In December of 2011 I received my MS in Criminal Justice from the University of Central Florida. In September of the same year I joined Americorps, which is the domestic version of the Peace Corps. I pledged a year of national service to Americorps VISTA, whose mission is to eradicate poverty in the United States. VISTA members are placed with local nonprofits or government agencies in their assigned area to help accomplish this mission. I am stationed in Orlando, and the individuals who started the initiative decided that Orlando was going to eradicate poverty by focusing on two important issues: increasing youth literacy and decreasing youth crime. The nonprofit Orlando Cares was born, and has five different programs within it. I’m placed with 4-H [I’m sure more people up there are aware of 4-H than down here in Orlando!] and I run a program called The Garden. This program runs for 10 weeks at a time in city community centers and brings agricultural, nutritional, and career education to at-risk 3rd through 5th graders. Each child has their own container garden, we have a group outdoor garden plot, and then we also have a hydroponics station [which is growing plants in water instead of soil]. Each week I bring in guest speakers from the community who are experts on their topic to talk to the kids about various things, and then we do a hands-on activity. The program is funded by several national and local grants, so we track the progress of the participants in things like nutritional awareness and life skills [responsibility, leadership, etc]. The goal of the program is to develop these kids and start the foundation to successful adulthood. So I recruit and train volunteers, educate the community, analyze the data, report for our grants, and run the day-to-day activities of the program.

Our program is facing hurdles due to the sequestration and all the budget problems, so the number of people on the team has dropped, without the ability to hire more people. So in recent months I’ve also begun running another program, called Path Finders, that partners with Junior Achievement to provide career exploration to at-risk middle schoolers and high schoolers who are already involved with the Department of Juvenile Justice. We use Junior Achievement curriculum to talk about values, goals, educational options, and the sheer variety of careers that are available. The neat part of this program is the week that we bring in local business owners and the kids get to do a “career speed exploration” that is set up much the same as speed dating – the business owners stay put, and the kids rotate and get to ask each person questions for about 5 minutes. We try to get a variety of business owners out to talk. The following week we actually get to take a field trip to those places of business to see what it actually entails to be the General Manager of a Papa John’s, or the CEO of a pallet distribution company, etc. Then we work with the students to help them create their own career map of what steps they might need to take to reach their desired career.
The interesting part about Americorps is that it is much like the Peace Corps in pay. When you pledge your year of service you also pledge to live in poverty for that year, so that you may better understand the community that you serve. So your pay structure is index to poverty in the area that you are placed. Technically Americorps members are volunteers, and so we don’t actually receive pay, but rather, a monthly stipend. It’s certainly been an enlightening journey, as Orlando Cares is partnered with the City of Orlando, so I straddle the world of professional city government at one moment and the inner-city struggles at another moment.

My year of service is up in September 2013, and so I am already starting to look for jobs for after that. I’ve applied to become a program manager for another Americorps program called City Year, which addresses the alarmingly large high school dropout rate. But that job is a regular salaried position. I’ve considered other nonprofits, and I’ve also considered teaching, and so have applied for my teaching certificate. I’m not quite sure what my path will look like in a few months, but my mindset has been forever changed by the experiences that I’ve had in the past 8 months.

Thank you again to the scholarship committee for their investment in my future!