In the past year, I have been blessed and damned. I have been called a slacker and a savior. I have shoveled trash and taught children. I have felt inspired enough to believe I can change the world, and so depressed that I almost gave up trying. In the past year, I have worked with City Year Boston, a program sponsored in part by AmeriCorps.
Say what you will about my exorbitant paycheck. That weekly stipend of $125.00 (before taxes) averages out to less than $2.50 per hour. Yes, I will get a public service award of $4,725 (again before taxes) upon completing 1,700 hours of community service to help pay for my college loans. However, I owe about $20,000. Am I getting a free ride? If I'm getting a free ride, I'd hate to know the cost for people who pay.
In the school where I work, there is no one else to do my job. There are very few individuals who can afford to volunteer in schools during school hours, unless they are fortunate enough to work for businesses that allow employees time off to do community service on a regular basis. Where I work, those companies are few and far between.
Many of the parents at the school where I work are incredibly generous and willing to help in any way they can. However, what my school needs are things many of them cannot give. Parents who can't read cannot tutor reading. Parents who work two and three jobs can't volunteer their extra time--they don't have any. People who have no money can't donate spare change to buy school equipment.
Don't blame welfare or the decay of family values for the problems in our communities, because none of that is really even relevant. What is important are the children and communities who need help healing themselves. Many communities are being reborn and need the chance to grow. When you grew up, someone must have helped you along the way. AmeriCorps is the "helping" someone in many communities.
City Year serves over 17,000 schoolchildren across the country. It provides after-school programs that keep kids off the streets. It turns crack houses into family homes and vacant lots into community gardens. City Year teams teach communities about the dangers of AIDS and domestic violence. It helps young people all across the country turn their lives around, both the young people who serve as City Year corps members and those whom the corps seek to serve.
City Year helps its corps members earn their GEDs, encourages future educational opportunities, and unites people who otherwise might never have set eyes on one another. We are rich, poor, and middle class. We are black, white, Asian, Native American, Latino, and more. We work in communities all across the country to make a difference. We work together to make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others.
Are we wasting our time and taxpayers' money? To answer that, you must first talk to Daniel, who couldn't read until an AmeriCorps member was in his classroom regularly, or Tanisha, who could not do simple math because she had no one to help her practice. Ask Amy, who just needed someone to give her a hug on a regular basis. Ultimately, we are saving money. It costs more to incarcerate someone for one year than it does to provide someone like me with a living stipend and public-service award for one year. In that one year, someone like me can affect the lives of hundreds of kids. If I help keep one child out of prison, then I have paid my debt and saved this country some money.
To those who cynically ask me if I truly believe I can change the world, I say, "I don't know, but I am doing my best. How about you?"
--Andrea Emmons '95
Emmons wrote this essay while serving in the City Year Boston program, where she worked in part as a public school teacher's aide in the Dorchester area. Currently she works for City Year Cleveland, one of the newest programs added to the City Year nationwide network.
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