Celebration planned for Americorps’ 20th anniversary

By By Anna Patrick
Staff writer
CHRIS DORST | Gazette
Nadir Mirza talks with Army veteran Chet Howerton at the Roark-Sullivan Lifeway Center in Charleston on Friday. Mirza is an AmeriCorps alumnus and uses the skills he learned with AmeriCorps in his position as a program director at Roark-Sullivan.

Jean Srodes envisioned a relaxing retirement. She saw herself curled up on her couch, popcorn in hand, catching up on movies she had missed during her busy career as a flight attendant. But the allure of retirement quickly wore off, and Srodes traded in her quiet time for early-morning homework sessions and after-school programs helping at-risk students in Pocahontas County.

Srodes is an AmeriCorps volunteer. More than 700 people like her from across the nation come to Charleston every year to complete an oath of service vowing to “get things done for America” as they become AmeriCorps volunteers.

This year’s swearing-in ceremony September 12 will mark the 20th anniversary for the AmeriCorps program. To honor the nearly 1 million former AmeriCorps members that have served across the country, all West Virgina alumni are invited and encouraged to attend the day-long celebration at the state Capitol.

“We’re having a big celebration in Charleston to kick it off. All branches of national service, alumni and community partners are invited to join together in celebrating 20 years of serving America through AmeriCorps,” said Dana Myslinsky, communications coordinator at Volunteer West Virginia.

To commemorate two decades of service, the day will begin with a clean-up on Charleston’s West Side, held in support of the 9/11 National Day of Service as well as the third annual Governor’s Day to Serve. Participants will meet at Emmanuel Baptist Church on Washington Street at 9:30 a.m.

A picnic luncheon will follow at noon at the Capitol Complex. The day will conclude with a swearing-in ceremony at 2 p.m., similar to the first AmeriCorps swearing-in ceremony held in Washington, D.C., as new members across the country simultaneously recite the program’s Oath of Service.

“The celebration will be an opportunity to celebrate the legacy and camaraderie of National Service in West Virginia,” Myslinsky said. “The volunteers give a year of their life to their communities, and it’s a good opportunity for us to celebrate their service and be thankful.”

Currently, 13 AmeriCorps programs are serving more than 45 West Virginia counties. The programs range from Energy Express, a summer reading and nutrition program for kids, to the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area, an effort to integrate central Appalachian forest history, culture and products to promote rural community development.

In 2012 Srodes became an intervention mentor for an AmeriCorps program serving seven counties in West Virginia. She was assigned 28 high-risk students at Marlinton Middle School.

Srodes students face a variety of challenges which greatly increase their likelihood of dropping out of school. Srodes said it took her some time to fully grasp her students’ situation.

“It was kind of a reality check. I knew that the area was economically poor. Once I got into it, I realized it was much more complex than that. My children’s problems are really the problems their parents are putting on them.”

Originally tasked with pulling her students out of their elective classes for one-on-one mentoring sessions, Srodes found that the students’ time away from the classroom was hurting them more than the sessions were helping. “I just thought it was not really serving the students to take them out of classes,” she said.

So instead, Srodes developed an early-morning program called “Hot Chocolate and Homework” that students could attend during the school’s breakfast time, before school started. Every morning, Srodes would be waiting on the students with fresh hot chocolate, willing to listen or help in any way she could. During the day, Srodes joins her students in the classroom to assist them.

Srodes also developed several after-school programs. On various days, she and her students will walk to the animal shelter in town to play with the dogs and cats. She started a middle school golf club. She organized a way for her students to get involved with the local radio station and helped them attend a week-long songwriting program. She and some students even made fleece-tie blankets and donated them to the local nursing home.

As she prepares to begin her third year mentoring, Srodes said, “I feel liked I just started this mission. I’ve got a lot of kids that trust me. I’m not leaving them.”

Nadir Mirza volunteered with an AmeriCorps program at West Virginia State University for three years.

“The school was having a bad problem with losing freshmen,” Mirza said. “We set up an early alert system in the database so if students missed assignments or did poorly we would call them.”

For two years, Mirza helped students on academic probation to improve their academic performance through forms of tutoring and counseling.

“We got to help so many people,” he said. “The peer-to-peer connection helped the students feel that they weren’t just a number.”

Mirza said he applies the skills gained from his AmeriCorps experience daily in his current role as a program coordinator for veterans programs and services at Roark-Sullivan Lifeway Center in Charleston.

He said, “We offer case management and financial assistance for veterans struggling with homelessness and operate two homeless shelters specifically for veterans.

“When I was working with AmeriCorps, I learned different styles of leadership. It’s given me a lot of confidence in myself.”

When asked if he would be attending Americorps’ 20th anniversary celebration, without hesitation Mirza answered, “Yes.”

To learn more about AmeriCorps’ 20th anniversary and to sign up for the city cleanup, visit www.volunteerwv.org and “West Virginia AmeriCorps Alums” on Facebook.

Reach Anna Patrick at anna.patrick@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.

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