On the Front Lines of PovertyOn the Front Lines of Poverty

On the Front Lines of Poverty

When Jessie Tolbert, 22, started her job search in January, she knew it would be a challenge. She had graduated from the University of Massachusetts in December during one of the most depressed job markets in U.S. history. In fact, unemployment was the all-too-prevalent reality: what was a new job-searching grad with a degree in political science and a penchant for public service to do?

“I did a lot of community service and organizing in college, and I knew I was going into a really bad economy,” says Jessie, a 2008 graduate of Hopewell Valley High School in Pennington. “I thought that if I couldn’t get a job, then AmeriCorps would be something that I could get into.”

AmeriCorps is a program run by the federal government that hires people to work in underprivileged communities and with nonprofits around the U.S. It has become an increasingly competitive option, especially for young people who are having trouble finding work elsewhere. Jessie, an academically successful student with many community-based activities on her résumé, was a likely AmeriCorps candidate. She now works for AmeriCorps VISTA, a poverty-alleviation program, stationed in the city of Holyoke, Mass.

“I am working at a ministry that has a dress for success program that we do with the local community college,” says Jessie. “We service people who have a scheduled interview with a job, co-op or internship and can’t afford proper interview clothes. We collect clothes donations and help find them an appropriate outfit and then refer them to career services to do interview prep and résumé reviews.”

Jessie and her AmeriCorps’ co-workers are only paid enough to live at the poverty level to better understand the lives of those they are trying to help. “Most of the people in my program are on food stamps and Medicaid and getting all the government assistance like the people we are serving,” she says. Jessie, concerned about safe living conditions, is getting some financial help from her mother.

Does Jessie, committed to the AmeriCorps team for the next year, consider it a good use of her skills? “I’ve been really disappointed thus far,” she admits. “I actually don’t like it at all because it’s not challenging. This is all work that I had already done in college. It’s easy and unengaging.”

Jessie’s lackluster AmeriCorps experience, only a few weeks old, has been valuable for other reasons—mainly in helping her figure out her best course of action. “It’s made me realize that I need to go back to school,” she notes. “Nobody is going to give me a chance to show them what I can do without my Master’s degree. I’m thinking about getting my Master’s in public policy and maybe working for the government; something related to poverty alleviation and policies in this country. I would consider working for a nonprofit. We’re not allowed to be political in this job, and everything that I’ve done before has been for some sort of progressive political cause. Part of the reason I might not feel fulfilled is because I’m not allowed to do anything political. It is giving me time to think.”

Jessie is also quick to add that just because she is not happy with her current AmeriCorps’ duties, does not mean it is a bad fit for everyone. Lots of people have had very enriching and even life-changing AmeriCorps experiences.

If you’re thinking about applying to AmeriCorps, here are some specifics:

• AmeriCorps is often considered the “domestic Peace Corps.” So if you’ve been thinking about doing service, and want to stay in the U.S., rather than go overseas with the Peace Corps, then AmeriCorps may be a good fit for you.

• You must be at least 17, and in some cases 18, to apply to AmeriCorps.

• The time commitment for assignments varies, from 10 months to a year. Most are full-time jobs.

• All members receive training at the beginning of their service, as well as some ongoing training throughout the year.

• AmeriCorps pays a small living allowance, and in some cases provides housing. Members also receive the AmeriCorps Education Award at the end of their service.

For more information, visit http://www.americorps.gov/Default.asp.