AmeriCorps volunteers aiding local non-profits
by Cris Ritchie
HAZARD – Nonprofit organizations in Perry County are benefiting this year from the service of three young volunteers who through placement with the federal AmeriCorps program are learning firsthand the value of community service in Appalachia.
Allison Tse took a position as an AmeriCorps VITSA in May with the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky in Chavies, and though she knew little about the region or Kentucky in general, she had an interest in community engagement and service that blossomed during her time as a student at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, her home state. So, when a friend suggested that she look into AmeriCorps, a federal program formed under President Bill Clinton that focuses on civic engagement, she filled out an application and eventually ended up in Chavies.
“I didn’t know anything (about the area),” she said, “and didn’t’ really do a lot of research. I just came down, and it worked out.”
The Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky is a philanthropic organization that, in part, seeks to build local capacity, and Tse’s role there for a year will lie mostly with outreach to other counties. The foundation itself is looking to encourage other counties to look into the benefits of community foundations, particularly in Knott and Letcher counties. Executive Director Gerry Roll noted that Tse is playing an important role for the foundation in that manner.
“It’s going really well,” Roll said, adding that Tse is providing valuable support in the foundations’ mission to help build up communities in Eastern Kentucky. “We have great leadership in surrounding counties, and people who want to see community foundations in their counties. Allison is here to just provide the back-up and support to do that.”
Karyn Knecht began her role with the Pathfinders of Perry County only recently, but board member Jenny Williams noted her work so far has already been a benefit to the group. As a VISTA, Knecht is working on projects ranging from grant writing to helping organize events like the upcoming Second Sunday to help promote healthy activities in the community.
“If Karyn weren’t here to do it, it wouldn’t get done,” Williams said. “All of us here involved with Pathfinders have full time jobs. We’re all really busy doing a number of things, and if Karyn wasn’t here to sort of do the nuts-and-bolts organizing, getting involved in the community and reaching out to the community, then it wouldn’t get done.”
An Indiana native who grew up in Murfreesboro, Tn., Knecht recently graduated from the University of Notre Dame, after which she began looking for service programs. She had previously completed a summer term with AmeriCorps, but wanted to try something longer than a two-month stint.
“I found out about the VISTA program, which I thought would be a really good professional development opportunity for me, learning grant writing skills and community development,” she said.
Knecht is actually the Pathfinders’ second VISTA. Krystle Chipman served for two years with the program before leaving earlier this year, though not before helping to secure some grants for local use. Knecht will be helping implement those grants, and also working to secure some additional funding as well. She is also helping run the Pathfinders Kids program, and accompanies the groups members on hikes and other activities.
Part of the Pathfinder’s mission is to promote a healthier community, Williams noted, who herself is also interested in promoting tourism in the region and promoting Eastern Kentucky in general. Attracting young volunteers like Knecht is one way to do that, and she noted that there is already a several young community leaders in Perry County who came to the region as volunteers, and later decided to stay.
“I am firmly convinced the only way to bring this region back is to attract young, well-educated people who want to come and live here because it’s a good place to live,” she said.
The Housing Development Alliance in Perry County is a non-profit group that helps low-income families procure affordable housing and obtain needed repairs to their homes in Perry and other counties. A graduate of the University of North Carolina, Kathryn Beach came to the Housing Development Alliance (HDA) in August not as a VISTA, but she is an AmeriCorps volunteer. The main difference between her work and that of a VISTA is that Beach can do direct service, noted Chris Doll, Assistant Director at the HDA.
“The basic thing is called housing counseling,” Doll explained. “She is going to help the people we work with become eligible for our services.”
Beach is working directly with the organization’s clients to help them obtain services, and she’ll do a number of things during her time as a volunteer, including development of a curriculum for clients once they purchase a home through the HDA, and how they can begin to save to obtain needed items once they move into a house, such as appliances or furniture.
Beach noted that after graduating from UNC, she wasn’t sure what she was going to do next. She had previously been to the region as a volunteer with the Appalachian Service Project, and volunteering with AmeriCorps seemed like a good idea and an opportunity to help others.
“I just want to work with housing,” she said, “just helping people get into safe and affordable housing.”
Though these three volunteers are helping to build the local community in Perry County, perhaps just as importantly, while they may not ultimately stay here, they are experiencing Appalachia. And as young, college educated people they can show that this region is attractive to others like them, noted Gerry Roll.
“These are young people who really want to come to a good rural community and do meaningful work and contributory work,” Roll said. “They really want to be a part of the community. They aren’t here to be from away, they want to be with us, be a part of the community we are and learn from us.”
Whether they stay or go, Roll added, they are taking a part of the region with them in terms of their experiences, and that could be a valuable asset to the region as these young people go elsewhere and talk about their experiences working in the region.
“We’re creating those lasting relationships that are going to spread the word about what’s possible in Eastern Kentucky,” Roll said, “and not what’s wrong with Eastern Kentucky.”
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