This week is the 5th annual AmeriCorps Week – a celebration of AmeriCorps service from coast to coast. AmeriCorps, which was launched in 1993, has more than 700,000 members and alumni in this country. This is their week to take stock in the impact of volunteering and encourage others to serve.
In honor of AmeriCorps week, Community Service Coordinator at AmeriCorps VISTA, Jennifer Turner, took the time to tell Repair the World about her lifelong commitment to service, how AmeriCorps changes lives and why tikkun olam is a defining part of her Jewish identity.
What is your background with service prior to coming to this job?
From rallying the neighborhood kids to fight for animal rights in second grade, to organizing Amnesty International writing campaigns in high school, service and social justice have long been fundamental parts of my life. Later in college I was actively involved in service through my Hillel and sorority, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority. Most recently, I was a long term adult literacy tutor.
How did you first get involved with AmeriCorps?
After graduating from the University of Memphis in 2004, I had several different jobs, but none left me feeling fulfilled. I started looking into joining the Peace Corps, but was a little hesitant about joining when there are so many communities here in the US that could also benefit from dedicated service. Following the election of President Obama, I really felt the call to service and decided to become an AmeriCorps VISTA member in 2009. I served my first VISTA term in the Carmelitos Public Housing Community in Long Beach, California. I am currently finishing my second VISTA term at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. I will be serving my third and final VISTA term, continuing at UB, starting in July.
What was it about AmeriCorps’ work that spoke to you so deeply?
Part of the AmeriCorps mission is getting things done for America. We complain about poverty, crime and injustice, but how many of us are actually willing to stop complaining and become part of the solution? AmeriCorps members play an active part in creating solutions – from AmeriCorps NCCC members cleaning up disaster areas, to AmeriCorps state and national members tutoring low-income youth in inner-city Pittsburgh, to VISTA members setting up volunteer programs to engage college students. AmeriCorps members serve their communities and country and making the world a better place for their fellow Americans.
Another aspect of AmeriCorps that really speaks to me is that members truly become a part of the communities they serve. Last year, I lived in the housing community I was serving, and this year I live on campus at the University of Bridgeport. Part of the VISTA mission is learning how to eliminate poverty by actually living in poverty. Our living stipends amount to 105% of the poverty level of the communities where we serve. All of this amounts to AmeriCorps being much more than a job, but it actually becomes a life experience. As someone with a very suburban background, living and serving in a low-income housing community gave me a multitude of life changing and eye-opening experiences I would have otherwise never had. I hear so many AmeriCorps members say how their service years completely changed them and changed their world view, allowing them to have more compassion, work harder and be more dedicated to serving.
Tell me more about AmeriCorps week. What’s already been happening / what’s in the pipeline for the week?
AmeriCorps Week provides the perfect opportunity for AmeriCorps members, alums, grantees, program partners, and friends to demonstrate AmeriCorps’ impact on critical issues, bring more Americans into service, and thank the community partners who make AmeriCorps possible. AmeriCorps members and alums across the country hold events and service projects that shine the spotlight on AmeriCorps’ national impact, and encourage others to get involved. Here in Connecticut, we kicked off AmeriCorps week with 250 members and friends attending a local baseball game. There are also several service projects going on throughout the week.
In your opinion, how healthy/robust is the notion of service in American life right now?
I am serving my AmeriCorps VISTA year as the Community Service Coordinator for the University of Bridgeport. Like most Americans, UB students are eager to serve their community. People are striving to live a life of purpose and for many that is shown through their service. This past March, I was so privileged to accompany nine University of Bridgeport students to Louisiana for our Alternative Spring Break. While in Louisiana, our group connected with hundreds of other volunteers many who were college students and young adults on service weeks. One of the things that has most excited me about serving on a college campus is how eager young people are to serve.
Next year, UB will have a special common interest community specifically for students interested in community service, social justice and civic engagement and the response to live on the floor has been great. We have had great participation at all of our service projects this year. These students are just a reflection that more and more people are feeling the need to improve their communities. I think more and more Americans are starting to realize that rugged individualism doesn’t work and that we have to take more communal responsibility for our neighbors, friends and fellow Americans. We have a civic duty to improve the lives around us.
Do you personally connect the work you do with your spirituality/Jewish heritage?
For me Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, is how I directly express my Judaism. Service is how we bring light and justice into the world, something that we as Jews have an obligation to do. The idea is that we have an obligation to help our fellow man, to make the world a better place and that is essentially how G-d manifests Himself here on earth. Tikkun Olam is more than simply performing community service, it is the idea that by serving each other, we are actually repairing what is wrong in the world and making things just a little be better and that if we all work together in repairing the world we might one day achieve a truly perfected world. I have long held to this belief, the idea that the world is one community and that we are in fact our brother’s keeper.
What is the best way for people to get involved with AmeriCorps Week and AmeriCorps in general?
Information about AmeriCorps can be found at our website. For information on AmeriCorps week events, check out this site or our Facebook page.