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May 1, 2013 / HandsOnCorps

The Essence of Community School…Nicole Hebert

NHerbert_HOAshevilleIn just three terms of national service, I have served at nearly every level of public education—from middle school success and teen pregnancy prevention, to community college. For my third AmeriCorps term I relocated to Asheville, North Carolina—to serve with Hands On Corps—from Portland, Oregon, where I previously served as an Oregon Campus Compact VISTA. I first began national service in 2010, as a YouthServe AmeriCorps member in California’s forested North Coast region, where I taught teens about healthy relationships and reproductive health. Then in Oregon, I served to engage college students in service and leadership, and coordinated college-wide days of service for the Service-Learning Program at Portland Community College. Now, with Hands On Asheville-Buncombe, I am helping to launch a Community School Pilot Project at Enka Middle School in rural Appalachia.

Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, Enka is the largest middle school west of Charlotte, with nearly 1100 sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students. Beyond Asheville city limits, Enka is a county school with limited access to city resources, and yet extraordinary access to the natural abundance of the region. Engulfed by the astonishing backdrop of the Appalachian Mountains, Enka is a seat of agriculture—producing tomatoes, strawberries, dairy, and more. By turns, it is one of the most isolated districts in Buncombe County, with a poverty rate nearing seventy percent.

As Student Academic Success VISTA, I work to strengthen partnerships between school and community in order to enhance middle schoolers’ chances of succeeding in school and at life. As part of the Community School model, I strive to develop programming that addresses needs of the whole child, including social, emotional, health, and academic needs. Three terms of AmeriCorps service have equipped me to think deeply about wellness in education and to approach school leadership from a holistic perspective—engaging parents and community members—to enhance student success. In my experience, schools like Enka need this level of engagement to make the greatest impact for all students.

In the mountain winter months, our VISTA team has sowed some hardy seeds for the Community School project at Enka Middle. Our youth service club, Make a Difference, raised $800 in grant funds—from generationOn and the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project—to build a community garden, and address the district’s issues of food insecurity. The Community-School Garden Project combines my own passions for health, wellness, leadership, and service-learning.

To me, service-learning is a methodology for social action—with the potential to mobilize youth to make a lasting impact in their communities. My goal for Make a Difference Club is to empower youth to dream up viable solutions to community priorities. Middle schoolers engaged with Make A Difference Club have already proven to be positive agents of social change. We are all excited to watch the fruits of their labor flourish this spring.

Other Community School Programs at Enka Middle School include an After school Creative Writing Lab and Healthy Cooking on a Budget Class (for parents and families). Every day that I serve as a VISTA, I work to build community and actively promote a holistic approach to education. To me, that is the essence of national service.

Nicole Herbert
AmeriCorps VISTA
Student Success Coordinator
Community School Project at Enka Middle School
HandsOn Asheville-Buncombe

April 25, 2013 / HandsOnCorps

From Barbie Dolls to AmeriCorps: Volunteering for the Greater Good

 Hello Fellow AmeriCorps VISTA!  My name is Kasseopia Davis and I have the distinguished privilege of serving my VISTA year at New York Cares, New York, New York.  This non profit is New York’s premiere volunteer management organization; we connect with other nonprofit organizations to provide them with volunteer opportunities that cater to the agency’s needs free of cost! 

 Follow my journey of hope and inspiration as we explore my 2012-2013 term of service. Since childhood I have always exhibited an infatuation with all aspects of the English Language. From a young girl I was always aware of the importance placed on the ability to read and write well because each played an important factor in achieving academic excellence.  As an adolescent I would wake up early and role play the duties of an English teacher.  I would make lesson plans for my students, Barbie and Ken, while also making sure that the living room provided an adequate environment that stimulated learning so that each student’s individual educational needs were met.  Although, Barbie and Ken never participated in classroom discussions they always passed numerous pop quizzes and test so I knew what my calling was, I knew in order to inspire youth of the future and prepare them to become successful adults I needed to become a teacher.

During my first year of college at the University of Hartford I volunteered as a Peer Mentor in the under resourced regions of downtown Hartford, for an organization called Educational Main Street.  This agency was a resource that allowed University of Hartford students the ability to enhance the lives of urban school students through academic, social, and creative peer mentoring.  The role of an Educational Main Street peer mentor was to support and strengthen families by providing students with the academic and social support needed to excel in their studies, in assisting students in developing their own unique style of effective study habits that they can follow throughout all their educational years.

