'A hand up, not a hand out': AmeriCorps celebrates 20 years

News-DemocratMay 24, 2014 

Americorps worker Connie Fangmeyer of Breese works with 6th grade students from Belleville school district 118 during the annual Day of Life event last April. Students choose a career that a 25-year-old person, not living at home might have. Then they had to make decisions on a variety of expenses and write checks to cover the expenses a person would incur during a month. The project helps the students with budgeting and researching careers...

DERIK HOLTMANN — dholtmann@bnd.com Buy Photo

— Zelda Moore, a teacher's aide at West Junior High in Belleville, said she owes her career in education to AmeriCorps.

As AmeriCorps celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, many in Belleville attribute other successes -- such as the growth of the Franklin Neighborhood Community Association and various summer camps -- to the federal community service program.

The program typically draws members who have a background in education or are interested in the field, but organizers want a variety of experiences to reflect the children served.

Moore, now 60, was a stay-at-home mom in 1996 looking to realize her dream of working with kids and teaching.

"To reach where you want to go in life, sometimes you just need a boost," Moore said. "It's a hand up, not a hand out."

She was one of the first members of AmeriCorps, serving as a mentor and reading tutor at Wilson School in East St. Louis.

About the time of Moore's service, Belleville AmeriCorps started in 1994 with the help of the city of Belleville, the Franklin Neighborhood Community Association, Belleville School District 118 and Southwestern Illinois College.

Since inception, Belleville has had more than 1,150 AmeriCorps members. And, Belleville members average more than 55,000 hours of service to the city and other partners annually.

For a year, Moore conducted reading groups for children who couldn't read or needed some extra help. She also helped students with homework after the school day.

"It was exactly what I needed at that point in my life, to help build my confidence, to see what I'm capable of doing," Moore said.

After AmeriCorps, she went to work with Belleville School District 118, where she has been ever since.

Moore remembers how AmeriCorps helped her and how she helped others through the program, so she encourages others whenever possible to participate in AmeriCorps.

"You should never forget where you've been because you don't know who else you can pull up," Moore said.

Moore is one of the reasons her nephew, Trevon Jordan, 19, is now a part-time AmeriCorps member.

Jordan, a first-year student at SWIC, said he grew up hearing from Moore and his mom, Tanya Jordan, about what they learned through AmeriCorps.

Jordan said he is still deciding on a profession but he is thinking about being an educator.

As a part-time AmeriCorps member, Jordan has logged 900 service hours since last summer, including time outside the classroom on activities such as putting down mulch at Gass Park to helping at the Belleville Festival of Stories at Lindenwood University-Belleville.

"I know, for a career, that I want to help others," Jordan said. "Being at the site, at Douglas School, you see the impact you have on these kids' lives. I see how I have an impact on another person's life.

"There's one kid there, he's a smart kid, a good kid, but he gets sent to the principal's office every day. I want to be a positive role model for him."

Moore said she's happy to see that AmeriCorps has not only stuck around in the metro-east but also grown in reach.

The program's core continues to include tutoring and mentoring, but now encompasses leadership development and other character building activities, Moore said.

The program also appeals to members who are retired teachers, such as Connie Fangmeyer, 63, of Breese, who is a retired special education teacher.

"I get to do something I did for 33 years without the pressure," Fangmeyer said.

Fangmeyer said she didn't approach the program as an authority figure but rather someone who was available to do whatever the program needed her to do.

"The other AmeriCorps members were kind of like my teachers and they helped teach me in the beginning," Fangmeyer said.

Amanda Guinn, a former Belleville AmeriCorps director, said the program wants to continue attracting those entering the education field who want a taste of what it is like to be in the classroom.

But the program also needs members who are retired, like Fangmeyer, who might have more time and a different set of life experiences, Guinn said.

"There are folks out there, especially retired folks, who don't feel like they have a lot to give," Guinn said. "We want to give them an opportunity because they have a wealth of experience and can be good role models."

Another example, Guinn said, is having members of different abilities. For instance, when a student in a wheelchair sees an AmeriCorps member who is in a wheelchair, it might give the student a sense of hope, Guinn said.

AmeriCorps members support four summer camps with a 1-to-5 counselors to campers ratio. And, members tutor about 700 students yearly.

The four camps are in Belleville and Lebanon, including ones for the Franklin and 17th Street neighborhood community associations and a pilot program this summer serving students in Harmony Emge School District 175 and Signal Hill School District 181.

"What started as the dream in the Franklin neighborhood has blossomed as the model for other schools," Guinn said. "We really have made a difference. The numbers show our tutoring is an integral part in helping struggling students on their academic progress."

AmeriCorps members aim to serve other organizations without drawing attention to themselves and, oftentimes, the public does not know they're being helped by an AmeriCorps member, Guinn said.

At a Career Day for sixth-graders at Westhaven Elementary School in April, AmeriCorps members blended in with teachers and other helpers at the school.

But Bekki Amann, a sixth-grade teacher at Westhaven, said the event would not have been possible without the help of AmeriCorps.

"With AmeriCorps, we know that we'll have a dedicated group of people show up and work at this event," Amann said. "It also let students know it's not just teachers who are here for them."

AmeriCorps is accepting applications for fall placements until July 30 or when the positions are filled. For more information, visit www.swic.edu/americorps.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 618-239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDJLee.

Belleville News-Democrat is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service