This month, Sister Katherine “Sissy” Corr will watch
150 volunteers converge upon Trinity Hall in Washington, D.C.,
for a weeklong retreat. Afterward the volunteers will leave
to embark upon a year of service with Notre Dame-AmeriCorps.
They have come to try to make a difference and fulfill their
own sense of service.
Sister Katherine is executive director of Notre Dame-AmeriCorps,
which she helped begin in 1994 and has watched steadily grow.
Volunteers will take their places at one of six different locations
across the United States: Apopka, Florida; Boston, Massachusetts;
Cincinnati, Ohio; San Francisco, California; Washington, D.C.;
and New Mexico.
For the next year—or possibly two for those who stay on—these
volunteers will devote their lives to tutoring at-risk children
and disadvantaged adults, participating in afterschool enrichment
programs, teaching conflict resolution and parent effectiveness
and involving community professionals in the learning process.
The program is a public-private partnership for education,
community empowerment, leadership development and multicultural
The program combines the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur’s Mission
Volunteer Program with the U.S. government’s national AmeriCorps
program to help “create holistic educational programs for at-risk
children and adults in economically disadvantaged communities.”
Partnership Is Born
St. Julie Billiart, a native of France and founder of the Sisters
of Notre Dame de Namur, sent her sisters off more than two centuries
ago to teach literacy and other skills to those in need. Following
her lead, the Sisters of Notre Dame have a long history of promoting
education. So it seemed only natural that when they were searching
for a way to expand the scope of their Notre Dame Mission Volunteers
program, they would look to their educational institutions.
Sister Katherine wrote to Notre Dame sisters from all U.S.
provinces and asked how many of them could use full-time volunteers.
The program had six volunteers at the time.
“I had a request for 80 volunteers,” she recalls. “How was
I going to go from six to 80?”
Funding was a big hurdle to the program’s growth, says Sister
Katherine. She estimates that it costs $10,000-$12,000 a year
to pay for a full-time volunteer.
About the same time, she attended a workshop on the AmeriCorps
program at the Catholic Network of Volunteer Services annual
meeting. She immediately knew they had found a partner for their
endeavor—AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps, which is sometimes referred
to as the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps, provides education
awards in exchange for a year or two of community service.
After the presentation, “I made a beeline up to the guy and
I asked how we could apply,” she recalls. “The thing that I
give myself credit for is that, in all of that room, I’m the
one who was right up there.”
But prior to establishing the program, Sister Katherine says,
“We looked carefully at what was it that AmeriCorps wanted
to accomplish and what was it that we wanted to accomplish.
The main thing was to work with the poor and help them to have
the tools to go forward with their lives and to foster an ethic
of service with the volunteers.”
In the first year of the program, Notre Dame-AmeriCorps grew
from six volunteers to 46.
AmeriCorps provides funding to cover room and board, health
care and a small stipend for a set number of volunteers. Notre
Dame Mission Volunteers is then required to raise a certain
amount to fulfill its matching-fund requirement. For the 1999-2000
service year, AmeriCorps awarded a grant of $1,100,029—enough
for 93 full-time volunteers. AmeriCorps also promised $439,425
in educational awards. The sisters must match the AmeriCorps
grant by raising $430,354.
Sister Katherine says literacy and education were natural focuses
for the program, given the Order’s history. But the many other
ministries the sisters were involved with made it difficult
to choose just one area. She says AmeriCorps helped provide
the necessary focus to get the program going.
“I told them we were working with health-care needs and the
homeless and shelters and literacy,” she recalls. “They said,
‘Sister Katherine, you need to choose one, just one focus. You
can’t do them all.’ So because we’re educators at heart, that’s
our main thing that we did. We stayed with the soup kitchens
and shelters, but our component is literacy. It was just a natural.
“We target children in Head Start and school settings, as well
as adults who are high school dropouts in need of GED, literacy
or parenting skills,” says Sister Katherine.
She says that Notre Dame-AmeriCorps is “successfully addressing
three key issues facing our society: 1) the need to have an
ethic of service—to give of oneself without getting a big payback;
2) the need for education in the community—to help people realize
themselves and their potential through education; and 3) the
need to learn alternatives to violence.”
Sister Katherine says literacy and education
were natural focuses for the program.
