Labor and Economic Opportunity
By: Aimee Szabo, AmeriCorps member, Detroit Urban Safety Program
I just finished serving my second term with AmeriCorps.
Looking back, it seems like a lifetime ago. It was the winter 2015 and I found myself down on my luck. I had moved back to the United States about a year earlier, after living abroad for eight years. I had found a good job, but they let me go without warning, and I was left unemployed two days before Thanksgiving. I was going through a lot of personal issues in my life as well, and I had fallen into a depression. I didn’t have any motivation, direction or even hope. My close friend and roommate, seeing my state, offered to help me get a job at the restaurant where she was bartending. THANK YOU Bridget.
I applied and got an offer to start as a bar back right away, helping to clean up and stock the bar at the end of the night. Finally, a reason to get out of bed. Even if it was at 10 p.m. I was terrified to start the job, I had no confidence in myself or my abilities anymore. But, the first shift went well, and the restaurant manager offered me a few shifts per week. Working those few shifts at the restaurant gave me motivation and self-confidence. I finally had some inspiration to get out of bed in the morning and even the courage to apply for other positions as well.
One day, while searching the web, I found an ad seeking volunteers to help as community organizers at my alma mater, Wayne State University. The ad interested me, and I wanted to know more, so I filled out the application and clicked “send.” The next day, I got a phone call and an offer to interview. At this time, I had little knowledge of what AmeriCorps was, or what exactly would be expected of me as a “community organizer.“ I went to the interview, curious and wanting to know more about how I could help my community.
After meeting with Ezella, a program coordinator at Wayne State University’s Urban Safety Project, I was excited and enthusiastic about the prospect of serving a program doing such important work in the city of Detroit. Two days later, she called back, offering me a position on the Urban Safety team. Little did I know; this moment would change the course of my life forever.
My service with AmeriCorps began in March of 2015. I had no experience in the field, and I had never served as a volunteer before. It was a very new experience. I was assigned to the 5th precinct, specifically, Morningside, East English Village and Cornerstone, three neighborhoods on Detroit’s Lower East Side. I was asked to serve as team lead for the sector. Our major assignments and top priorities in the sector were starting block clubs and community patrols and to engage community members to participate in the monthly meetings. My coordinator and program director informed me that this might be a tough area in terms of getting residents involved and willing to participate. I was told that in the first few years of our program, it had been a struggle to engage the community in this area of the city and that previous members hadn’t had much success engaging residents in the past. I took this as a challenge and set to work.
In five month’s time, my team and I pulled out all the stops. We went out each day and hit the pavement. We canvassed miles and miles of neighborhood streets, knocking on hundreds of doors. Each time, we conducted short surveys, asking residents how safe they felt in their neighborhoods, if they were interested in participating in community patrols or starting up a block club. We logged all the survey data into our computers and based on the responses we received, we set up new block clubs in areas where residents showed interest.
At first, we had only a few members come out. We didn’t let that discourage us though. We persevered, and it paid off. At each new meeting, we saw new faces, heard new voices. The individual clubs grew and grew, albeit slowly. From May to September, the M.E.C. team was successful in getting 13 new block clubs started. I watched as these residents gained trust and confidence in not only myself and my team, but also in AmeriCorps and the services we were providing to the community. I built relationships with so many people, during this first year, starting with my teammates. It truly takes a team to accomplish what we do, and we worked together diligently each day to make a positive impact in our community.
Another goal we shared as a team was to make our residents safer, smarter and healthier. As AmeriCorps members, we pledged to bring Americans together to strengthen their communities. One way of getting this done is by organizing large scale clean-up projects, where we board vacant houses and clean up the lots surrounding them. This helps not only to fight blight, but also to make safer walking paths for students traveling to and from school each day.
Although it was challenging at times, I learned how to organize successful, largescale community clean-up projects. I learned how to plan ahead, how to be well organized and I also learned the art of being flexible when things don’t go according to plan. I learned how rewarding it is to see the outcome of such efforts and how good it feels when the residents appreciate the time you have spent and the impact you have made.
