AMES, Iowa -- Megan Schwanke didn’t set out to change the world when she joined AmeriCorps. She just thought it would be fun to set up a team of high school and college-age volunteers to talk, sing and dance with senior citizens. She was right about the “fun” part, but she’s reaping an added benefit — making a difference in the lives of younger and older Iowans.
AmeriCorps Week is May 8-15, and Schwanke is an AmeriCorps member, one of more than 1,200 Iowans volunteering with schools, nonprofit organizations and community groups throughout the state.
AmeriCorps Week from Iowa State University Extension on Vimeo.
Schwanke's AmeriCorps assignment is with Merrymakers Association, a nonprofit organization that provides professional musical entertainment for seniors in Iowa and Nebraska. Schwanke is based at senior centers in Des Moines. Merrymakers Association provides the professional entertainers; Schwanke is building the team of youth volunteers, who engage the senior residents in conversation, help them play musical instruments and get them dancing.
First she had to figure out how to “blend the young college kids with senior citizens to create common ground,” Schwanke explained. Then, “I trained all the volunteers … and made sure they were amply prepared to interact with the seniors.”
Schwanke said AmeriCorps is “a cool experience. I would absolutely recommend it to anybody.”
Making a Difference
“AmeriCorps encourages people to be involved and helps them accomplish things for their communities,” said Judy McCarthy, with the Iowa AmeriCorps State of Promise program, part of the state and national AmeriCorps program. Schwanke’s AmeriCorps experience is coordinated through Iowa AmeriCorps State of Promise.
“AmeriCorps members help solve problems, bring communities together and set an example of caring and community spirit that America needs,” McCarthy said.
Iowa State University Extension 4-H Youth Development hosts the Iowa AmeriCorps State of Promise program in collaboration with Iowa’s Promise and the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service. These AmeriCorps members serve with youth development programs in communities across the state. McCarthy is ISU Extension’s director for the program.
Iowa AmeriCorps State of Promise members are volunteering with ISU Extension county educational programs, school districts, community recreation and family centers, community foundations, youth groups and shelters, a public library, a therapeutic horse riding program and more.
Other AmeriCorps members in Iowa volunteer with AmeriCorps VISTA in poverty reduction efforts and AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps), a team-based residential program for young adults ages18-24 who carry out projects in public safety, the environment, youth development and disaster relief and preparedness.
From building houses for Habitat for Humanity to working with immigrant families through Iowa Legal Aid or responding to natural disasters, “you can pick an AmeriCorps opportunity that fits your individual needs,” according to Adam Lounsbury, executive director of the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service.
“There are all kinds of different needs across the state. Volunteering and service can be a solution to all kinds of community problems. Tapping that resource is our challenge,” he said.
AmeriCorps is one opportunity for Iowans to give intensive service to their communities, ranging from 300 hours to a full-time position over the course of a year, Lounsbury continued. After they complete their service, AmeriCorps members receive an education award of up to $4,725 to pay for college or graduate school or to pay back qualified student loans. It’s a great incentive, he said, but as he’s heard from volunteers, “the best reward is making a difference.”
Building Future Leaders
The AmeriCorps program is 14 years old, and longitudinal studies show that people who have served in AmeriCorps are more likely to go on to serve in the public sector, from teaching to working for local governments, Lounsbury continued.
AmeriCorps is “a great leadership development pipeline for Iowa communities across the state,” he said. “People who serve in AmeriCorps are much more likely to volunteer and be active volunteers throughout the rest of their lives. The long-term benefits to the community don’t stop with that year of service. The longer the program is around, we’re going to see all kinds of future community leaders that are AmeriCorps alums.”
Learn more about Iowa AmeriCorps State of Promise: www.extension.iastate.edu/4h/Americorps/
Learn more about AmeriCorps Week, May 8-15: http://www.americorpsweek.gov/
Learn more about the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service: http://www.volunteeriowa.org/