Sister Katherine also points out other motivations behind the
program. “In terms of the Sisters of Notre Dame, there was a
sense that we have fewer people joining us, but we have developed
a lot of skills and talents to pass on. So this would be a way
of us handing on the tradition of what’s been so enriching for
us,” she says.
a Commitment to Service
Volunteers for the program are recruited by one of three means:
the Catholic Network of Volunteer Services, the Pellotte Center
and AmeriCorps. Sister Katherine says Notre Dame-AmeriCorps
also does follow-up calls from the Catholic Network and the
“Our volunteers are recruited from the local communities and
nationally from college campuses....We try to recruit half from
the community and half from the colleges. We focus on that group
of people because at this point it seems that many of the sisters
are in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. So what we need to complement
who we are would be people in their 20’s and 30’s. Often college
kids are in their 20’s and the neighborhood people are in their
30’s. And we’re the other part of the timeline, so I think it’s
“There is this wonderful mix of people coming together, crossing
class and culture, to address the central issue of our day,
which is education,” says Sister Katherine. And in addition,
she points out, “when people do choose us, it is with Notre
Dame Mission Volunteers, so people know that there’s this group
that’s sponsored by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Underlying
everyone that joins is that sense of a spiritual quest to this—spiritual
values that they’re looking for to undergird their service.”
She adds, however, that the program respects the separation
of Church and state necessary for the partnership.
Volunteers submit to a rather extensive application process,
which includes two separate written applications for AmeriCorps
and Notre Dame Mission Volunteers, and an interview process
with Notre Dame-AmeriCorps. “There’s a pretty stiff application
they have to go through and complete, so they’re really thinking
through this before they come,” says Sister Katherine. Applicants
indicate their preferences for where they’d like to do their
service, but unfortunately, despite every effort to fulfill
the first requests, volunteers don’t always get their first
Following their service, the volunteers receive an educational
award of $4,725, which they can use to pay student loans or
pursue further education. Sister Katherine says that for many
of the neighborhood volunteers, the education award is their
opportunity to go to college.
For the past three years, the program has had a close to 95
percent retention rate.
The volunteers receive support from site directors in each
of the cities and from people with whom the sisters are already
well associated, such as the principals and teachers at the
schools. The groups also have Friday meetings where they can
discuss various issues. Sister Katherine also points out that
“people in the community might invite them to dinner or a ball
Tale of Two Volunteers
Toresa Jenkins and Natalie Cartwright know the importance of
the volunteer work Notre Dame-AmeriCorps does, but each came
to be a part of the program in different ways.
Toresa Jenkins had put her college education on hold due to
financial reasons when she became acquainted with the Notre
Dame-AmeriCorps program. Thanks to the program, however, Toresa
recently graduated with her degree in elementary education and
will begin teaching this year. She was also recently appointed
to the board of directors of Notre Dame-AmeriCorps.
Toresa lives in Cincinnati and became involved with Notre Dame-AmeriCorps
after meeting Sister Judy Tensing while doing some community
organizing work. Sister Judy, who is the site director for Notre
Dame-AmeriCorps in Cincinnati, asked Toresa if she was interested
in doing volunteer work with the program. Toresa says that,
when Sister Judy asked, “It was just a good time. I was not
able to get back into school for financial reasons and it seemed
like a good deal.”
Toresa served for two years as a tutor at St. Francis Seraph
School in Cincinnati, where she did tutoring and mentoring.
“We were responsible for four students to help improve their
reading and writing over the course of the year,” she says.
“But we also assisted the teacher in the classroom, and did
other miscellaneous things to help out in the school in general.”
After completing her service, Toresa used her education award
to pay off her previous student loans and return to school to
complete her degree. She graduated from Xavier University in
Cincinnati this past May.
For Toresa, her time as a volunteer provided her with experience
that she says has been invaluable. “The service for me was a
way of confirming what I felt that I was being prepared to do,
that I was meant to do. It was a way that I could see if this
is what I really want to do,” she says. “It also gave me a lot
of real-life experience to prepare me for teaching. I’d never
been in the classroom every day all day like this except for
when I was in school myself. So it was an opportunity, I feel,
that prepared me for teaching in a way that no student teaching
experience or college education can do. I really do feel that
I’m more prepared than most teachers going into the profession.”
She says what’s so special about the program is “the Sisters
of Notre Dame and their commitment to working with the people
who are AmeriCorps members and their development. That’s very
important, but in addition to that, you get so much more out
of service than you put in. It’s just amazing how much you gain
yourself. It really is an amazing exchange.”
OF NOTRE DAME-AMERICORPS
tutor a student in the afterschool program at Kermit Grade School
in Kermit, West Virginia.