After fours of volunteering with the program I begin to notice that obtaining a degree in Creative Writing could only help the educational needs of society, however there was another need that society yearned for—social change.  This experience exposed me to the imparities created in society and how its effects provide a troubling and difficult environment for the people, especially in regards to the physical and psychological damage it has on children.  It also brought awareness to one of the many social issues that plagued not only the inner city of Hartford’s educational institutions but, all inner city educational institutions around the world—poverty and how it affects children’s learning processes.  From this point on I knew what my mission would be; I was destined to help at risk youths and their families with the adequate services needed to enhance their quality of life.  




Fast forward three years and two dead-in jobs later I was blessed to be accepted into the AmeriCorps VISTA program and finally find an organization that shares my values and also have a desire to help under resourced communities-New York Cares.  My current role presents an opportunity for me to implement Children’s Educational Programming for two out of four of our partner schools, PS 107 X located in the Soundview section of the Bronx and PS 366 M-Washington Heights Academy located in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.  On December 15th I launched my first Saturday Homework Help program at PS 107 X that provides academic support to 72 students.  With almost 85% of families at PS 107 X living below the poverty line many of the students are falling behind in their studies due to budget cuts and lack of resources.  The Homework Help program provides academic support through homework help and enrichment games to students in 2nd through 5th grade.  Volunteers assist students in strengthening their literacy skills, reading comprehension, and vocabulary by reviewing homework assignments and increase basic math concepts by playing math enriching educational games. 

I recently developed a Math Games program at PS 366 M- Washington Heights Academy that provides 25 students in 3rd grade, many of whom are the only English speaking person in their families, with additional math support aimed at reinforcing basic math concepts such as addition, subtraction, logic, critical thinking, and problem solving by playing math games with volunteers.

I’m looking forward to implementing many more children’s educational programming before my VISTA year is over.  Each day I wake up I’m happy to know that I am making a difference in the world and helping the next generation of VISTA’s reach their potential and aspire to do great things. 

To my fellow VISTA’s always remember this:“Every great dream begins with a dreamer.  Always remember you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”- Harriet Tubman


Kasseopia Davis

AmeriCorps VISTA

Student Academic Success Associate, Education Programs

New York Cares, Inc.


April 19, 2013 / HandsOnCorps

My Experience So Far…by Indira Deenanauth


My name is Indira and I have hit the six month mark with my term of service and it is hard to believe that time has flown by so quickly. As an AmeriCorps VISTA serving with HandsOn Northeast Ohio, I am focusing on Anton Grdina Elementary in the Greater Central Neighborhood.

 The elementary school is in an academic state of emergency and I am offering to lend support to the students, teachers and parents. I work with fourth and fifth graders through a weekly Homework Help program which focuses on reading and math comprehension. I also run HandsOn’s Saturday Service Warriors program which teaches students about volunteering, issue areas such as hunger and homelessness, seniors, animals and healthy habits.  I came into this position not knowing what to expect, and I feel that my perspectives on so many different concepts have changed in a very short amount of time. 

Starting my year of service, I wasn’t sure how great I would be at working with children because I had never worked with elementary aged children before. I honestly thought they would be unruly and mean. However, they have become the best part of my job. This should have been a given from the beginning, but the children I work with are the loveliest people I have ever met. To know that in a few short weeks I will not see them in this capacity is heartbreaking.

I also see a genuine positive change in the students which I credit to the amazing tutors who take the time to build relationships with the students. There is a mutual respect between students and tutors that for some reason, I did not expect. I know that when the students run up to me at school that they are happy to see me, and I hope they realize how truly wonderful it is for me to see them.

I am happy to be a part of the AmeriCorps Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA) movement and consider this as a career building and changing experience.

Indira Deenanauth

AmeriCorps VISTA 

Student Academic Success

HandsOn Northeast Ohio

4614 Prospect Ave. Suite 223

Cleveland, OH 44103

April 10, 2013 / HandsOnCorps

The many names and faces of poverty…by Rebecca Page


ImageHi!  I am serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Reading Success and Stay in School Programs at United Way of Lake County in Gurnee, Illinois.  I chose to become an AmeriCorps VISTA member because after three years of being an unemployed ESL teacher, already being poor, and wanting to do something to help others, I answered the call.  I presently work at United Way of Lake County and help in some way with almost all of our programs.  In doing so, I get to meet many people in the city of Waukegan.  One of those people is Victoria.  She is just one of the many people I have met and had a chance to get to know this year as I have been and  am serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Reading Success and Stay in School Programs at United Way of Lake County in Gurnee, Illinois.   Victoria  was attending one of our initiatives called “Computer Learn and Earn” where people who live in Waukegan, have kids attending either high school or middle school in Waukegan, and who attend three of our computers classes can earn a refurbished computer.  In the classes we teach people how to access the internet, and then get on the Waukegan Public Schools website.  Once they have done so, they log onto “Infinite Campus” where they can check their child’s grades and attendance.  The whole purpose of this is to help the parents find ways to keep their kids to remain in school and graduate.

