Straight up fantastic
by TRACEY BARNES PRIESTLEY
I VIVIDLY RECALL THE DAY MY OLDEST daughter -- then a college freshman in the Bay Area -- came home for Christmas break. In the house for no more than 30 minutes, she took up her place at the kitchen counter and proudly announced, "I actually taught a child how to read."
The significance of her statement was not lost on me, as I consider reading to be one of those skills that leads to happiness and success on many levels. But as a parent, I was also thrilled that my daughter, at such a young age, was having the opportunity to experience the joy and satisfaction of working to improve the lives of others, all because she had the good fortune of becoming an AmeriCorps member.
Throughout the nation, 50,000 Americans age 17 and older are working to meet community needs through the AmeriCorps program. As mentors and positive role models for children of all ages, they provide services in many areas, such as education, the environment and public safety.
The good news for those of us living in Humboldt County is that we have more than 50 dedicated individuals, known as RCAA Straight Up AmeriCorps members, currently serving at sites in Arcata, Blue Lake, Eureka, Fortuna and Manila. Each mentors an average of 10 students every week (although I've learned that this estimate is actually low). That's approximately 500 kids on the receiving end of what I consider to be beneficial time and energy. It's the kind of work that can truly alter someone's life.
For their tireless efforts, full-time Straight Up AmeriCorps members receive a stipend, health insurance and educational grants that can be used towards college tuition. Part-time members receive similar benefits at a lower rate. But while the financial compensation is certainly appreciated, it must be the emotional satisfaction and learning opportunities that truly reward AmeriCorps members.
Jana Wilson has returned for a second year as a Straight Up AmeriCorps member. "Mentoring is a great experience. It's hands-on and we can have an amazing impact on a kid's life." Wilson, originally from the Seattle area, is one of 13 AmeriCorps members currently working at Eureka High School. She mentors through the Work Force Investment Act, a program designed to help youth overcome barriers to completing their education, such as homelessness, living in foster care, or physical disability. Wilson says, "It's difficult work but so much fun. We'll do academic tutoring but we might also work on social skills. Maybe I'll help a student with a resume or even attend a basketball game on the weekend -- anything that shows I care."
Marge Chrichton, Special Projects Counselor for Eureka High School, oversees the school's Straight Up AmeriCorps program. "Our members are from all over the country. We try to place them where their strengths and interests are. As a community partnership, we bring something to them and they certainly bring something to our students and staff."
The agency we can thank for this comprehensive range of services is Redwood Community Action Agency (RCAA), a locally based, private nonprofit organization that provides a wide range of services to low and moderate income residents of Humboldt County. They began a partnership with Straight Up AmeriCorps in 1995, focusing on the prevention of youth violence. The following year, the program concentrated on targeting disengaged youth, those at risk of dropping out of school. In 1997, Straight Up AmeriCorps further refined its goal -- to increase school success and involvement of at-risk youth through a myriad of activities including tutoring, mentoring, after-school and summer programs, community service projects and academic and life skills management.
To actually pull off all of this requires a well-orchestrated effort on the part of many individuals and groups throughout the entire county. Jessica Tolman, a member of AmeriCorps Vista (a related but different program), enthusiastically promotes Straight Up AmeriCorps: "We currently have 21 local RCAA Straight Up AmeriCorps community partnerships. Each program site is different, but the goal remains the same -- direct mentoring for at-risk youth."
How this is accomplished is varied and downright imaginative. Tolman gave some examples: "Straight Up AmeriCorps members might provide daily tutoring, attend classes with a student, provide youth in-service learning opportunities (wherein kids learn by doing for others) or take them to recreational, academic and cultural activities on the weekend. They really do whatever it takes to guide and support that particular youth."
The funding for all of this is an economic jigsaw puzzle. Tolman tried to explain the complexities to me. "It`s creative economics! RCAA Straight Up AmeriCorps is funded by all levels -- federal, state and local resources pooled together. The Corporation for National and Community Service is the source of federal financial contribution and provides funding for a variety of service opportunities. We also receive support from the Governor's Office on Service and Volunteerism. On the local level, each community partnership contributes funding. For example, a school provides money to secure Straight Up AmeriCorps members at their site." I'll admit I had trouble following the paths of all of these funding sources. "Creative economics" struck me as a real understatement.
But the fact that these bureaucracies can somehow work together seems to reflect exactly what RCAA Straight Up AmeriCorps is all about -- people at every level successfully coordinating their efforts to benefit so many Humboldt County kids. It doesn't get any better than that.
© Copyright 2003, North Coast Journal, Inc.