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Building a Better Tomorrow

November 29, 2010

I recently spoke with Rachel Craft '09 about her work with Americorps, "AmeriCorps is a federally-funded service program, commonly referred to as the domestic Peace Corps, that brings together citizens of diverse backgrounds to serve communities in the areas of education, public safety, human needs and the environment" (ndmva.org). This is her second year serving with the Notre Dame Mission Volunteer team in Florida.

The afternoon in Massachusetts was dreary and rain pelted my windows as the dial tone rang. The phone signals on their way to sunny Apopka, Florida, a location Rachel chose to be on the front lines of cultural and social change in school systems of Florida, and away from the rain soaked streets of Boston.

BY: How's Florida?

RC: It is good. My brother said it snowed in New Hampshire last night. Did it snow in Massachusetts?

BY: It did not, rain though.  It's, about eighty five degrees here.  Why did you pick Florida?

RC: I joined AmeriCorps and I figured I had nothing else really holding me back right now so I figured I would go to a place I never thought I'd live. I thought it over and I found a program out of Orlando and I found what I was looking for, which was teaching in some way.

BY: What was your major at Lasell?

RC: I studied education but I graduated with a degree in Humanities.

BY: Could you tell me what Americorps is about?

RC: It's an opportunity where anyone can apply and choose the state and volunteer program you want to be in. There are a couple different types of programs; I'm in the National/State Program. We, Notre Dame AmeriCorps in Apopka, serve underprivileged cities or school districts, homeless shelters, schools that have a large majority of English as a Second Language students (ESOL),community centers, and domestic violence shelters. I worked at an after school program last year where we helped families in the community. I was the fourth and fifth grade teacher. This year I've working with the College Access Program at the Hope CommUnity Center and assisting students of all ages as they apply for college and scholarships.

BY: Do you believe volunteer work to be a thing of the past?

RC: No, I think it is picking up. I think because of the economy people are seeing themselves as more vulnerable and find it easier to relate to those who are struggling. I think our generation was brought up to respect volunteering. Some people really want to help and, whether they know it or not, they are making a difference which pushes people to keep volunteering. We have people from all different lifestyles volunteering at our centers. People who are AmeriCorps members like me and those who come from a higher paying job who know that giving back to a community that helped raise them is what is important in life.

BY: Did Lasell prepare you adequately?

RC: I changed my major junior year to Humanities and started taking classes with new professors who really showed me the issues of the world. I took this crazy class called the Historical and Psychological Side of Torture with Prof. Sydney Trantham and Prof. Dennis Frey and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. They really opened my eyes and empowered me to be on the path I am now.

BY: What is the age range of Americorps volunteers?

RC: We actually have a very large age range. A lot of times it is young people who have recently graduated from college or high school but, here in Apopka we have a big age range. The youngest person on my staff was eighteen and the oldest was sixty-six.

BY: How long can you volunteer for?

RC: If you sign on you have to do it for at least eleven months and then you can continue for a second service year of another eleven months if you choose. At the end of your year of service you get an education award which was another push for me to join.

BY: Can you tell me about your education award?

RC: It is pretty much a scholarship. Last year I received $4,700 for my work and for a second year of service the education award has increased to $5,300. My student loan payments are deferred during my service and once I receive the education awards then I can choose to use it to pay off my loans or to further my education.

BY: Did you create the project you are working on now or was it in place already?

RC: It was [the program] already established. I told my advisor that I was interested in working with high school students. I wanted to try something new. I picked this program because I knew it was newer and I could help develop it. I've added a few components; I started a club at one of the high schools in the city and we have twenty-five members in the College and Career Access Network. We are taking them on college tours and bringing in guest speakers so we can show them what else is out there after high school. We want to expose the students to as many life options as we can. It's fun to see how excited they get about learning new things.

BY: So you do this work to know you are helping?

RC: I prefer to see it as serving. Helping is in the short term, it might not last forever whereas when you tutor a student they will remember it and you remember the lessons you teach them. With my younger students [last year] I started to become attached and when they weren't doing well, it hurt me. You gain a connection with them and it's great.

BY: What else prepared you for Americorps?

RC: I found the Shoulder to Shoulder trip to Mexico while I was at Lasell really valuable. After I got back I realized I kind of wanted to work with an immigrant population of people. Apopka [Florida] is known for its immigrant communities so it's a whole new experience for me compared to New Hampshire where I grew up.

BY: Are you allowed to recruit if you know someone is interested in volunteering?

RC: Our sites encourage us to recruit and I have done a little bit. I talk to students over various school breaks back in NH or talk to my friends about my new life. I think sharing my experience is the best way to get people interested and involved. A few students at Lasell have gotten in touch with me, I did my best to get them involved. It's not for everybody but I think if everyone gave it a chance they would realize they are part of something bigger. There are so many opportunities open to you after you begin volunteering.

BY: What comes next for you?

RC: I haven't figured it out exactly but I've been thinking about getting my masters in some kind of human service or in special needs; that is my love.

BY: Could you find yourself doing this type of service for the rest of your life?

RC: I thought I would be like most people who want to get a job, make money, get a big house, and have tons of experience in one particular field. I used to think that it would be the end of the world if I didn't know what I wanted to be "when I grow up". Now I think it is a blessing that I want to just see where life takes me.I think I have learned more from just being out in the Apopka community and there are too many issues I know about now. When it comes to poverty, or public assistance, I want to be face to face with what is going on; never turn a blind eye to it.

Written by Brian Yepez '11, an intern with the Office of Alumni Relations

 

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