Victoria and her children are people in poverty who have names and faces, dreams, talents, abilities, family and friends.  Working with United Way of Lake County has helped me to see individuals, not just “the poor.”   I work primarily with the elementary and middle schools in Waukegan, Illinois.  I have been able to work and help in some way with all of United Way’s four programs.  From reading to children in school, to working with a local author, Joe Brown, to schedule him to read in six elementary schools, to writing newsletters, taking meeting minutes, attending meetings both within United Way and the community, to attempting to use my Spanish at Computer Learn and Earn classes, to meeting with teachers and school administrators about the Reading Success program.  While doing so many things to help others who are in need, the one thing that I have not ever wanted to forget is that all of the people that we serve have names and faces, and are individual people.

Rebecca Page

AmeriCorps VISTA

Reading Success

United Way of Lake County, Gurnee, IL


April 3, 2013 / HandsOnCorps

In the Wake of Sandy Service Continues…by Cheneise Wright

ImageI am not Jersey born but jersey grown and the Atlantic City area is near and dear to my heart. The jersey shore, although a little warped by that blasted show, does optimize one thing; New Jerseyians love for the beach. A love that still holds true even after Super storm Sandy. Growing up so close to Atlantic City has made my transition a bit easier but also an eye opening experience. Things are not always as simple as they originally seem.

When starting my VISTA year I believed that my role would be to make a change in the city that I was stationed. I had a mission in mind and service in my sight. All was on track, going according to plan then Super storm Sandy hit Atlantic City, and everything was called into question. Homes, property, and lives were disrupted and many cases destroyed. My VAD essential had to be looked at in a new light.  However service continued.

            Three months after the storm, the residents of Atlantic City have had time to begin to rebuild and my idea of service has changed. My mission is different and I see that any help is always welcomed. The News trucks have left and the mass of volunteers have went home however, Atlantic City is still working on cleaning up. Every day I see new piles of material on the street from families cleaning out the houses. Residents have still not come home. Yet service still continues.

             With my role as Campus Delivery shift leader, I weekly see first-hand the effects the storm has had on the beach town. A family of eight that we formerly dropped of food to has yet to return. Their house and the houses surrounding them are boarded and uninhabited. A mother of five has moved to a different town. The motel that we visited weekly has yet to reopen its doors. Yet service still continues.

It is not just my service that continues but all of the residents have come to together to help. In the months following, I have assisted the Atlantic City Parent Resource Centers with storm relief. They have had multiple storm relief events including coat drives, clothing and food pick-ups, and a multitude of meetings to aid in assistance. The amount of service that has continued despite the storm speaks volumes of the character that the City exudes. Atlantic City is just not about the Casino and the beach but the people. They show that they can come to together and in a crisis and put back together what was broken. Their spirit is what makes my service still continue.

