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AMERICORPS Reflections

Reflections on a Year of National Service

~March 2011~

Editor's Note: This is the third year that an AmeriCorps or VISTA member from the Federal Way AmeriCorps and VISTA Team has written a reflections column for Volunteer. Meet Ellie Klein the latest person to take time to share observations about working with volunteers and her experience kids. These columns are a reflections of the impact that volunteering has on someone's life. Enjoy.

Federal Way AmeriCorps and VISTA Team. Established in 1995, the Federal Way AmeriCorps program works to strengthen the Federal Way community through academic tutoring and modeling an ethic of service.

AmeriCorps members in Federal Way serve full time in the Federal Way Public Schools. In addition to tutoring students and developing before and after school programs, members manage two community tutoring programs, implement civic engagement community projects and serve in area service projects. AmeriCorps members also recruit and train community volunteers. For more information on their programs http://www.fwps.org/dept/volunteer/acfw.html


The other day I went to the local winter Farmers Market. I stopped to get coffee first as it was already noon and I had yet to eat or drink anything all day. I had rushed to yoga that morning after a night of restless sleep. I looked and felt like a mess as a gust of wind blew me into Starbucks. I waited in line feeling the kind of frustration about life where every little thing bugs you; the sound of the coffee grinder, the proximity of the business man in front of you, the child blowing his nose behind you, etc. I ordered my drink and went to wait in yet another line to retrieve it. Seeing the iced coffee appear in front of me, I instantly went to grab it and get on my grumpy way when the barista said, “Here’s a great straw for a great day!” and flashed me a huge smile. I could not help but smile back. A great straw? What is a great straw? All the straws are the same, all green, all crappy plastic that will break if pushed too hard. I do love straws, but nothing about this one seemed incredibly great. Yet, I smiled back. And this interaction stuck with me for the rest of the day and my week. Two weeks later and I still remember that seemingly insignificant piece of my Saturday.

Through working as an AmeriCorps tutor I have become remarkably positive. Most of my students have worse mornings than a slight lack of sleep and strenuous yoga class. Most go longer than a few hours without eating anything, as the majority of student I serve are on free and reduced lunch. I try to smile at my students as I attempt to make each and every one of their days more enjoyable. Sometimes I can tell they think I am nuts. As I go to high five an eighteen-year-old on a job well done  or tell a eleven-year-old how well he is sitting in his chair, I see them they twist their heads, raise their eyebrows and fall silent, but then, usually, they smile back. Just as the barista confused me with his positivity, I often confuse my students with mine. “Why is she high-fiving me about finishing that worksheet?” I imagine them thinking. Or “Why am I getting complemented for sitting? I’ve been sitting since I was nine months old. Crazy woman.” Yet these compliments, these small acknowledgements of success and praises full of positivity, can throw off the negative energy in a room and make my students focus on the good in their actions and the happiness of life.

With talks of federal budget cuts and the elimination of AmeriCorps in the air, I have begun to think about my service, my job, my life and what about it is so worthwhile. I have pondered how I have become so attached to my work and how my students have become so attached to me. With sunny skies abound and the end of the school year in sight, many have begun asking me what I am doing next year. When I told my high school ESL Civics class that I might travel to teach English in Spain I noticed an audible “Ugh” in the room. When I asked one senior in return what he would be doing next year, he replied with a smile, “I’m going to Spain Ms.Ellie.” At the after-school program rumors have been circulating about which AmeriCorps member will run our program of sixty students. One of my students ran up to me last week and said “Ms.Ellie, you’re going to lead next year!” “I am?” I replied with a confused grin. “Yes. You are” she said confidently. These interactions make me aware and appreciative of my time with these students. Even if I do come back next year, the year after I will undoubtedly be faced with the same dilemma as I prepare to move on. It’s a strange position to be in. My job is so centered around relationship building, compassion, kindness and friendship, but my presence in these students’ lives will end. Hopefully we will both be better after it, hopefully we will both have learned something about society and ourselves, hopefully we will both remember the positive interactions we had together and forget the negative ones, but with the knowledge that this will all eventually end, is it really worthwhile?

Days after completing our documentation, paperwork we must do in order to keep the funding for our program, and I am left with numerical evidence that my students are succeeding while they are in my presence. Perhaps they improved due to the impact of their teachers, their peers or their own internal motivation, but regardless 100% of my students improved behaviorally or academically in the past five months since I began working with them. At the very least I must not be having a negative influence on their lives. At the every least my financial sacrifice to volunteer with students has done some good. At the very least I know I am happier during the weekdays when I am working with my students than on the weekends when I am left to plan my own time. So, America…is this all worthwhile? Would be better off without AmeriCorps? Without national service? Without volunteerism?

At the end of the day, the first grade student who asks me to hold her hand as we walk her to her front door is only one of the sixty students I serve at the after-school program, and I am only on the seventy AmeriCorps members on my team, and our program is only one of hundreds in Washington, and one of thousands in America, yet as far as I can tell, as minuscule as a high-five, a smile, or a hand-holding on a walk home may seem, AmeriCorps is the most worthwhile thing I have ever known.
I get to be the cheery Starbucks barista in these kids’ lives everyday. I am paid practically nothing to be a consistent positive presence for my students. I could go into the politics of the situation and explain why AmeriCorps is beneficial for recent graduates in this economy, or detail the logical arguments supporting the data of AmeriCorps’ impact, but when we really break down the situation, AmeriCorps is people helping other people, not because they’re going to make a lot of money from their service, not because they are doing anything remarkably flashy or exciting, not even because like Peace Corps they are traveling anywhere notable (I am working in Federal Way, Washington for god sake), but because, for the most part, out of the kindness of their hearts and often times uncertainty of their own career paths, AmeriCorps volunteers just want to step into other people’s lives and make their days better. When you sit down and think about it…what isn’t worthwhile about that?


Ellie Klein graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA in May of 2010 with a degree in Media Studies. She is currently serving with the Federal Way Public Schools AmeriCorps team as a tutor at Decatur High School and volunteer at the Westway After School Program where she tries to engage students in learning through personal reflections and cross-content understandings.


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