The Impact of AmeriCorps

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It is important to acknowledge the impact AmeriCorps members have had on New Orleans. Thousands of people wearing the AmeriCorps “A” on their sleeve have given a year (or more) of their lives to the New Orleans area, with hundreds of them choosing to build with NOAHH. The work they have done has ranged from building and repairing homes to community outreach and development, but all of it has been focused on service. What they have done for us (and our city) is impossible to precisely calculate, but it has brought shelter, comfort, and tangible change to the lives of thousands in their time of need.

But perhaps equally important is how New Orleans and the time AmeriCorps members serve here has impacted them. Cynics will often claim that the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes because of doing good dilutes the nobility of that work. The truth is, that sense of accomplishment and satisfaction is far more complex than they give it credit for. It’s more than a fleeting moment of pride; it’s the catalyst for change. A year of service will leave a lasting impact on our city, but a lifetime of service can change the world. The experiences many AmeriCorps have during their term lead to much more than a single year, either here in New Orleans or around the country (and sometimes, the world). What’s more, even those who don’t go on to a lifetime of service take away important lessons that improve their lives and those around them.

For many AmeriCorps members, community service has always been a part of their lives. Some began organizing food drives when they were still children and others learned its value because of school requirements. The important thing to know here is it always instills a sense of commitment. This is often what inspires them to serve as AmeriCorps, and a year spent working closely with future homeowners and other partners is what changes their lives.

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“NOAHH offers the best benefits.” – Henry Gillespie-Hill, 2015 Construction AmeriCorps

Ashley Linville studied social justice issues like substandard housing and its impact on communities in college, but she found that merely learning about those problems was frustrating. She volunteered with her local affiliate, and, eventually, she found the opportunity to give back more directly to some of the communities she had studied through her school’s alternative spring break program.

“There are two things I would like to really emphasize,” Ashley said. “There is so much impacting a community that goes far beyond what you can gather through research–-talking to locals is without question the most insightful and educating experience one can ever have, and, if it wasn’t for my time as a volunteer with the local Habitat for Humanity in my area this service trip wouldn’t have been as successful as it was. I in no way feel as though I was more valuable than any of my peers, it was without question completely collaborative endeavor, but I can absolutely say that without the skills I gained as a volunteer for [Habitat], we probably would not have accomplished the incredible volume of projects we so cohesively did as a team.”

After two service trips to Louisiana, she decided to join NOAHH as an AmeriCorps, working on our Construction team.

“I wanted a job involved with social justice and building and using my hands,” Ashley said. “AmeriCorps is exactly that plus the opportunity to gain experience.”

The opportunities available as an AmeriCorps attract those looking not just to serve but also to learn, including Teague Grubel, whose history of service dates back to his time in the Cub Scouts.

“I wanted to help people, learn construction skills, and have an opportunity to live in a new place,” said Teague. “AmeriCorps was my best opportunity to do that.”

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“I’ve learned that your experience is determined by the amount of work you put in.” – Cesar Perez, 2015 Construction AmeriCorps

Aleya Miller was looking for service experience when she joined AmeriCorps. Her long-term goal was to join the Peace Corps, and she saw service with AmeriCorps as a natural step toward that goal. After a terms as an AmeriCorps in the FEMA Disaster Corps, she decided to go a second term with NOAHH as an AmeriCorps member working in Communications.

“As the Marketing/Communications VISTA I gained a lot of great work skills like fundraising, event-planning, operating non-profit social media, photography, photo editing and interviewing to name a few,” Aleya said. “And then during Build-A-Thon, I got to learn how to build a house, which was honestly one of the best experiences of my life.”

While many AmeriCorps join NOAHH with some previous experience in building, it’s often the first time they have had to lead or teach others the skills it takes to build a home.

“One of the things I admire most about [Habitat] is that anyone, with any degree of construction experience can show up and participate in the actual building of a house,” said Ashley. “It’s incredible. Not only do you have the opportunity to contribute to strengthening your community, you get to walk away with real, learned skills.”

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“I’ve always wanted to be here.” – Sarah Hayes, 2015 Construction AmeriCorps

AmeriCorps are also drawn to New Orleans for the vibrant, world famous culture and history, and like many others who have come here, if they’ve never

“New Orleans is such a unique, magical city and working with NOAHH allowed me so many great opportunities to really get involved,” Aleya said. “Whether it was through interviewing partner-families, taking pictures of volunteers on-site or the many other things I did for NOAHH, I was able to meet and work alongside many great people and hear inspiring stories that I’ll never forget. A piece of my heart will definitely always be in New Orleans.”

After two service trips to New Orleans, Ashley had also connected with the city. Because she has studied such issues (including those arising from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) before, she’s keenly aware of how the rising rents has affected locals trying to find affordable housing, but she also found out first hand when she looked into moving here how much it costs to live in the city. Her commitment has only been redoubled by the people she has met here.

“Rather than be angry that I, one of countless transplants, have moved into their city, they just want me to stay and be invested in helping keep it alive,” Ashley said. “They talk of change and what used to be, how much they miss some things and how they appreciate the reinvestment in making their city strong, but the underlying fear is inescapable. The fear that what, and most importantly who that made the culture of this city are disappearing, and that ultimately what made this city so magical in the first place might be lost.”

She realized through her own personal experience and from speaking with New Orleanians that one of the effects of the storm was not just to raise prices of rents, but also to displace people who could not afford to repair their homes. With the storm damage bringing down the price of their homes, they were unable to even rent in some of the neighborhoods where they grew up.

