Archive for Saturday, August 23, 2014

United Way AmeriCorps member helps at-risk youths become self sufficient

August 23, 2014

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About this story

Micki Chestnut is communications director for the United Way of Douglas County, which provides occasional features spotlighting local volunteers and charities supported by the United Way.

Fresh out of Kansas University, armed with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, Liz Ramirez was ready to take on the world. She just wasn’t sure in which direction to charge. Should she go to grad school? What would she study? Should she strike out to find adventure in a brand new place?

As she contemplated her next step, the perfect solution came to her: Become an AmeriCorps member working with at-risk youth served by Van Go, a Lawrence arts-based job training program where Ramirez had been a long-time volunteer.

“It was my dream job, for that in-between phase of my life,” said Ramirez.

AmeriCorps, a program of the Corporation for National & Community Service, is similar to the Peace Corps, but members serve in the United States instead of overseas. In the 2013-2014 service year, Ramirez was one of 16 AmeriCorps members selected by the United Way of Douglas County to serve under its health community outcome goal, charged with helping individuals achieve and maintain health.

Ramirez logged 1,757 service hours helping the 14 to 21 year olds in Van Go’s JAMS and The Arts Train programs develop healthy lifestyle habits. She challenged the youth to try healthy new foods, such as Greek yogurt, even though they were initially freaked out by the thought of eating yogurt teeming with probiotics. She showed them how to plan and prepare healthy meals on a budget, such as the quiche made in portabella mushroom caps, which they all cooked together. She brought in experts to talk about issues including addiction and mental health.

Ramirez loved her experience as a United Way AmeriCorps member so much, she applied for a second year of service. During the 2014-2015 service year, she will serve under United Way’s self sufficiency community impact goal, helping the young people served by Van Go develop job and employment skills.

“I will meet with them one on one, doing case management and job coaching, to help them transition to successful employment in the future,” she said.

Kristen Malloy, Van Go’s director of programs, is thrilled to have Ramirez back. This will mark the fifth year Van Go has served as a host site for a United Way AmeriCorps member.

“The strength of our programming is the individualized approach we provide the youth we serve, and having an AmeriCorps member provide direct service has helped us strengthen that approach,” said Malloy. “AmeriCorps members are innovative and come up with new ways to expand the programming we do. They bring a new set of eyes, a fresh perspective and new energy.”

Just as Ramirez suspected it would, her service at Van Go has helped her decide what it is she wants to do with her life: Exactly what she’s doing as an AmeriCorps member.

“I really love Van Go, and I believe in our mission. Now I have an interest in education and social work,” Ramirez shared. “I enjoy helping people and helping them achieve their goals. Ideally, I would like to do that.”

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