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Spirit of volunteerism breeds AmeriCorps recruits in Buffalo

Buffalo has become a prime recruiting ground for AmeriCorps, the national service organization. Only four other large cities provided more volunteers per capita than Buffalo, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.

They’re sent everywhere.

Derrick Biehl of Franklinville helped build nine houses for Habitat for Humanity in Oklahoma City, Okla., tutored children at a hospital in Little Rock, Ark., and helped build a wooden bridge in Junction City, Kan.

Ally Brunner of East Aurora helped parents play a bigger role in their children’s education in a Baltimore elementary school.

Carita Ricley of Machias helped build a playground out of logs in Cape Junction, Ore., mentored low-income students in Sacramento and restored and preserved 1800-era artifacts in Virginia City, Mont.

“AmeriCorps changed my life,” Ricley said. “I found what I did to be the most fulfilling and rewarding thing I ever did.

“I changed my major three times in college, and didn’t really know at the time what I wanted to do,” she said. “I was not driven, and was feeling lost. AmeriCorps taught me so many things I didn’t know about myself, especially humility.”

Buffalo trailed only Minneapolis/St. Paul, New Orleans, Baltimore and Boston for the rate of volunteers among large cities. The agency didn’t release specific volunteer numbers in its recent report for per-capita AmeriCorps enrollment for the 2014-15 program year.

More than 2,700 Buffalo residents have served in AmeriCorps since 1994, when the program was created under President Clinton. Nearly 400 AmeriCorps members currently volunteer in Western New York.

Max Finberg, national director for AmeriCorps and a Buffalo native, was in Buffalo recently to celebrate the region’s high level of participation, and to announce funding for additional national service positions in Buffalo.

“What’s great about Buffalo as the ‘City of Good Neighbors’ is its sharing that ethic of service, over and over,” Finberg said.

‘Absolutely loved it’

The skills and networking Ricley learned led to her present job at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where she now serves on a first-response team battling floods in Baton Rouge, La.

Service in AmeriCorps typically lasts one year, but can be extended for a second. Volunteers are given a bi-weekly living allowance, basic health insurance at no cost and child care assistance for those who qualify. An education award can be used for tuition, books or materials if a volunteer returns to school, or to pay off federal student loans.

Most are in their 20s, with some exceptions.

They can be sent across the country, but can also serve in the Buffalo area.

In Buffalo, most are stationed through the downtown Service Collaborative of WNY. Volunteers tutor students, in kindergarten through high school. They provide other academic assistance, teach financial literacy to adults, assist veterans and rehabilitate low-income housing.

Jemaris Ellis, 43, assisted the lead classroom teacher this year at Elmwood Village Charter School and Westminster Charter School. She led small groups and participated in one-on-one meetings with students needing help in math and English as a second language to catch up. She also helped with social studies and science.

“I absolutely loved it,” Ellis said. “I just completed my degree in secondary education at Medaille, and this was a natural fit.”

Ellis said being an AmeriCorps volunteer exposed her to other school jobs, too, such as coaching and administration.

She recommends AmeriCorps to others.

“If you are a person who wants to give back to communities in need, and maybe you’re trying to figure out your next step in life, AmeriCorps helps answer those questions.”

Vital to Belle Center

“I really don’t think a lot of people are aware of the impact that AmeriCorps has on the individuals who serve or on the community,” said Melissa Schutte, who leads the AmeriCorps volunteers. “I see people every day who decide to give up one or two years to serve a community, and it’s incredible. They’re really, really amazing people.”

At the Belle Center, 11 AmeriCorps volunteers are helping children and seniors this summer. Volunteers are assigned to public and private schools during the school year, and help at the Belle Center with after-school and evening tutoring and activities.

Iris Morrisroe, AmeriCorps’ compliance director, said their work is essential to the community center.

“There is no way the center would run without the AmeriCorps program,” Morrisroe said. “There is only so much staff they can pay. We depend on AmeriCorps to provide the services the children need, and they do a fantastic job. The kids love them, and look forward to seeing them.” Timothy Lee, 19, a graduate of Middle College High School, will attend Erie Community College in the fall.

“I work with the kids, help them do their homework and participate in activities,” Lee said. “I like helping the community out, and helping kids.”

Different perspective

Brunner, who volunteered this past year in Baltimore, said her AmeriCorps experience was invaluable.

“I had a rough experience, but I enjoyed it immensely because I love kids and loved being in a school environment for a year,” Brunner said. “I learned a lot of good skills for future jobs down the road.”

Brunner said she also learned something even more important.

“After growing up having everything I could possibly want in life, and seeing kids coming to school every day with dirty clothes, it opened my eyes to appreciating every little thing that came my way,” she said.

Biehl, of Franklinville, did a second year in Buffalo, working as a teacher’s assistant in a third-grade classroom at Elmwood Village Charter School. He also helped ready school supplies for teachers in low-income schools, helped clean up Cazenovia Park and coordinated a canned food drive in Hamburg.

“It has changed who I am,” Biehl said. “It’s given me experiences I never could have had, and the opportunity to see perspectives I would never have come across.”

Jenna Geracitano of Niagara Falls finished her second year of service in June in Oregon. Geracitano set up mentoring programs for high school students, and helped encourage them to consider attending college.

My experience was awesome,” Geracitano said. “It was a great stepping stone for me after graduating college and not quite not knowing what I wanted to do.”

Geracitano now plans to go to graduate school and get a master’s degree in student affairs.

Lauren Goeing, who grew up in Clarence Center, is in the next line of AmeriCorps volunteers.

The SUNY Fredonia graduate began training this month in Chicago to serve as a mentor in a public school, where she will work with at-risk students on academics, attendance and behavior.

“I chose to serve because I really believe in the power and potential of young people,” Goeing said. “It will allow me to experience what other people are going through, and to hear these children’s stories and help them.”

email: msommer@buffnews.com

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