Saturday, May 15, 2010

PathWays PA Celebrates AmeriCorps Week

PathWays PA Celebrates AmeriCorps Week and the 700 Million Hours AmeriCorps Members Have Spent Addressing Problems in Communities

AmeriCorps*VISTA members at PathWays PA, a non-profit organization that assists low-income families and individuals to gain self-sufficiency in the greater Philadelphia area, joined the fourth nationwide celebration of AmeriCorps Week, May 8-15, spotlighting the vital work done by AmeriCorps members in communities across the country since the national service program began sixteen years ago.

Since its inception in 1994, nearly 650,000 men and women have joined AmeriCorps, and they have committed more than 700 million hours to addressing real problems in communities -- from soaring dropout rates to unemployment and finding affordable housing.


At PathWays PA, AmeriCorps VISTAs spent the months leading up to AmeriCorps Week coordinating the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program in their local communities. This service assists low-income families and individuals to file their taxes and receive credits they are entitled to at no charge. Now that the tax season is complete, VISTAs are turning their attention to other projects.

One VISTA, Kelly Binder, has been compiling data from the various tax sites in order to evaluate the program’s success and show how it can extend its reach next year. “It’s exciting to see how much money our program returned to the community, mostly from the Earned Income Credit,” Binder says. “Our numbers improved from last year, and that shows that there really is a need for this service,” she adds. Last year PathWays PA prepared 1,005 returns. This year the total improved to more than 1,600 returns, bringing back $2,606,771 in refunds to the community.

Ryan Roderick, another PathWays PA VISTA, is preparing a guidebook for senior citizens that discusses the trials of aging and provides resources to help them navigate their finances. “There’s a lot of information out there geared towards younger age groups about the value of saving and asset building,” Roderick says, “But there aren’t many resources for seniors, especially as they face deteriorating health and financial insecurities.” Roderick has also worked to enhance the organization’s outreach by translating financial resource guides into Spanish.

Together with Kelly Binder, VISTA Anna Walker has spent her post-tax season working on PathWays PA’s healthcare sector projects. Most notably, Walker created a video collage to showcase the accomplishments of the Delaware County Healthcare Partnership, a conglomeration of organizations dedicated to providing career advancement in the healthcare field through training and resources. “I signed up to work on the project because I think it’s valuable for the partners and supporters involved in the Healthcare Partnership to hear the stories and celebrate the success of clients, employers, and teachers involved,” Walker says.

Other VISTA work includes outreach to the community about public benefits and financial education, which involves compiling information on the services and resources that are available to clients. “The resources are out there, but they’re scattered,” says Rachel Ludman, an AmeriCorps VISTA working on this project. “I’m creating a virtual library that puts all of them in one place and is accessible to both PathWays PA staff and members of the community,” Ludman adds. Ludman is also reaching out to the community through coordinating a grant that offers emergency rent and utility assistance to families in need.

AmeriCorps VISTAs at PathWays PA are dedicated to promoting the sustainability of their projects. Ludman created a manual to guide staff members on how to help community members access public benefits. Nicole Coia, another VISTA, designed presentations on money management for use by various programs at PathWays PA, including a youth employment program and an education savings program for low income students. “PathWays has accumulated an assortment of information on financial education over the years.” Coia says, “I’m hoping to organize it in to a more accessible, lasting format.”

PathWays PA also has VISTA members working on projects in Pittsburgh: two are serving at Just Harvest, an organization dedicated to ending hunger and poverty, and two are at Family Resources of PA, whose mission is to prevent and treat child abuse.  Other PathWays PA VISTA members serve at the Women's Resource Center in Wayne and at the PA CareerLink in Chester.

AmeriCorps works through existing organizations to help them expand their reach and better achieve their mission. Last year alone AmeriCorps members recruited 2.5 million community volunteers to serve alongside them and raised over $183 million in support of local service initiatives.

Approximately 2,900 AmeriCorps members are serving in Pennsylvania this year. Since 1994 more than 31,000 Pennsylvania residents have served more than 39 million hours. Interest in AmeriCorps is at an all time high, with applications to the program increasing threefold over the past year.

AmeriCorps members typically remain active in their communities when their term of service is complete. In addition to being counted on as volunteers, many pursue careers in nonprofit where they further the AmeriCorps mission to build resources in their communities and address difficult issues. Additionally, many AmeriCorps members go on to further their education. At the completion of their year of service, they are eligible to receive the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award of $5,350, which can be used to pay back student loans or cover future tuition costs.

--Nicole Coia

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