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Notre Dame-AmeriCorps: The Joy of Service

 


PHOTO BY RON RACK

Notre Dame-AmeriCorps volunteer Esther Eubanks spends time reading with Melissa Johnson at Peaslee Neighborhood Center in Cincinnati.

 

 

 

 

The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and AmeriCorps are working together to help volunteers make a difference—in communities and themselves.

By Susan Hines-Brigger

 
 A Partnership Is Born

 Making a Commitment to Service

 A Tale of Two Volunteers

 Instilling an Ethic of Service

 Helping Kids Invest in Their Future

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 harmony.

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.”

A 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.

Making 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 AmeriCorps list.

“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 complementary.

“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 choice.

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 game.”

A 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.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF NOTRE DAME-AMERICORPS

Volunteers 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 ESL programs.

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.”

Instilling 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.

 

Helping 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,” she says.

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.

 

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