During that first year of my AmeriCorps service, there was a lot to learn. Like many things in life, there is no manual. Meetings and training sessions taught me a lot but there were some things that I couldn’t learn from anyone else. Certain things I had to learn by doing, from experience. During my first term, I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I could do things I never thought I could. I learned that sometimes, service can make you feel sad, but other times, also joyful. I learned that you can’t always help everyone. (REALLY!) But, I also learned to try my absolute hardest anyway.
Service inevitably taught me a lot about others as well. I learn how others live, saw new neighborhoods and met new people. I learned that what may work for me and my family, or team, doesn’t always work for another. I learned that people appreciate things like showing up when you said you would, returning phone calls and being respectful. People will recognize your effort and thank you for it. I also found some people don’t care as much as you do. On those days, you learn to work harder. As my first term ended, I began to understand that I was part of something bigger.
During those first few months, my program coordinator, seeing my determination and drive, approached me and asked me to fill an additional pair of shoes. She asked me if I would serve as a LeaderCorps representative for our program. I accepted, without fully knowing what I was getting myself into. Little did I know what an incredible opportunity it would provide, or what a good decision I had made in accepting this role. I met so many amazing people, doing so many amazing things all over Michigan. I was able to spread the word about AmeriCorps, what we do and who we serve. I was able to hone my skills as a leader, and I learned to apply those skills in my personal and professional life. Above all, I finally had a vision and a purpose.
Before I knew it, a year had passed and I had finished my term. I began to wonder what was next for me. I was still interested in helping, continuing the projects I had started, but wasn’t sure I was ready to do it all over again. I spoke with my program director and decided since I was still working at the restaurant, I would take on another term, but only part-time. I had made such strides, I was not only helping behind the bar at the restaurant now, but I was also waitressing, bartending and managing catering! My experience and skills learned during my AmeriCorps service had helped me move my way up at the restaurant too.
When the time came to decide about serving a second term, there was no question. While I may have felt tired and discouraged at times, I knew there was still so much to be done and that the communities I served needed me. Everything I did and everything I learned gave me purpose and filled me with a sense of duty. I found that serving others was my calling, and so I signed up for year two.
Life as a second term AmeriCorps member was as exciting and rewarding as the first. The second time around, I was a bit more prepared. This time, I had a toolkit of experience and knowledge matured during my first term. Year two gave me the chance to focus on new skills and hone my abilities ever further. I began to teach newer teammates the ropes and share what I had learned with the newcomers. I worked with them on new ideas and focused on new targets. We networked even more and fostered the relationships we had been building over time. We expanded further on projects from the previous year and worked toward finding creative solutions for recurring issues that would come up. I saw my experiences and my teammate’s experiences grow over time. I learned to take these experiences and apply them to new situations, new areas, and to continue to build and grow. This helped me to grow not only personally, but also professionally. Halfway through my second AmeriCorps term, I received an offer for full time employment. Using all the skills and training I received as a member, I applied for a position as the manager for Life Skills Village Sheltered Workshop. My job here is to help others re-integrate to the workforce after suffering from traumatic brain injury. All the projects and work we do here gives back to the community, and so I feel that I have succeeded in instilling a spirit of service in others. When I help my clients help others, I feel fulfilled.
I am proud of the road I have traveled to get where I am today. I am also grateful for those who helped me get here and I look forward to continuing to fulfil a pledge I took two years ago when I promised to get things done for America, to make our people safer, smarter, and healthier. I meant it when I said that I would bring Americans together to strengthen our communities. I meant it when I agreed that when faced with apathy, I would take action and when faced with conflict, to seek common ground. I promised that when I am faced with adversity, I will persevere. I promised it then, and I will repeat it today with pride. I will carry this commitment with me forever, because I am proud to have served, and I am proud to be an AmeriCorps Alum!