Three Oak Parkers discover the many benefits of community service

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

As Sarah Sadowski approached graduation from OPRF High School in the spring of 2011, she wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her life. She wasn't happy with any of the colleges she checked out, but didn't see any other real options. 

So, like many other young adults in her situation, she decided to apply to AmeriCorps, motivated partly by the positive experiences she had the previous two summers with the Appalachian Service Project which she participate in through St. Giles Parish.

Sam Mrkvicka graduated from OPRF in 2010 and was in his second year of college at Triton College when he applied to AmeriCorps — almost on a whim. 

"I wanted to take a break from school," he recalled, "and I wanted to experience a little bit of life."

Mandy Gawf, in contrast, knew what direction she wanted to go early on in life. In her teens, she was so bothered by homeless people in her small rural town in Oregon that she asked her parents if one of the people she had seen sleeping by the river could sleep in their spare bedroom. Her parents said no, but her concern for those living on the fringes of society remained strong. In college, she majored in both social work and philosophy, and in February of her senior year, she applied to AmeriCorps with a specific request to work at West Suburban PADS.

Manual labor and hurricane assistance

Sadowski applied to AmeriCorps in the spring of 2011 but wasn't notified until January of 2012. She then had only a month to prepare to leave Oak Park for 10 months and get out to the East Coast. 

The application process went a lot more quickly for Gawf who applied in February of 2013 and was hired by PADS three months later for a one-year commitment, funded by the Illinois Affordable Housing Support Project and then signed on for a second year after PADS received a grant for another year.

Sadowski enjoyed tools and knew how to use them, having worked on stage crew in high school, so she easily adapted to the manual labor she did with the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), a division of AmeriCorps. Her uniform consisted of steel-toed boots, khaki pants and a polo shirt.

Her team's first assignment was with the Delaware State Park system, where she painted buildings, shoveled ash out of fire pits, picked up trash, did landscaping and rehabbed a playground. Her second project was with Habitat for Humanity in Newburgh, New York, helping them build three homes. After that, the team was assigned to a YMCA camp in New Hampshire where they served as camp counselors and worked on maintenance.

The team's fourth and final project was neighborhood revitalization with Philly Rising in Philadelphia, but partway through that assignment, Sadowski's group was called away to work in New Jersey on the disaster left behind by Hurricane Sandy. There they assisted the National Guard and the Red Cross in housing and feeding over a thousand people.

Mrkvicka also participated in the NCCC, with assignments in Sacramento, San Diego, Idaho and Washington state.

Community liaison for the homeless

Instead of steel-toed boats and khakis, Gawf comes to work most days wearing casual business attire because her position at PADS. Whereas most of Sadowski's and Mrkvicka's work involved hard labor, Gawf's job as community liaison consists of building and maintaining relationships with churches and other organizations that support PADS, and also building the organization's infrastructure, such as internal systems for tracking contributions, so the benefits of her work can continue after her contract with PADS ends next year.

AmeriCorps is an umbrella organization coordinating the work of several programs. Sadowski's and Mrkvicka's NCCC stint mostly involved working directly with people in need, projects that would directly affect their well-being whereas Gawf's program falls under AmeriCorps VISTA, which focuses more on capacity building and community outreach rather that what she referred to as "direct work."

Teamwork

One of the most rewarding aspects of Sadowski's 10 months with AmeriCorps was the relationship she had with her nine other team members. "My team," she said, "was made up of a very diverse group of people. We had college graduates, recent high school graduates, and people who had dropped out of high school.

"The closest word to describe my relationship to my team would be family. We spent 10 months living together, working together, playing together, and on the weekends exploring together. We were very close. There are multiple people on my team that I don't think I would have even been friends with in real life, but because we did NCCC together, we now have a lifelong bond. I would say that I connected more with my fellow volunteers than the organizations and individuals who benefitted from my service."

Mrkvicka experienced the same kind of intense, intimate relationship with his group of eleven. Dinners were challenging, he said, because one member was a Muslim who didn't eat pork, another was a vegetarian, and two didn't eat fish. Their second deployment was in a wildlife sanctuary where for 11 weeks they lived in tents, spending their nights in government-issue sleeping bags. 

"The outdoor situation got to some of us," he acknowledged. "We worked side by side from dawn to dusk, so when the weekends came we often went our separate ways."

