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AmeriCorps worker helps herself by helping others

POSTED September 18, 2012 5:45 p.m.
Susan Thacker/Great Bend Tribune/

Connie Smith talks about her past year as an Am...

Connie Smith is a firm believer that volunteers gain as much from helping others as the recipients of their service gain. After wrapping up a year as an AmeriCorps member at Catholic Social Service in Great Bend, Smith hopes to be chosen for a second year with the program, while pursuing her goal of becoming an elementary school teacher.
For about 20 hours a week, Smith can be found doing whatever is needed. In the office, she may help someone fill out paperwork for assistance with utilities, or teach someone how to create a budget, or simply direct people to other agencies that have the resources they need. If someone is looking for a parenting class, adoption services or drug and alcohol counseling, the staff at CSS can often steer them toward an agency that has the service.
“We do so much,” Smith said. “We’re a resource to get them to the resources that they need that are available in the community.”
Sometimes Smith’s duties as the AmeriCorps worker take her out of the office, to help at a food bank or the Salvation Army, for example.
Smith wrote on her blog about one night when she helped at the Hoisington Community Food Bank, and met a boy who loved peanut butter and jelly.
On a windy night last March, a little boy and his dad came in for food. She recalled that she was helping them to their car when the boy warned his father, “‘Be careful and don’t drop the grape jelly, because we won’t be able to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.’”
“As we got near their vehicle, however, the dad accidentally dropped the grape jelly and it broke into many pieces on the ground,” Smith wrote. “The little boy was devastated and started to cry. I told him I would go back in and ask the ladies for another jar of grape jelly. They did have another one and when I took the jelly out to the little boy he was so happy and he told his dad, ‘Now we can have peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches!’ I proceeded to pick up the glass jar of grape jelly.
“Every time I go to the cabinet to make a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich, I think of this little boy and his dad. It is those little things that we take for granted each and every day that can truly make a difference in our life and in the lives of others.”
Pattie McGurk at Catholic Social Service likens AmeriCorps to a homeland Peace Corps. In fact, the programs both started in the early 1960s. For the past three years, the Great Bend office of CSS has had one or two openings for an AmeriCorps worker. Currently, the office is taking applications for two positions that start Oct. 1 and continue through September of 2013. For 900 hours of service – about 20 hours a week – the worker will receive a $400 a month living allowance. If he or she completes the hours, the AmeriCorps worker can also receive a $2,775 education award – which may be used to go to school or paid on student loans.
The education award is as important as the living allowance to Smith, who returned to college in 2007 and eventually graduated from Fort Hays State University with a teaching degree. She earned her license in August, qualifying her to teach children in grades K-6.
“I don’t want to be 90 and paying my student loans,” said Smith, who is 56 years old.
When she does find a teaching job, she said her time spent as an AmeriCorps worker will help her in her career.
“I have learned new skills,” she said. “I’ve been able to work with people.”
She’s also gained new confidence, through her success with the program. “As long as I can come to work and have a job, I can hold my head high and make a difference,” Smith said.

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