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Working with Americorps. proves to be both challenging and enlightening

Published: October 1, 2007
Section: Opinions


This summer, Brandeis students went all across the world to do a number of amazing activities. Some used their Ethics fellowships to experience new cultures and make a change in the lives of different peoples. Others had fantastic internships that will prepare these students for their careers in the future. This summer, as well as the past summer break, I enlisted in AmeriCorps. in order to make a difference with my time off from school. The experience has changed my life and has given me a totally different perspective on the world and our society. As school marches on and the memories of summer fade, I thought Id relate some of things I have learned and experienced during my two terms with AmeriCorps.

AmeriCorps. is usually referred to as the urban version of the Peace Corps. And in a general sense this is true. I applied for a program in Paterson, New Jersey, a city that has a wretched reputation in the northern part of the state. My parents would whisper when we passed the town on the Jersey Turnpike, my teachers would relate horror stories of having gotten lost there, and the aura that the city gave off was generally negative. My position would be as the Politics and Government teacher for a summer enrichment camp that was run by a local charity in Paterson. The program was initiated after a child was killed by police at the age of 15 for involvement in a drug raid. Concerned politicians and parents got together to get the at risk 13-to-15-year-olds off the streets and the City-Serve Summer Program was born.

My students just didnt take classes, but would do a number of other activities. They spent hours doing community services at numerous sites, including working at the state food pantry, cleaning up the Passaic river, and putting on Fun Fairs for younger members of the community. The participants would also hear riveting speakers, learn important life tasks such as balancing a checkbook, discover how to fill out a college application, and undergo a number of other important activities. Everyone who participated in the program was given free transportation to the site, uniforms, two meals a day, and a stipend of $125 upon successful completion of the activities. They did not pay to go to the program, but were rewarded with knowledge and funds. The regiment that these children had to go through ensured that when they emerged at the end of the summer, they would never be the same again.

The job was made difficult because of the conditions that surrounded me during the summer. The inner city can sometimes be a depressing place, and I always felt as if there was a serious lack of smiling. The neighborhood in which I worked was called hoe row because of all the prostitution that took place in the area. I was even approached by several prostitutes, a harrowing experience to say the least, as I couldnt even tell they were women at first! The location was also filled with a lot of drug activity and I would regularly find hypodermic needles and, in some cases, drugs on the street. The charity I worked for also ran a food pantry and a mens emergency shelter, among other programs. I shall never forget the sad and desperate faces of the people who used these services. The kids also came from disturbing backgrounds, many not even having their parents. They would tell me of the violence they would be subject to, relate fears of being jumped simply by walking to the program, and convey other information about the conditions of the city in which I worked.

It was also very difficult to teach the students under my supervision. I was the Politics and Government teacher, and essentially, my bosses told me that I could teach anything I wanted to in those fields. The only problem was that, although I received all the AmeriCorps basic training, I was given no special instruction on how to educate. Plus, during my first year, I was the youngest staff member of the program, and had never before taken a class in education, nor taught a lesson before in my life. In addition, many of my students had no desire to be in that classroom. Numerous participants were forced into the program or simply complied to gain their monetary stipend. This reality was compounded by the fact that the students seemed to be somewhat behind grade level. Although my students were 13-15 years old, I was using material designed for fifth graders and still not getting total understanding from the pupils. Overall, the experience was not easy but it made the reward of educational success all the more fulfilling.

I had to design a curriculum all by myself and decided to teach in a funnel format. First I went over some general political theory issues, and later went into some American government. Then we discussed state and local government, finally ending with the politics of the city in which they lived. I had to make the lessons interactive and fun, fully realizing the situation of the participants. I had them debate dumb laws and involve themselves in riveting discussions. I offered to do push ups if they got questions right, had them role play, let them share their dissatisfaction about government, and used numerous other methods to reach the students. I also had all of them participate in a mock election for an imaginary city government, They had to break up into political parties, campaign, run for office, and vote. After that, I gave them problems for their imaginary city, and they drafted ordinances to solve the issues. In addition, I was able to arrange for the President of their school board and the Mayor of their city to come and speak to the students. They asked interesting questions, and it was an educational event for all. My second summer I was also able to have a debate tournament. It was a great experience and the final round was about who was a better rapper, Kayne West of Jay-Z. Using innovative methods, I was able to make the best of the teaching situation I had been given.

I gained so much from the program, that my memoirs could fill entire volumes. I encountered a culture and a group of people that I never before would have met. My perspective has also been changed. Being one of the few white people for once gave me firsthand knowledge of how it must feel like to be a racial minority at Brandeis. Having lived through horrific heartache, like the time one of my students disappeared, or the instance where a participant was being abused by their parent, gave me insight into the real world. I have experienced instances that make me keel over and laugh when I think about them;

such as the time I took off my shirt to stop a brawl amongst the kids. I also remember sad moments that left me weeping and so emotionally unstable that my bosses wouldnt let me drive home. Most importantly, I have grown to realize the benefit of stepping outside ones comfort zone and experiencing a new environment. This is what made my experiences unforgettable.

I encourage all of you to look into AmeriCorps, which is a great and noble organization. We did some great work those summers and changed a lot of lives for the better. I also wish to convey my belief that only by experiencing different realms of society can one truly understand our nation as a whole. As the months roll by, the warm weather fades away. But for me, as well as many other students, the memories of those summers of service will stay with us for the rest of our lives.