AmeriCorps wasn’t so much a post-graduate option for me as it was a calling. My entire life has always, in one way or another, been devoted to service. From my time spent as a founding member of the Saegertown Pantherian Key Club in Northwestern Pennsylvania, to college, where I participated in service-learning trips abroad, I have always felt an intrinsic pull towards helping others.
After graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the spring of 2015, I decided to sign up for AmeriCorps. Shortly after applying, I was offered a position with the Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County; a nonprofit devoted to helping community members in South Florida improve their lives through the promotion and achievement of literacy. Being a recent English graduate, I decided to accept this offer. During my 2015-2016 contract, I served as a Graduation Coach for the School District of Palm Beach County. My role was outlined as this: help “at-risk” junior and senior high school students overcome any barriers that might hinder them from success towards high school graduation.” Little did I know it at the time, but I was in for quite a different experience.
Looking back on it now, I don’t think any other period of my life has been integral as my year with Literacy AmeriCorps. Despite being a native of northwestern Pennsylvania, I wasn’t a stranger to people of different cultures and backgrounds. A born explorer, I spent six months abroad in Sweden my sophomore year of college. During winter break my junior year, I participated in a service learning trip to Brazil where I helped teach English to impoverished community members. But besides my handful of worldly experiences, nothing could have possibly prepared me for the year that I lived and served in South Florida. Serving as a Graduation Coach at Forest Hill High School was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. On paper, I was serving “at-risk” youth that were labeled because of their missing graduation requirements, low GPA’s, consistent suspensions, and alarming lack of attendance. Most of my students came from lower socio-economic households, and were a mix of Haitian, African American, Hispanic and Caribbean backgrounds. My role was to track their grades, their progress, and their commitment; I was an “academic coach” of sorts. What I found, however, is that while I was serving as their coach, they were serving as my teacher.
Through many heartbreaking conversations with students, I soon learned that the term “at-risk” went far beyond what I could calculate on a progress report. As time progressed, and a certain level of trust was established, my students slowly started opening up to me. And I listened. I listened and absorbed their words as they told me stories of childhood abuse, death, friends who had been shot and killed by gang members. Halfway through the year, one of my own students got shot in the leg in downtown West Palm. After he was released from the hospital, I made a point to wheel him out to his grandma’s van every day after school. Maybe it made me feel better to know that he was safe in my care, if only for a couple minutes.
From time to time during the school year, my kids would tell me a story so heart-wrenching that after they left my office, I would sit there and cry. It was so unfair. I loved them all so much, and I hated the pain and suffering they had experienced. But my students were strong, and they reminded me again and again of their fight and their resilience. They taught me what it takes to have hope amongst terror, to love amongst hate, to keep faith amongst fear. Above all else, my students showed me what it takes to have a “willingness to sometimes be in hopeless places and be a witness.”* To pay attention to suffering, to poverty, to exclusion, to injustice.
What I didn’t realize during my year with Literacy AmeriCorps was that I was being molded and shaped into the person I am today – someone who is now committed to staying awake. Someone who can no longer turn a blind eye to injustice. Someone who has been changed by service.
*”When we were in Eastern Europe and dealing with oppression, we wanted all kinds of things, but mostly what we needed was hope, an orientation of the spirit, a willingness to sometimes be in hopeless places and be a witness.” *Vaclav Havel, Czech leader