On the whole, though, the group's issues were mere mole hills, easily gotten over. Mrkvicka felt good about his contribution to the group's developing cohesion, having been assigned the role of peer mediator.

Unforgettable

Some of the people Sadowski served made a large impression on her. Her grandmother, Anna Sadowski, shared an email in which Sarah described eight of the "characters" she served at a shelter in the wake of Superstorm Sandy:

"Robbie was a homeless man who was super-nice and helpful. He would help us cart over food and blankets. With the bad economy, he lost his job and he's been living on the beach for the past four years. Every morning he would greet me with 'Good morning, Sunshine.'

"Rudie was a sweet old man. He'd always ask me to smile for him. When we were at the tent colony shelter, he told me he'd walk with me to the food tent in the snow 'cause he didn't want me walking alone. He was very appreciative of us.

"Teddy was a man in his 60s; he always wore a trench coat and a floppy hat. He was not very talkative, but once you got him started, he would talk for a solid 10 minutes. He'd always end his monologue with a 'th-thank you, thank you very much for your time.'"

Unlike the experience of Sadowski and Mrkvicka, Gawf lives alone and doesn't have team members to bond with. She and other VISTA volunteers in the area get together "every once in a while" with a VISTA leader, but it's her co-workers at PADS with whom she has formed supportive relationships.

"Coming out of college," she said, "you're excited to prove yourself. Here at PADS, I am treated like a regular staff member. I have been given real responsibility, like my supervisor saying, 'Yeah, you can do this on your own and I don't need to be there.' Confidence is probably the biggest thing I've gained during the past year. Taking on something I've never done before, completing it and saying, 'Yeah, that worked out well.'"

Sadowski's confidence also increased, as well as having time to discern what direction she wanted her life to go in the next few years. She is now a sophomore at Illinois Wesleyan, majoring in accounting. Her father, Jim Sadowski, said, "I think her AmeriCorps experience made her more comfortable with herself. I see how she acts with people. Sarah comes across as more mature than her classmates."

Mrkvicka said the AmeriCorps experience can have an "alternate reality" feel. His group would sometimes talk about living in an "AmeriBubble." But living in that counter culture, if you will, facilitated plenty of personal growth.

"I hadn't been so close to people of different backgrounds before," he explained. "I was faced with an opportunity to confront some of my issues. I got to see these people I worked with for better and for worse. I saw the full version of them, but on that last day, on graduation day — the last time I would see most of them — I realized that I loved these guys. Now I don't even remember what their flaws were."

Gawf's experience at West Suburban PADS has not only built character but also moved her along on the career path. 

"Just being more of a professional," she explained. "I've learned a lot from my supervisors about development and marketing than I ever expected to learn, which will be helpful professionally."

Two decades of helping

At a White House ceremony on Sept. 12 commemorating the 20th anniversary of signing the bill creating AmeriCorps, President Bill Clinton declared that creating the program was "was one of the most important things I ever had a role in in public service." In those 20 years, over 900,000 Americans have served their country as AmeriCorps members.

In his remarks following Mr. Clinton, President Obama focused not on what AmeriCorps members have done for America, but what the AmeriCorps experience has done for the members themselves. He talked about working together with a common purpose for something "bigger than ourselves," citing several of the first volunteers who are still working in public service 20 years later. He said being able to "nudge history forward a little bit" with patience and dedication empowers people who serve.

Lynda Schueler, executive director of West Suburban PADS, praises AmeriCorps members for what they have done for the organization she leads. She said the 43 AmeriCorps members who have worked with PADS over the last five years have allowed her organization to do much more with the funding dollars it receives.

For example, she said, "We received funding from the American Reinvest and Recovery Act of 2009 [the economic stimulus] to do rapid rehousing. We knew that the funding was going to be temporary. We wanted to maximize that grant, so we leveraged our AmeriCorps grant to have AmeriCorps members actually deliver the services, so we didn't have to use the grant money for that. It all went to the clients."

"It's been tremendous for us," she said. "The living allowance for the members is paid for by the AmeriCorps grant. If we had to replace those AmeriCorps members, it would probably cost us as an agency three times as much."

Summing up his AmeriCorps experience, Mrkvicka said, "I think service work is an important part of what makes a community work, and I think it's a great way to develop yourself. 

"In giving myself away, I got everything back." 

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