AmeriCorps volunteers coming to East St. Louis schools

AmeriCorps counselor Torrence Brwon gets dunked by camper Aaliyah Taylor, 10 and fellow counselor Jacob Brown during the summer camp at West Junior High in Belleville on Wednesday afternoon.
AmeriCorps counselor Torrence Brwon gets dunked by camper Aaliyah Taylor, 10 and fellow counselor Jacob Brown during the summer camp at West Junior High in Belleville on Wednesday afternoon. News-Democrat

East St. Louis middle school students will benefit from an influx of AmeriCorps volunteers coming to their city thanks to a $1.7 million grant, government officials announced Wednesday afternoon.

Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, announced the new initiative during a media conference call on Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s a great day for East St. Louis, Illinois,” Spencer said. “The grant will be a real game changer for the students and the community of East St. Louis.”

The Corporation for National and Community Service is the federal agency that engages citizens in service through AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, Social Innovation Fund and other programs.

Devon Horton, assistant superintendent for East St. Louis School District 189, who participated in the media call, said he was grateful East St. Louis was selected for the grant, which will help improve student achievement and student attendance.

“With this grant we will expand and deepen the academic preparation..and advising opportunities for our youth,” he said.

The Operation AmeriCorps grant awarded to District 189 was highly competitive, Spencer said, with more than 70 grant applications. District 189 was just one of 10 communities in the nation awarded a grant.

“Our grants range from bolstering schools in New York City to ensuring every high school senior succeeds in Pawtucket, Rhode Island,” she said. “Also in Bloomfield, Iowa, we are dramatically reducing energy usage in that community and ending homelessness in Salt Lake County, Utah. These are big problems and AmeriCorps is going to be addressing this.”

In a released statement, District Superintendent Arthur Culver said the grant allows the district “to strengthen our relationship with the after-school providers and higher education partners in our community.

“Together, we will provide students with an opportunity to acquire knowledge that will enhance their academic experience,” he said. “Operation AmeriCorps ultimately provides youth with additional support to ensure their success as they pursue opportunities beyond the classroom.”

Community partners, Horton said, will include Catholic Urban Programs, the Griffin Center, Christian Activity Center, Jackie Joyner Kersee Foundation, the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, and the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s Upward Bound program.

The East St. Louis grant money will be used to support at-risk seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders on the path to academic and career success, according to Spencer.

“We expect clear gains in math, reading and student attendance,” Horton said. “We firmly believe in the capacity of the children and the youth of East St. Louis to be great and to do great things.”

Over the next two years, 202 AmeriCorps members will help students in East St. Louis through tutoring during the school days, after-school programs and summer activities.

“This is a true immersion, every day throughout the year,” Spencer said.

Starting in August, 85 AmeriCorps members will provide academic support to East St. Louis students. AmeriCorps members will also recruit volunteers to serve as mentors and career coaches. Six AmeriCorps members will implement a city-wide College and Career Pathways program, focused on improving academic achievement and college and career planning, according to Spencer, and a team of 20 AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps will participate in a program that will include academic, recreation and service learning projects for three months next summer.

The AmeriCorps volunteers will provide a support system for East St. Louis students.

“We are allowing AmeriCorps members to draw attention ... to these students so the students know they have a network around them of supporters who care about them attending school, their academic performance and being excited about learning,” Spencer said. “I know these students...are going to feel the power of support that’s going to rally around them.”

The federal agency’s investment includes $1.3 million in AmeriCorps funding over two years. In addition, AmeriCorps members completing their service are eligible to earn a total of $455,576 in education awards to pay for college or pay back student loans. The federal investment is projected to generate an additional $379,544 in local funds, bringing the total two-year investment to more than $2.1 million.

The East St. Louis AmeriCorps program is actively recruiting individuals for these new positions that will start this fall.

“We invite motivated individuals from the local community and across the nation to join our efforts and service as AmeriCorps members of East St. Louis,” Horton said.

These full-time AmeriCorps positions provide a living allowance, training and a college scholarship.

AmeriCorps in Belleville

Belleville AmeriCorps was established in 1995 in partnership with Southwestern Illinois College, Belleville School District 118, the City of Belleville and the Franklin Neighborhood Community Association.

Since then, more than 1,000 members have served 600,000-plus hours tutoring students, rehabilitating homes, promoting neighborhood beautification and convening neighborhood watch groups.

Abdul Ursani, program director of Belleville AmeriCorps, said AmeriCorps volunteers serve kindergarteners through eighth-graders at schools in Belleville District 118 and Harmony Emge District 175. Volunteers tutor students during the school year and serve as camp counselors during the summer months.

Matt Klosterman, superintendent of Belleville District 118, said the relationship the district has with AmeriCorps is “invaluable.”

This past school year, he said, 21 AmeriCorps workers tutored students in the district’s 11 schools.

“It’s unbelievable support for our staff and our kids,” Klosterman said. “We don’t know what we would do without the AmeriCorps volunteers we get.”

AmeriCorps currently provides counselors for three summer camps operated by the Franklin Neighborhood Community Association, Harmony Neighborhood Association and 17th Street Corridor Neighborhood Association. Ursani said 40 new volunteers were hired to help with the three summer camps.

Ursani said anyone 17 and older can be an AmeriCorps volunteer, but they must “really have a desire to work with students and give back to their community.”

Ursani is looking forward to working with the East St. Louis AmeriCorps in the future.

“I think its great for our community if we can get more volunteers to do more great things for our community,” he said.

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at or 618-239-2562. Follow her on Twitter: @BND_JForsythe.