Some people spend a lifetime trying to find themselves. As for me, I was lucky enough to be an AmeriCorps member. I completed two full-time terms at a nonprofit called YouthBuild in Breathitt County, which is a comprehensive youth service program that rebuilds lives and communities through education, leadership training and job skills.
YouthBuild engages and empowers out-of-work and out-of-school young people ages 16-24 and gives them the tools to become a contributing member of their community. As an alumnus of the program myself, I felt empowered to continue in the YouthBuild movement.
My largest contribution was in the classroom. With YouthBuild serving youth who have primarily dropped out of high school, their educational needs were extremely diverse. Each semester I would tutor in small groups and one on one with the three or four students who needed the most individualized attention. Most often these were students who read below a sixth-grade level and still counted with their fingers. Many of them developed coping mechanisms to hide or ignore these challenges, and it took a long time to overcome them. But we took it one day and one lesson at a time and many of them were eventually able to get their GED.
This period also marked the renaissance of my life. While I was a full-time AmeriCorps member, I also attended my local community college and was very active in student government and other campus clubs and programs. Working full-time, going to school full-time and doing all these extracurricular activities continuously pushed my comfort zone and not only developed me horizontally (gaining new skills, knowledge and new experiences) but vertically (expanding my capacity, creativity and productivity). I was living, learning and loving every moment of it. I never thought about anything I did like it was work. I woke up each morning with purpose.
Being an AmeriCorps member changed my life. Not only was I growing and providing a valuable service to my community but it also gave me the resources I needed to thrive. I'm from a very poor background. The only time we had more than the bare necessities was after tax time. For me, not working and not having a steady source of income during college wasn't an option. I had to work. I had bills to pay. It was tight, but I was able to make it through because of the small living allowance that was given through YouthBuild.
It was some of the hardest and most rewarding years of my life. My most cherished memory of my experiences was that I was able to help my childhood best friend’s brother get his GED, though my friend himself never made it. He overdosed shortly after dropping out of high school. It is a well-known fact that no family is untouched in Southeastern Kentucky from drug abuse. It’s a silent burden we all carry.
But AmeriCorps is the gift that keeps on giving.
After completing my terms, I was able to graduate from Hazard Community and Technical College and then from the University of Kentucky. The Segal AmeriCorps Education Award made that economically possible for me. And now, it is a great honor to announce that in the fall I am working toward obtaining my master’s in public policy.
Service isn't just a period of my life. It is my life. The systematic oppression of the poor and people of color is real, and I will do everything in my power to keep people from experiencing the things I and others have gone through.
I know my life mission. But have you found yours?
I found myself through my service years with YouthBuild, and I want others to have the opportunity to find theirs through service as well. That is why I encourage Congressman Hal Rogers and Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell to reject any budget plan that cuts national service.
Adam Strong of Vancleve is an AmeriCorps alumni who served with YouthBuild.