A school tragedy moved her to volunteer as a teen; now, it’s shaping her career as an adult
Growing up with AmeriCorps members as mentors inspired this Vermont native to do her own service year focused on building safe communities
I grew up in a small town in Vermont, and every stereotype you might think of probably holds true for my childhood—everyone knew each other, people were friendly, neighborhoods were safe, and schools were well-funded. I also had parents and friends who loved me. I knew even then that not everyone had it as great as I did, but problems seemed so distant and foreign to me that I never suspected how close to home they could be.
Another great thing about my town was a nonprofit called Essex CHIPS (Community Health Initiative Programs for Students) that had an awesome teen center I went to once a week and monthly “Breakfast Clubs” that any community member could attend to talk about local issues. Many times, these meetings were run by AmeriCorps members. They were always professional and were also fun and talked to us kids like our ideas actually mattered. CHIPS was so unlike a school structure of being constantly on the clock and being told what to do—at CHIPS, we weren’t limited by our age or experience, but instead supported with our ideas. I appreciated having AmeriCorps members take an interest in me and be my mentors, and I knew that was a special thing that not all young people experienced.
A week before my 13th birthday, a tragedy struck my community that would shape the rest of my life and the lives of others around me. A boy a year ahead of me in school named Ryan Halligan committed suicide after being the victim of cyberbullying. I didn’t know him well, but being a small school in a small town, I knew who he was, and knew the people implicated and affected by this tragic event. I was distraught—I could not comprehend how someone my age, who grew up in our town, could feel so hopeless that the only option out he saw was to end his life, and how others my age were the cause. I was devastated for him and for his family.
The AmeriCorps members and others at CHIPS challenged me to channel my feelings into a positive outcome. They asked me if I would join a task force led by Ryan’s dad and with representatives from the community that would address bullying in our schools. Though I was upset and overwhelmed, I knew that this was an opportunity to do something to make a difference, and so I stepped up, knowing the AmeriCorps members would help me along the way.
That was the start of my service journey. I worked on the task force, then on the teen center planning committee, and then on the board of directors. As years went on, with each new role and responsibility, I had the support of every AmeriCorps member that served at CHIPS. I couldn’t help but wonder if Ryan had mentors like I had, that made him feel valued like I felt. I worked as hard as I could alongside those AmeriCorps members to make the teen center a success so that every kid felt like he or she had somewhere to go when they had nowhere else to turn. As I learned more about other AmeriCorps programs and service years, I saw our missions as one in the same: everyone doing a service year—whether by working at teen centers or tutoring kids or providing resources for the homeless or responding after disasters—was working toward creating communities that take care of each other and make everyone feel valued. It could literally be life-saving.
I did my service year with AmeriCorps VISTA in a community center very different from the one in our small town. The community where I served in Washington, D.C., was under-resourced, with a high rate of violent crime. The majority of the kids in my program came from households living below the poverty line. Though very different than CHIPS, the underlying mission was the same—give every young person a place to feel safe, mentors to support them, and opportunities to do better for themselves and for others.
Every day during my service year, I tried to bring the same energy and care to my service that AmeriCorps members gave to me when I was young, and I learned so much from the young people I got to work with.
Now, I work at Service Year Alliance and our goal is to make a year of service a common opportunity for all young adults. I am proud that every day I still get to help others create communities where everyone, especially young people, feel safe, valued, and are given opportunities to show how amazing they can be.