“This is why I respect the efforts of [Habitat] so much, because it provides the members of this community the opportunity to remain long-term,” Ashley said.

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“My favorite thing about this year has been the collective experience of making friends with my fellow AmeriCorps members and, through them, learning more about myself.” – Henry Gillespie-Hill, 2015 Construction AmeriCorps

It can be daunting to move to a new city where you know almost no one. Many AmeriCorps have already experienced this when moving away to college or during previous years of service, but after a year working (and living) alongside other AmeriCorps, close bonds and lasting friendships are often formed.

“Another thing I think that is really special about AmeriCorps in general is the friendships that you are able to make with the other AmeriCorps members,” said Aleya. “Speaking as an alumni that is the takeaway that continues to have the biggest effect on my life. I was able to meet people from all over the country and even though I sometimes had nothing in common with them we bonded during our year of service because it’s such a unique and powerful experience to share. To this day many of my absolute best friends and favorite people are those that I met while serving in AmeriCorps, and I will always be thankful to the program for that.”

On the work site, AmeriCorps members also connect with the volunteer groups and partner families with whom they work. The bonds formed with partner families are the heart of NOAHH’s homeownership program. It’s where the lasting impact of being a Habitat AmeriCorps or volunteer is born, and what inspires people to continue the fight against poverty housing even after they’ve left the build. Learning the stories and sharing the day with local (and future) homeowners is what creates these bonds.

“Almost every pre-conceived notion I’ve had about groups of people has been shattered (in a good way), whether it’s volunteers or people I work with or even just people I meet. I’ve been exposed to many different people who I would normally never have been exposed to, and every time it’s been a good experience for me. This year has really taught me to always stay open minded, to anything I haven’t been exposed to or experienced before,” said Teague. He also related one of the many stories that impacted him, “Ms. Diane insisted on cooking lunch for us every day, which was amazing. She told us her story of how much money she and her family spent to fix up their house after Katrina… She told us how she and her family had relocated during/after the storm. They met an older lady who let them stay in her guest house for free and didn’t charge them rent, but Ms. Diane refused to just stay there for free so they still paid rent and cooked meals in exchange for her letting them stay in her house.”

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In October, shortly after training for new AmeriCorps had ended, NOAHH and two local churches, Household of Faith and Trinity Episcopal, partnered for a blitz build. The ten-day build involved volunteers from both churches coming each day to complete a single home in the Hollygrove neighborhood. Ashley and several other AmeriCorps were assigned to the house, and during their intensive collaboration, formed close bonds with the volunteers.

“The bonds that I formed with some of these people were so special to me that as the end of the two weeks near I started to dread not seeing them again,” Ashley said. “I was almost nervous to experience my position as an AmeriCorps in their absence, not only because they were all I had known, but because they made my job so easy and fulfilling. I felt completely supported by them that even when we were running around frantic. I was having so much fun doing it. They invited me and my fellow AmeriCorps member to attend their church, to which I was initially hesitant. I hadn’t been to church in upwards of 15 years, not a small feat for someone my age. I ended up talking to Pastor Barriere about my reservations, and my reluctance subsided. Honestly, I was looking forward to having more time with the people I had come to know and adore on the job site. When I went to their church I was so completely moved by the intensely welcoming sense of community that I thought I might not ever want to leave it. Of course I did though, and the two weeks came to an end. The dread of departing from what in those last two weeks had become our new norm of life was mutual and communicated number of times. At the dedication ceremony for the house I was able to see almost everyone I had worked with during the build. The love they expressed, and I shyly back, was intensely comforting. I was worried I wouldn’t see these familiar faces ever again, and if so it would only be in passing. I was wrong. I exchanged numbers with some and have kept contact through texts and pictures and wishes of happy holidays… It just so happens that I am going to their church this weekend with my grandparents who are coming for a visit. I cannot wait for the opportunity to share my grandparents whom I adore with these people that I so admire, and vice versa. If it wasn’t for NOAHH I would have never otherwise met any of these people, or been invited into their sacred community space, a place I know I am welcome at any time. I hold an incredible value to these relationships and consider them nothing short of priceless. I am so thankful to know them and cannot wait to continue my relationships with them and look forward to a future of unexpected and special relationships with people I meet during my time with Habitat for Humanity.”

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“My favorite part of being an AmeriCorps is any time when I feel confident enough in a skill to be able to teach it.” – Max Pattsner, 2015 Construction AmeriCorps

Evan Williams studied at Tulane University in New Orleans, along with his fellow 2015 AmeriCorps Patrick Murphy. The two applied together to be NOAHH AmeriCorps in part because they wanted to remain in the city they had grown to love during their time in college. Evan noted that what he learned as an AmeriCorps could not easily be defined.

“To be honest, I’m not even sure I could accurately articulate what I’ve learned thus far,” said Evan. “It’s kind of like getting older. We aren’t consciously aware of the aging process and that we are constantly changing as it’s happening. When we look back, it’s obvious that we aren’t the same, but it’s difficult to describe how the changes took place.”

Whether it’s what they’ve learned on the build site, the friendships they’ve made with other AmeriCorps, or the relationships they’ve found with the local communities, each AmeriCorps is changed by their time of service, and that impact instills more than a desire to continue their service but also an understanding of the need and effects of that service, ensuring that it will last the rest of their lives.