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Celebrating AmeriCorps Week - What It’s Meant to Me

Expansion Year(s): 10 years post AmeriCorps

March 15, 2022

Jessica Keaton, our Social Impact Employee Programs and Engagement leader is kicking off a series about the team and how we got here. I hope it’s both interesting and motivational for individuals looking to apply their skills from other professional backgrounds into roles and programs focused on contributing positively to society and the world. - Peter Wheeler

“You’ll never get back on track if you take a gap year.” I rolled my eyes, hearing this sentiment after sharing news that I would be joining AmeriCorps National Service after college. I was determined to give back through national service. My year turned into two and yielded a wide swath of learnings, and spoiler alert: I was better off for it!

Getting Things Done

As a member of the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team, I learned how to chainsaw and cut down trees to preserve national parks. I fought wildland fires and worked to save structures from destruction. I responded to natural disasters as they hit across the country. All of these experiences were things I never believed I would do in my lifetime. By virtue of stepping outside my comfort zone, I was able to expand my knowledge base, my worldview, and my skill set in one fell swoop. I fiercely collaborated and worked with my teammates to keep everyone safe to work on “getting things done”- my favorite AmeriCorps saying.

Relearning Education / A New Approach

My second year allowed me to get things done in a different but equally impactful setting; I taught literacy to kindergarten students on the Education Team. I quickly learned that students carry much more to a school than just their backpacks, and this ultimately inspired my decision to pursue a graduate degree in social work. A small group of AmeriCorps members worked together in a converted room at the school and helped as many students as our days would allow. My colleague had a student that was experiencing separation anxiety when her mother would drop her off at school. She tried a slew of things, but nothing seemed to stop her crying each morning and much into the day, which was taking a devastating toll on her learning time. One day, my colleague walked in with a small figurine. We all asked her what it was and why she brought it to work. She explained, “I thought if I made a doll that looked like my student’s mom, she would have something to remind her of home during the school day.” This incredibly thoughtful gesture worked for the student, and she slowly was able to transition from home to school quicker and engage with learning better.

Applying What I Learned

The experiences I had with AmeriCorps still translate into my day-to-day interactions in the workforce. I take these learnings with me as I navigate life and work:

  • You can achieve more than you think you can. From being someone who had never gone on a hike to hiking 14+ miles a day starts with just one step. Cultivate your growth mindset, and you’ll flourish in the face of adversity.
  • When you think you’ve exhausted all of your options, try one more thing. Tenacity will help you continue on even when others have given up. One more thing could be opening 15 cans of vegetables and beans and putting them into a pot for a low-cost team dinner. (I’ve done that, and it turned out surprisingly delicious)
  • Your team is your extra lifeline through the good and the bad. You stand together eating smoke on the fire line, but you also stand together enjoying the hot springs on your off day.
  • Meet people where they are. The doll worked because it was tangible for the kindergarten student to understand and enjoy. I imagine she also felt seen and cared for. Imagine if that translated into our work lives? We would all be unstoppable!

My experiences are not unique-there are millions of changemakers giving their all to support the communities they serve. I’ve shifted the term from gap year to expansion year. My mind and life was expanded exponentially through the work I completed, the people I met, and the lessons I learned. AmeriCorps will always hold a special place in my heart and my story.

How You Can Get Things Done

If you are considering an expansion year, this is your sign to join the thousands of AmeriCorps volunteers. If you’ve served or are serving with AmeriCorps, share your #expansionyear story, so we can celebrate you!




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