Soldiers on the Front Lines: AmeriCorps members in West Michigan make an impact

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Jane Johnston, Editorial Intern

Almost 150 West Michiganders spend their days working for AmeriCorps, a national service organization that pairs members with local governments, schools and nonprofit organizations.

One of those organizations is the Literacy Center of West Michigan. Johana Rodriguez, the organization’s Director of Family Literacy, said that the work the center does wouldn’t be possible without AmeriCorps.

“They are the front-line soldiers of our work,” Rodriguez said. “They become the nucleus of the community the learners make in classes.”

The center’s Family Literacy program focuses on non-native speakers with children ranging from preschooler’s to those in their early teenage years.

“All parents want and deserve the right to be their child’s first parent,” Rodriguez said of her work, saying her role allows her to “influence programming that will help parents find their voice in their own families, school and community.”

The Literacy Center of West Michigan has served almost 2,000 area adults and is only one of over 100 Americorps service sites in the region. Marsha Hazen, Americorps Partnerships Coordinator for the Michigan Community Service Commission, said that AmeriCorps members across the state learn lessons they’ll take with them longer after their service is over.

“AmeriCorps members learn new skills and gain valuable experience, while making our communities safer, stronger and healthier,” Hazen said.

Hazen would know, as prior to serving on the Michigan Community Service Commission she was an AmeriCorps member for three years.

“Growing up in a low-income family, I knew that I wanted to work in the non-profit or public service sector in order to make a positive impact on the world,” Hazen said.

She made that impact with AmeriCorps, first creating out-of-school activities for children in a community north of Lansing, then securing low-income and uninsured patients healthcare services.

Now she works with state and national AmeriCorps teams in a variety of ways — training members and program staff, overseeing national outreach to high school and college students, school counselors, and community organizations, and connecting AmeriCorps members across the country through professional networking, peer exchange and other existing programs within the organization.

Those interested in joining AmeriCorps have the choice between three different program types — VISTA, NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) and State and National working with organizations to tackle issues like Ex-Offender Reentry, Disaster Relief and more. At the Literacy Center of West Michigan, AmeriCorps members are in charge of instructing one of 11 different class sessions offered.

Rodriguez said that while the need for their work is high, they struggle to recruit enough volunteers for tutoring. She said that this work is great for folks seeking to understand a different point of view, and suggests that if someone is interested but can’t commit too much of their time to the work, they can volunteer to help out at the “multigenerational” Family Literacy Family Activity Nights, which only run for two hours once a month.

Hazen said that AmeriCorps is for civically engaged young people who are ready to make a positive impact. Rodriguez said those are the kinds of members the center looks for, too.

“Passionate, dedicated folks who give so much of their time and energy for the mission,” she said of the AmeriCorps members working in her program. “They serve long hours but also receive flex opportunities.”