn more about national service volunteers and your organization, visit the Corporation for National and Community Service
To learn more about the proposed cuts in federal funding for programs like AmeriCorps and public policy as it applies to national service, visit Service Nation
To volunteer with AIM, visit their website.