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The AmeriCorps Program 101

By Lauren Porter and Courtney Stevens

AmeriCorps is a national service program developed and overseen by the federal government. It provides funding and oversees placement of nearly 300,000 volunteers each year to serve in over 40,000 schools, nonprofits, public agencies, community organizations, and faith-based groups. Adults volunteer for a term of public service ranging from 10 weeks to one year in communities all over the country with the identified goal of “helping others and meeting critical needs in the community.” Over 1 million alumni have contributed 1.5 billion hours of service through AmeriCorps.

While formally considered volunteers, AmeriCorps members are provided with benefits to assist them with living expenses while serving. Depending on the program selected, this may include a monthly stipend, health insurance, childcare allowance, housing, professional development funding, loan deferment, and travel costs if you have to relocate.

Some AmeriCorps programs are short-term and some are a full year. Depending on the program, it may be part-time or full-time. There are four main programs and each have a different approach:

  • State and National - volunteers help nonprofits and community organizations in direct service roles in community-based organizations

  • VISTA - volunteers serve full-time in nonprofits focused on addressing poverty and building the capacity of their organizations

  • NCCC - team-based residential program for young adults 18-24 who serve in public safety, the environment, youth development, and disaster relief and preparedness.

  • AmeriCorps Seniors - individuals aged 55+ are placed in Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions, or the RSVP program in varied length of service

So what’s the difference between the programs?

ProgramTimeLengthAgeSettingBenefitsStructureState and NationalPart of full timeVaries17+Choose a service environmentEducation award, living allowanceChoose an organizationVISTAFull timeSummer or year-long18+Serve in a nonprofit officeEducation award or end of service stipend, living allowanceChoose an organization fighting povertyNCCC National Civilian Community CorpsFull time10-12 months18-26Complete physically demanding, hands-on projects while traveling regionallyEducation award, living allowance, housing providedAssigned to a variety of organizationsSeniors5-40 hours per weekFlexible55+Various service settingsStipend for Senior CompanionsChoose an organization

Who should join AmeriCorps?

Almost anyone could be a great fit for the AmeriCorps program! First of all, a passion to better your community is a must. Adults of any age can qualify for AmeriCorps (specific age requirements vary by program). Some programs, particularly VISTA, may look for some college education or a degree. Programs that involve children, namely State and National, will need a background check. All members must be legal citizens or residents of the US.

So, now that the basic qualifications are out of the way, who is truly a good fit for AmeriCorps? While anyone can serve at any time in their life, many people choose to do a year (or more!) of service during a gap year after high school or after college, between careers, or after retirement. Some people choose to do a term of summer service between semesters at school. These are some of the most common types of people that join AmeriCorps.

I’m interested. Now how do I choose a program and how do I apply?

The best way to choose is to start looking! Read up on more of the differences between NCCC, VISTA, and State and National. Some questions to ask yourself are: do I want to serve full-time or part-time, do I want to have a year-long or a summer position, do I want to do direct service or help with nonprofit growth, do I want to relocate to a new city or stay close to home, and what am I hoping to get out of this experience?

These questions will help guide you towards what programs and positions may be good for you. Once you’ve done some basic research on the differences between the programs, you can visit the AmeriCorps Listing Search website. Look through the different positions to get an idea for what kinds of roles AmeriCorps members serve in. Here, you can filter by program, length of service, state, city, and service area (such as public health, outreach, or veteran’s services). At the time of this writing, there are over 2,000 open positions.

Once you’ve found some options, you can send your application to them. You don’t have to do an application for each one. It’s similar to the College App you may have done in high school. You complete one application and send it to those you are interested in. From there, you wait to hear back, go through an interview, and hopefully get an offer! Some terms start quite quickly, and some you may have a few months to prepare for.

Aside from helping my community, what are the other benefits?

AmeriCorps members receive a monthly living stipend to help with costs. Depending on full-time or part-time and location, this may vary. The stipend is less than minimum wage and is not intended to be akin to a normal paying job. Part of the program is to help you experience living on a low-income and being in places and utilizing services that the community you are serving use. In short, you want to be a part of your community and not an outsider coming in and out each day.

One of the most appealing benefits is that at the end of your service, you have the choice of an education award equivalent to the Pell grant (around $6000) to apply towards their student loans or future education expenses if you did full-time service (a smaller award between $1000-2000 is available for summer service terms), or a smaller cash stipend.

If you have children, you can receive an allowance to cover childcare. You also can get reimbursement for any copays, prescriptions, or other out-of-pocket medical costs. You qualify for assistance programs like SNAP to help you meet your living expenses during your service. Each service site has the option of providing additional benefits, too. You also may receive benefits such as housing and meals, particularly if you are serving somewhere like a university or in the NCCC program.

The benefits go far beyond the different things they provide you with to support your basic needs. You will also have a multitude of professional development opportunities, learn new skills, gain new experience and insight, create professional relationships, and network with others frequently.

Now that you’ve heard about the program, here’s two Kappa sisters who have direct experience with the AmeriCorps program: Lauren Porter (KI) and Courtney Stevens (KY).

Lauren Porter

Program: AmeriCorps VISTA

Title: STEM Ambassadors Partnership Coordinator

Site: University of Southern Maine

Years in Service: 2016-17

What was a typical day like for you?

My primary responsibilities were to manage, develop, and sustain a STEM-based mentorship and education program. I helped match college volunteers with low-income youth to increase their chances of seeking higher education. My focus was to support the sustainability of the program, meaning that I created systems to help the program operate at better capacity, like online training, performance measurement systems, university partnerships, and streamlined operations. In addition to these projects, I would do direct management of the volunteers serving in my program. This would look like orienting new volunteers, doing field visits to see how things were going, and meeting with people in the community.

What were the best parts?

The best parts were that I had substantial professional development opportunities throughout my service. I got to attend conferences and webinars on a regular basis. I had another AmeriCorps VISTA on site that I served with, and she’s still one of my best friends to this day. I learned a lot about community-based work and sustainability, which I’ve used in a variety of settings after my service was done.

What were the hardest parts?

The offer pretty much fell into my lap. I was a work-study student, and my office needed a VISTA. I wasn’t really prepared and was still taking a full course load. This was demanding, and looking back, the only thing I’d change is that I wish I had moved to part-time school status while I was in service. The other hardest part was living on such a low income. I made $875 a month working 40 hours a week. I also had to do tasks that didn’t always feel meaningful, like grant reporting and compliance. Sometimes we had volunteers who were optimistic about joining the program and then ended up having a bad experience. It was difficult to see people discouraged about service.

What are your recommendations for someone considering joining AmeriCorps?

If you’re thinking about doing it and it’s a time in your life that it would work, go for it! Look at the opportunities and see what you might like doing. Maybe you’ll have the opportunity to move across the country for a year, or you’ll find an organization right in your own community. Even with the challenging moments that come with any type of community-based work, I’m grateful that I took the opportunity.

Courtney Stevens

Program: AmeriCorps State & National

Title: Pediatric Epilepsy Resource Room Coordinator

Site: Boston Medical Center

Years in Service: 2020 - Present

What was a typical day like for you?

Each day is a little different for me. My position is with the Epilepsy Foundation New England, but my host site is Boston Medical Center and I act as a bridge between the two organizations. I act as a representative for EFNE and help connect our patients to the variety of resources that are available to them. I work 1 on 1 with children living with epilepsy to help them develop self confidence and self advocacy skills and also to help them feel more comfortable disclosing their epilepsy to others. In the evenings, I also help facilitate SHARE (Support, Hope, Advocacy, Resources, Educate) groups, which the foundation hosts as a way for people living with epilepsy to connect virtually and share their stories as well as learn more about resources that are available to them.

What were the best parts?

I get to work on a podcast called Epilepsy Voices, which was created by the Telehealth Epilepsy Care Collaborative at Boston Medical Center, to showcase the stories of resilience for those living with or affected by epilepsy. Through this opportunity I’ve gotten to connect with so many people from all walks of life who have overcome numerous obstacles related to their epilepsy and the stigma that surrounds it. Now that EFNE has taken over the podcast we’ve broadened our reach all across New England and throughout the United States. It has been a pleasure to work on this team and share the stories of so many inspiring individuals.

What were the hardest parts?

While the work I do is incredibly rewarding it is also emotionally taxing. Like with most jobs in healthcare, it is difficult to see folks who are experiencing such hardships especially given the fact that the ways we can assist them are limited. I always wish that there was more that I could do for our families and the patients we work with. When you work with underserved populations your eyes are opened to the many obstacles that they face. We are actively working towards making sure that policies are in place to protect those folks and ensure that they are all able to access our services but there are barriers that exist that can not be so easily removed.

What are your recommendations for someone considering joining AmeriCorps?

If you are looking to give back to your community and you are financially able to make the commitment, you should apply. My year of service is something that will shape the rest of my career. It has taught me things that I would have never learned in an office setting. I have gotten to work hands on with some of the most incredible people and most days my clients teach me more than I could ever teach them. It is truly one of the most rewarding experiences and I would absolutely recommend joining AmeriCorps to anyone wanting to make an impact.

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