Tuesday, October 20, 2009

City Year Chicago: Not Your Mother's Volunteer Program

City Year Chicago

36 South Wabash, Suite 1500
Chicago, IL 60603
www.cityyear.org and www.cityyear.org/chicago

The first thing I saw as I walked into the City Year Chicago office was a sign that welcomed me personally. What a great way to start! I was greeted by Joe Choinski, a second year City Year corps member, who is a leader of one of the City Year Chicago teams. Joe began by giving me a tour of the City Year Chicago office. He proudly showed me a photograph of then Senator Barack Obama beaming while wearing a bright red City Year Chicago jacket. Joe also allowed me to observe an energetic and enthusiastic group of corps members planning upcoming events and activities. I later learned this group was one of 13 different City Year Chicago teams. City Year is a national AmeriCorps program that began in Boston in 1988 and Chicago in 1994. The program is open to 17-24 year olds. Those chosen commit to ten months of service while receiving a stipend as well as scholarship money for college. City Year Chicago works to create teams that are diverse. The corps members on these diverse teams are then able to act as role models by working together successfully with those who are different. This year, (2009-2010) City Year Chicago has 125 corps members.

After the tour, Joe and I were joined by Johnny Barr, Director of External Relations for City Year Chicago. During our conversation we covered everything from specific details about the program to relationships between the corps members to concerns about the safety of corps members. Johnny and Joe were incredibly engaging, their passion for the organization clearly fueling their enthusiasm. By the end of our conversation, I was truly sorry that I had long passed the age where I could sign up to be a corps member.

City Year is in 20 U.S. communities, including newly added Milwaukee, which will be fully functional for the 2010-2011 school year. City Year is also in Johannesburg, South Africa. City Year is an organization that provides public schools with an ongoing presence of near peer role models-service providers who are near in age to the students. They are eager to create a presence in a community so that City Year Chicago corps members become established as good and important figures in the community. (That certainly explains the red jackets. They are VERY easy to spot in the community.) Corps members establish meaningful relationships with members of a community, particularly youth, and are then able to be role models of positive behavior. Programs are currently aimed at students in elementary school through high school, and include one on one literacy tutoring, after school/spring break programs, youth leadership and community transformation. Their new initiative, “In School and On Track” is aimed at critical ages in students’ academic lives, to help lessen the drop out rate. Programs are during the school day, after school and on weekends, depending on the age of the students and which program.

City Year Chicago is currently partnered with 12 schools in Chicago, including seven that are part of the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL.) These AUSL schools are called schools of excellence and are showing great promise for turning around the Chicago Public School system. The City Year program is holistic, utilizing The Whole School, Whole Child service model created by City Year in collaboration with education leaders. This means they deal with the whole child, working on attendance, behavior and academics.

Corps members engage in significant training before beginning their time in the community. They are even taught how to stay safe in the neighborhoods they serve. There are frequent opportunities to connect with other corps members and staff throughout the day. And as a testament to the impact of participation on corps members, there is a very active City Year alumni group

Like every other person and organization, City Year Chicago has been affected by the economy. Fundraising and attracting corporate and foundation sponsors is certainly more challenging in this financial climate. However, a positive effect of this economic downturn has been a dramatic increase in the number of applicants to the program. Jobs are scarce and so AmeriCorps programs provide wonderful opportunities for younger job hunters. Before the economy plunged, City Year Chicago received twice as many applicants as they accepted. This past year they received 5 times as many applicants as they accepted. That may be one of the few silver linings to this economic cloud.

Fun facts about City Year Chicago: (Actually, this stuff is pretty extraordinary for a bunch of 17-24 year olds to accomplish.)

• 876 corps members have graduated from the program, providing 1.5 million hours of service to Chicago. (WOW!!!)

• Literacy tutoring has been provided for 2,856 students, with average students in 2009 advancing their reading skills by a complete grade level.

• 77.3% of teachers in 2009 stated that corps members increased their students’ time spent learning.

• 95% of 2009 Young Heroes (leadership and service program for 6th-8th graders) say they made friends with people from different backgrounds.

City Year Chicago is truly in the trenches making the world a better place for large numbers of Chicago’s children. The work they do is making a measurable difference for so many.

President Barack Obama described City Year this way:

“Who’s the next generation that is going to lead us and inspire us and build an America we can all be proud of? When I look out at all of the City Year corps members who have been giving so much of themselves for a cause that is so much larger than themselves, I think I have an answer to that question.”

If you are interested in volunteering with City Year Chicago, check out their events calendar: http://www.cityyear.org/chicago_ektid1507.aspx

If you are interested in supporting the work of City Year Chicago, check out their ways to give: http://www.cityyear.org/chicago_ektid1519.aspx

And if you know anyone young enough to participate in this extraordinary experience, tell them to apply right away. And if they hesitate, tell them they are doing it for entire generations that were born a few years too early to participate. Although unfortunately, I cannot speak from experience, I am sure they will never regret their decision to participate!