For volunteer Natalie Cartwright, Notre Dame-AmeriCorps was
the first step on what she hopes will be a lifelong journey
of service. She joined the Notre Dame-AmeriCorps program a few
years after graduating from college as a means of fulfilling
her desire to perform faith-based service.
Natalie served last year as an adult-education teacher at Notre
Dame Education Center in Boston, where she taught basic literacy
skills and reading, writing and English. She also taught pre-GED
intermediate skills in reading, writing and math. The Education
Center is devoted to responding to the needs of the adults in
the community through adult basic education, diploma, GED and
For Natalie, her experience with Notre Dame-AmeriCorps has
been priceless. “I’ve had an opportunity to be a part of people’s
lives who are struggling to really make a change in their own
lives,” she told St. Anthony Messenger this past July.
“My most meaningful moments have definitely been when students
have said, ‘I’m very proud of myself about what I learned today,’
or ‘I’m proud that I can take the bus by myself now, or fill
out my own tax form.’ I feel like I’ve had this incredible opportunity
to be part of this pretty incredible process of people really
changing their own lives. It’s a place of hope, and I have been
invited into that and been able to be a part of it this year.”
Natalie decided to return to her home in Montana so, although
she has signed up for a second year of service with AmeriCorps,
she will not be working with the Notre Dame-AmeriCorps program.
Her ultimate goal is to do international lay missionary work
with Maryknoll. The future, she says, definitely holds “a long-term
commitment to service,” noting that “this is where I started.”
an Ethic of Service
Sister Katherine thinks the change that takes place in the
volunteers and what they gain from the experience are valuable
aspects of the program. “I think one of the things they are
getting out of this is the joy of service. They’re seeing they
can make a difference. They also learn to depend more on one
another. I think in our society we’re so oriented toward making
money, and really it’s just not everything. This program, I
think, raised that awareness for them. Money has its proper
place, but it is not everything.”
So what does Sister Katherine see as the program’s most important
feature? “Sometimes you say the most important thing is that
we’re helping these children and adults develop their potential.
In one sense that’s the most important. But in another sense,
I have to say, for me sometimes, it is the full-time volunteers
because they are doing something right now, building within
themselves a capacity for service that will change their life.
It’s not just working in the community. They’re going to take
the sense of what it means to love, and love means to be able
to serve. It’s the bottom line, really.”
For further information on the Notre Dame-AmeriCorps program,
or to become a volunteer, contact the NDA National Office at
403 Markland Avenue, Baltimore, MD, 21212, telephone (410) 532-6588,
fax (410) 532-2418, e-mail: Ndamercrps@aol.com.
You can also check out the program on the Web at http://members.aol.com/ndamercrps/index.html.
For more information on the AmeriCorps program, visit http://www.cns.gov,
or call 1-800-942-2677.
Kids Invest in Their Future
Teaching kids the importance of saving money has always
been a struggle, but in Apopka, Florida, Notre Dame-AmeriCorps
has found a unique way to show kids the importance of
savings. What is their solution? Let the kids run their
own credit union.
Pennies for Power (PFP) is part of the larger Community
Trust Federal Credit Union that serves the financial needs
of the low-income migrant farmworker community. The PFP
program, which began operating in April 1996, recruits
and trains farmworker youth in hopes of developing their
skills and interest in financial matters. The youth run
the credit union, serving as tellers, loan officers, membership
secretaries, educators/trainers and public relations and
outreach staff. They also serve on the board of directors.
Notre Dame-AmeriCorps volunteers offer guidance and supervision
to the youth.
Mayra Garcia, who has served as the president of the
board of directors and as a teller, says, “PFP has given
me the leadership skills I will need throughout my life,
and these skills will help me in any career I choose.”
Sister Cathy Gorman, S.N.D., is the adult supervisor
of Pennies for Power. She says the credit union is providing
skills the kids can use in their future. “Regular training
for youth leaders helps teach effective communication,
team building and conflict resolution skills. PFP is a
practical project of community economic development,”
As of May 1999, PFP has over 500 members with $50,000
in assets. Members range in age from 5 to 17 years old.
A minimum amount of $2.50 is required to open an account,
and there must be at least a one-dollar balance in order
to keep the account active. When they open their account,
members receive a membership card for their account. The
credit union operates two days a week in a corner of the
larger Community Trust Federal Credit Union.
The program has received a number of awards and national
recognition for its work. In 1998 the program won a $20,000
Special Judges Award for outstanding community service
from Walt Disney World. The year before, PFP was invited
to the Presidential Summit in Philadelphia to teach marketable
skills to youth.
Susan Hines-Brigger is an assistant editor of this magazine
and a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph.