By Krista Eichhorst
MSCSA Conference Planner
My sister and I were at Dixies On Grand in Saint Paul talking after a stressful day. I had recently graduated from college in Wisconsin and was living with her and her husband as the nanny for my niece and nephew while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, something that I probably should have done before graduation. Over drinks my sister and I had established that I wasn’t interested in graduate school and taking on additional student loans.
“The AmeriCorps members at work love it and national service looks good on your resume,” my sister continued.
“I’ll think about it,” I said and we finished our drinks.
It was the height of the recession and the economy was sluggish. I was grateful for a job but as much as I loved my niece and nephew, changing diapers and taming toddlers was quickly losing its charm. I knew I wanted to start a career but I only had vague ideas of the path I wanted to take. I was a creative writing major so perhaps publishing or communications. Maybe I could jump onboard the sinking print journalism ship. A communications internship with a Chicago research library during college had piqued my interest in nonprofit marketing and I was curious to learn more about the nonprofit field. As we drove back home I mulled over what my sister had said, thinking that maybe serving in AmeriCorps would help me find some answers.
The next day I went to the AmeriCorps website and began researching programs. Out of the three AmeriCorps programs I was drawn to AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and decided to apply for positions in the Twin Cities. By August I was sworn into service and began my year as the AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer coordinator with a literacy nonprofit in Saint Paul.
Serving in AmeriCorps changed my life. It gave me time to plan for my future. It connected me to my community. It provided me with the opportunity to challenge myself, gain new skills, and build a strong professional network within the nonprofit field. It helped me discover that I am passionate about mentoring and educational equity. It taught me how to be an effective leader. Most importantly, every day I felt like I was making lasting, positive change in the world.
There were other, more tangible, benefits of AmeriCorps service too. I received a modest living allowance that paid for my living expenses during the year. I put my federal student loans in forbearance during service and at the end of the year, the federal government paid off the interest that had accrued. At the end of my service term I received the Segal Education Award, $5,550 that I could use towards paying off my federal student loans or for future tuition expenses. Because I decided to serve for two years in the AmeriCorps VISTA program, I earned two education awards and nearly paid off all of my student loan debt.
But serving in AmeriCorps was also one of the hardest things I have ever done. AmeriCorps VISTA members receive living allowances that are set at the poverty level of the community where they serve and are not allowed to work during their service term. I learned uncomfortable truths about myself and the privilege I was born with. I worried about my ability to find a job right after my service ended so I could pay my bills. The change I was trying to enact was often frustratingly slow. I was only temporary, a transient presence in the lives of the people I served.
AmeriCorps is a long term commitment to service that will push you outside your comfort zone and it isn’t the right option for everyone. For individuals with overwhelming financial responsibilities, it can be nearly impossible to live off an AmeriCorps living allowance. But for me, it was the right choice at the right time in my life and an experience that I wouldn’t exchange for anything.
The different corps of AmeriCorps
For 20 years AmeriCorps members have been serving communities across the country. The Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency, funds and manages the three AmeriCorps branches: State & National, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), and NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) & FEMA Corps. For more information about AmeriCorps, check out the website: www.nationalservice.gov
AmeriCorps State & National
State & National is the largest AmeriCorps branch and supports a wide range of local community service programs in the areas of education, public safety, health, and the environment. This branch is open to US citizens, nationals, or lawful permanent resident aliens aged 17 and older. Members serve full- or part-time for up to 12 months. Examples of Minnesota State AmeriCorps programs include Minnesota Reading Corps, College Possible, and Minnesota Conservation Corps.
VISTA focuses on bringing individuals and communities out of poverty. Members serve full-time for 12 months on a specific project with a nonprofit organization or public agency. They focus on building the organizational, administrative, and financial capacity of organizations in areas such as education, healthcare, and workforce development. This branch is open to US citizens, nationals, or lawful permanent resident aliens aged 18 and older.
AmeriCorps NCCC & FEMA Corps
NCCC is a team-based community service program that partners with local and federal government agencies, nonprofits, and schools. Members travel around a region of the country completing service projects in the areas of urban and rural development, environmental conservation, energy conservation, infrastructure improvement, and natural and other disasters. NCCC is a full-time, 10-month residential program and members are assigned to one of five campuses across the country. NCCC is open to US citizens, nationals, and lawful permanent resident aliens between 18 and 24 years old. FEMA Corps is a branch of NCCC that focuses exclusively on disaster preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery.