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“I’m still serving”: LISC AmeriCorps Pivots to Take on a Crisis

The fundamental role of LISC AmeriCorps members is to serve essential community needs. With the onslaught of the coronavirus epidemic, our members are adapting and devising creative new ways to help the rural and urban residents they work with handle the seismic social, economic and public health shocks of the crisis.

(Top photo: Americorps members in Jackson, MS in 2019; Member Cynthia Renteria is third from left.)

In February, Candace List, 64, hit the ground running as a newly minted LISC AmeriCorps member. Serving in Kalamazoo, Michigan’s Eastside neighborhood, where she has lived since marrying 45 years ago, List began organizing a monthly tea for isolated seniors and mobilizing volunteers to help with home repair for residents.

We all know what happened next.

Candace List

When the coronavirus began making inroads into Michigan in March, the governor closed schools and issued a stay-at-home order. The Eastside’s streets went eerily still. “Everybody’s wearing masks and gloves. It’s very unnerving, culture-jarring,” says Pat Taylor, executive director of the organization where List is serving, the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association (KENA). In response to this emergency, Taylor and List have shifted their immediate focus from bringing folks together (no more meetings or celebrations for now) to keeping vulnerable Eastside families fed. They’re distributing food from KENA’s parking lot.

“Our program is inherently designed to meet basic community needs. I think of Mr. Rogers: ‘Look for the helpers.’ We’re the helpers.”
— Stacey Grant, LISC AmeriCorps Director

Scores of LISC AmeriCorps members like List are serving in the field today. They work with LISC’s local partner organizations on everything from affordable housing development to financial coaching, part of a nationwide service network. Already engaged on the ground and committed to service, these members are an invaluable resource in city neighborhoods and rural areas whose people are now struggling with the physical, social, and economic shocks brought on by pandemic. “Our program is inherently designed to meet basic community needs,” says Stacey Grant, who heads LISC AmeriCorps. “I think of Mr. Rogers: ‘Look for the helpers.’ We’re the helpers.”

Here’s what helping looks like in the era of strict social distancing: A member in Toledo, placed with a healthcare clinic, is checking the status of local food pantries and switching to teleservice focused on healthy prevention practices. In Los Angeles, one member can’t meet with young people living in affordable housing right now, but she can and does “virtually engage” them and plan future activities. Another member, serving with an environmental justice organization in Detroit, continues to build relationships with local groups through remote contacts, and is helping revamp the nonprofit’s website to be a more accessible educational tool for the public.

Under the banner #Imstillserving, in recent weeks LISC has been encouraging service members and their host organizations to adapt their work so they continue to meet urgent community needs, members can still earn a modest stipend and gain invaluable experience—and everyone stays safe.

Where the need is now

In Kalamazoo’s Eastside neighborhood, food security is a particular worry, says Taylor. There are many large families whose kids usually get breakfast and lunch at school. People without a working car have to take the bus or walk to the grocery store. “The seniors are terrified,” adds List. “They’re being told to stock up and they go to the store and find there’s no food. Everybody jokes about the lack of toilet paper. Well, I’ve been to the store and they’ve had no eggs, no milk, no butter, no bread.”

KENA’s building, not conducive to social distancing, is essentially closed. So three days a week List is outdoors in the parking lot helping to coordinate the distribution of school lunches provided by the local school district and boxes of groceries—oatmeal, frozen vegetables, and the like—dropped off by the charity Loaves and Fishes. Each child can pick up lunch (on Fridays, they get enough to last the weekend), but the groceries go fast, so List tries to direct the neediest families there first—"you know, where it’s obvious grandma’s got six grandkids that she’s responsible for. All the kids are carrying a bag. It really brings out the poverty in the area.

AmeriCorps member Cynthia Renteria works with Ivey Ranch Park Association in Oceanside, CA and has pivoted her service to address the Covid-19 crisis.
AmeriCorps member Cynthia Renteria works with Ivey Ranch Park Association in Oceanside, CA and has pivoted her service to address the Covid-19 crisis.

Cynthia Renteria of Oceanside, CA, graduated from college in 2017 and is now in her second ten-month AmeriCorps service term with the local Ivey Ranch Park Association. The nonprofit’s sprawling complex normally bustles with activity; Ivey Park uses horses for therapy and teaching, runs an on-site day care specially designed for children and teens with disabilities, and provides in-home respite care for special-needs individuals. Renteria has been responsible for recruiting and organizing hundreds of volunteers (they gave 16,000 hours last year), as well as playing a role as the day care’s lead teacher.

But with most of the park’s programming on hiatus, staff temporarily reduced, and volunteer presence sharply curtailed, she’s now focused on keeping the day care open by serving hands-on in the classroom. Some parents, even if they’re working from home, absolutely rely on the care for children who require intensive supervision. “I feel that if we were closed, it definitely would put these parents out of work,” says Renteria. “That’s ten extra parents that still have jobs.”

Capacity for nonprofits that are hurting

Like small businesses across the country, nonprofits are making do in the pandemic crisis, suffering from an extreme drop-off in revenue, and worrying about the future. Kalamazoo’s KENA can’t bring in vital funds by renting its popular community space, the only place in the neighborhood to gather for wedding parties and baby showers. Ivey Ranch’s revenue-producing riding lessons and therapeutic services are at a standstill, yet the park still has to maintain 22 horses who need exercise and whose feed alone costs $4,000 a month. “Our income is just absolutely minimalist and it’s scary,” says Ivey Park executive director Tonya Danielly. “I’m literally sitting here doing bills right now and thinking, how is this going to work?”

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AmeriCorps members can’t solve this problem, that’s for sure, but with their service subsidized by the federal government, they can provide extra capacity in harrowing circumstances. Says Danielly, “Cynthia [Renteria] is filling in gaps and stepping up—everything from grocery shopping to schedule coordinating to phone calls to you name it. She is absolutely a blessing to be able to hand things to.”

AmeriCorps members themselves are also vulnerable in the coronavirus maelstrom. The overwhelming majority of LISC members serve in their own communities. Many hope their service will be a springboard to a career working for equity and livability in their hometowns. But the service doesn’t qualify them for unemployment benefits, and this is no time to look for a job. That’s one reason LISC is reaching out to help members continue to serve in modified but critical roles. For AmeriCorps members, being able to earn the program’s $6,095 education award will help them avoid crippling student loan debt.

Meantime, like most Americans, LISC AmeriCorps members are looking for ways to help through the crisis and set the stage for recovery. Kalamazoo’s Candace List asks families picking up food what they need to get by and directs them to local resources, but also makes sure they know KENA will be seeking volunteers before too long. Says KENA’s director Taylor, “She’s very important. Without her assistance it would be hard to distribute this food. And she can have conversations with the residents to find out information and feedback that might come in handy when this craziness is over with.”

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