Cheneise Wright

AmeriCorps VISTA

Parent and Community Engagement Coordinator

Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Galloway, New Jersey

March 27, 2013 / HandsOnCorps

Beyond Academic Success…by Natasha Murtaza

Natasha Murtaza Picture
My name is Natasha Murtaza and I am one of the Academic Success VISTAs serving at Sylmar Biotech Health Academy through the non-profit, Youth Policy Institute. Sylmar Biotech is located in the East San Fernando Valley and is in its first year of operations with a student population of 112 ninth graders. As an Academic Success VISTA, I focus on providing tutoring and enrichment programs for the students.
Sylmar Biotech is 20 minutes away from the high school I attended and the neighborhood I grew up in. My high school, Granada Hills High School, is a public school turned charter and has one of the highest test scores in this area. Sylmar High School, a neighboring rival school, in comparison is struggling with low test scores and graduation rates. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and local non-profits are grappling to reinvent the education system in Los Angeles so low performing schools like Sylmar are able to model more successful public schools in the area who have flourished under similar difficult circumstances. In the last few years, LAUSD has invested in a couple of “experiments” to jumpstart the lagging education system in LA. Sylmar Biotech Health Academy is one of the results, a partnership school operated by LAUSD and Youth Policy Institute. The school’s successes or failures in the first few years of its existence will influence the path of educational reform and policy in LA.
While discussing education reform, there is plenty of talk about models, data and results but not enough about the students, families and neighborhoods. The worst performing schools in LAUSD are those located in lower income neighborhoods, where excellent schools are desperately needed. The schools in these neighborhoods have few resources and struggle dealing with not only the students’ academic performance but their difficult circumstances at home. It is impractical to ask a student to get straight As when they are moving from foster home to foster home or when their parents are working double shifts and they are the primary caretakers for their younger siblings. There needs to be a comprehensive approach to reforms and services provided. Youth Policy Institute has worked to create community schools, where the students, parents and community members all receive services and work together to improve the school.
The AmeriCorps VISTA program’s goal at Sylmar Biotech Health Academy is to provide additional resources to the students, parents and community and work to make Biotech into a community school. The Academic Success program at the school seeks to improve student academic performance and engagement through various tutoring, mentoring and enrichment programs. We recruit volunteer tutors from local colleges to help tutor students during and after school. We have an intervention program in which the school staff serves as mentors for students who are getting Ds or Fs in their classes. College Knowledge is another program we started that seeks to teach the students about college and what they need to get there. We run the student government and organize student clubs, playing a leading role in student programming. We have also organized various field trips and additional incentives for students to do well academically. My goal as an Academic Success AmeriCorps VISTA is to make the students aware of how college and education is accessible and available to everyone and is the means to a better life. I believe it is our responsibility as AmeriCorps members to ensure that we provide the resources for these students to do just that. This is what inspires me to do what I do every day no matter the difficulties and obstacles I face.

Natasha Murtaza
Academic Success VISTA
Youth Policy Institute

March 20, 2013 / HandsOnCorps

“Risks, Possibilities and Growth”…by Laura Nutty

Laura Nutty_HandsOn Charlotte“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” This quote by Neale Donald Walsch has been my motto to live by over the past few years, and is something I feel adequately defines the experiences as an AmeriCorps member.
My name is Laura Nutty and I am currently serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA member with Hands On Charlotte in Charlotte, North Carolina. Last year, I served with AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) in the Pacific Region. The year before that I served as an AmeriCorps State and National member in Rochester, New York. My decision to serve in AmeriCorps was largely based on the fact that I did not know what I wanted to do after graduating college, and I was so unsure of myself and what career option I wanted to pursue. AmeriCorps was the answer for me at the time, and proved to be the best decision that I could have made.
While each branch of AmeriCorps is very different from each other, there is one common link; you are not only serving with others in the community you are in, but you are serving yourself along the way. I not only served communities by cutting down trees on fuel reduction projects, and shingling a roof on a historical building during NCCC, but I also learned how to conquer fears and take risks. I not only managed volunteers for a family program or built planter benches for a local school during my VISTA year this year, but I also learned how to better communicate with community members and build valuable networking skills.
Each year, presented a new challenge. Whether it was my initial decision to serve in AmeriCorps, moving 3,000 miles away from home and living with 10 strangers for 10 months, or moving to a new city, to a new position for a year, I definitely stepped outside of my comfort zone each time. Once the initial shock and fright of the new situation subsided, I blossomed and really took advantage of the opportunities. I felt an increase in self-confidence and self-esteem after each year as a result of being able to tackle each challenge successfully.
The people you meet along the way in AmeriCorps are not only inspiring, but also motivating. As AmeriCorps members, we also step outside of our comfort zone with the people we surround ourselves with everyday. AmeriCorps places us in environments that most of us did not previously have exposure to before we started serving. These environments can include people who are our teammates, our staff members, or the community members we aim to serve with. The people that we engage with teach us about ourselves, and make us better versions of ourselves in the process. Through my experiences in different cities and neighborhoods, with different kinds of personalities and work styles, I have certainly learned how to be more patient, to be a better listener, and because of that to be a better communicator. I have learned to take each struggle and each challenge, along with each triumph, as a way to learn and grow.
My current term as an AmeriCorps VISTA member has been challenging in different ways. However, because of my past two years with AmeriCorps, I knew that it would be worth the risk in the end. This year with Points of Light and the Hands On Network I was given the opportunity to once again push myself, and step outside of my comfort zone to not only better myself, but better the community I am serving with.

Laura Nutty
AmeriCorps VISTA
Youth Service Program Manager
Hands On Charlotte