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Volunteers make city better place to live

Earlier this month, Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax joined mayors nationwide to recognize the national service of AmeriCorps and Senior Corps members.

“National service is a vital resource for our city,” said Mayor Truax. “AmeriCorps members and Senior Corps volunteers make our cities better places to live.”

AmeriCorps members can serve one to two years. Terms start in September and finish at the end of July.

More than 100 AmeriCorps members and Senior Corps volunteers have served in Forest Grove over the years, Truax said. Here is the current crop.

MatthewsCaitlin Matthews

Caitlin Matthews, 29, left her teaching job in Portland Public Schools to work with the nonprofit Adelante Mujeres through AmeriCorps.

Matthews develops and teaches nutrition and agriculture classes, coordinates volunteers, maintains a demonstration plot at the Forest Grove community gardens, helps Adelante farmers distribute produce and runs the Market Sprouts Kids Club at the Forest Grove Farmers Market.

Matthews’ position centers on “empowering people to grow their own food at whatever scale and in a way that takes better care of the Earth,” she said, as well as encouraging “people to make consumer choices that promote personal and physical health.”

Matthews said she’s passionate about bringing “low-income minorities greater access to fresh, local produce.”

That hasn’t been easy, Matthews said. “Trying to meet that need and increase local food access for the community is really hard.”

It’s this challenge that inspired Matthews’ decision to attend graduate school in Boston, where she’ll study in an agriculture, food and environment program as well as an urban and environmental policy and planning program.

Through her work, Matthews wants to encourage support of small and mid-sized family farms. “Our food system depends on it,” she said. She also hopes to reinforce the power of community by urging people to “work together to accomplish our food system goals. We can accomplish a lot more with a coordinated effort.”

WalshSamantha Walsh

Samantha Walsh commutes from Salem to Fern Hill Elementary School daily to recruit and organize volunteers, tutor kids in after-school programs and run a cultural diversity club.

“I want to improve [test] scores, but also improve lives,” Walsh said of her “emotionally draining but equally rewarding” work.

Walsh decided to join AmeriCorps after graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in political science. When her service is up in July, she plans to travel in Europe for a year with her fiancé, who recently opened a brewery in Salem.

“I grew up in a community-oriented household and I want to pursue community service,” said Walsh, 23. “I don’t need a lot of money as long as I am doing something like this, where every day I’m proud to do what I’m doing and am making a difference.”

VincentAshley Vincent

After graduating from college in 2009 in Maryland, Ashley Vincent worked in restaurants, a portrait studio and a call center.

So when Vincent was in search of a job that was enriching and outside her comfort zone, she found herself accepting an AmeriCorps position at the Forest Grove Community School. There, she tutors kids who are struggling with math and reading. She also works with volunteers and tries to get parents involved.

Working with kids has simultaneously brought Vincent her greatest challenges and rewards.

“It’s fun to get to know the kids and find what works for them,” she said. “The experience with every student is different.”

While living in Forest Grove — which she loves because it reminds her of the small town in Delaware where she grew up and there are “so many cool things within walking distance” — she’s taught herself to knit and has tried to carve out time for writing and arts and crafts.

While working with AmeriCorps, Vincent said she’s learned to manage others and is more confident in herself.

SigmanShayna Sigman

At Tom McCall Upper Elementary School, Shayna Sigman works with reading fluency groups, an outdoor survival club, an arts and crafts club and an English fluency club. She also interfaces with the parent club, which distributes information about resources, grading and standards.

Sigman, who founded the outdoor survival club, graduated from Willamette University in Salem.

“Some kids who struggle academically excel with these hands-on activities,” said Sigman, who has depended on her undergraduate research to engage and motivate students. “Seeing they have skills is good for them, especially when school isn’t usually a place they excel,” she said.

The experience, which has been at times overwhelming but rewarding overall, has helped Sigman decide to pursue social work. When her AmeriCorps term is up she’ll attend Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

“I was really surprised about the impact relationships have on students and their education — not just drilling times tables into them, but finding ways they can enjoy their education and get them the resources they need so they can receive the best education possible,” Sigman said.

Smetana Amy Smetana

Pacific University students are leaving campus to mentor local youth, thanks to Pump it Up, a mentoring program developed by AmeriCorps member Amy Smetana.

She trains Pacific students in the nuances of mentoring young people in the Forest Grove and Hillsboro school districts. They continue to meet throughout the year, sharing experiences and developing skills.

AmeriCorps provides “great opportunities to explore, give back and gain experience for long-term goals,” Smetana said.

Living in Forest Grove has been different from her time growing up in Illinois and going to school in Virginia, but Smetana likes the way people here seem more connected with nature and their communities.

At first Smetana found it challenging to develop meaningful relationships with schools. But planning the Pump it Up program from the ground up gave her the chance to create a lasting legacy for western Washington County schools, as she plans to have a future AmeriCorps member take it over.

“Pacific students are really taking the time to care about students in the area,” said Smetana, who recalled the Thanksgiving party mentors threw for their mentees with their own money last semester before taking a short winter break hiatus.

Smetana plans to continue working in the nonprofit sector and for social justice causes.

“Everyone deserves the chance to meet goals and live healthy lives,” Smetana said. “Kids need to feel like important members of the community. I want to work with those who haven’t been given the opportunity to express themselves fully.”

AbadJessica Abad

While Jessica Abad was living in Senegal helping rural villagers as part of her two-year service term in the Peace Corps, she was also fostering a curiosity about the inner workings of food systems.

“It was the first time I had been around people in need of food,” Abad said. “When we were telling people to get educated and help their country, I thought about coming back to America and the need we have here. I knew nothing about food systems in America.”

So Abad returned to the states and became an AmeriCorps RARE (Resource Assistance for Rural Environments) member. She now works through the Oregon Food Bank, conducting a food assessment of rural western Washington County.

In the last six-and-a-half months, Abad has been learning as much as possible about how food is grown, distributed, processed, transported and consumed in the area.

“Getting started was my greatest challenge,” Abad said. “I had to start the process without a lot of direction. My project is really what I make of it.”

Abad started by getting her name to as many community organizations and food-related groups as possible. She traveled around Forest Grove, Banks, Gaston and North Plains, chatting with volunteers at local food pantries, members of the Dairy Creek Community Food Web, Adelante Mujeres, farmers market organizers, farmers and city leaders, trying to discern their goals and challenges.

Establishing a year-round farmers market, supporting young and new local farmers, feeding hungry people and securing more community garden space were among the priorities identified at the Forest Grove community food meeting last month.

At the North Plains meeting, attendees decided they wanted to hold food and gardening classes, establish more community gardens and find ways to feed the hungry. Gardening classes this month at the North Plains community garden are a direct result of the gathering.

In Gaston, residents wanted to host community meals to foster connections between neighbors as well as find ways to feed the hungry. A meeting in Banks took place Monday.

After her time in AmeriCorps, “I now am a lot more comfortable approaching people, I know where to access food for those in need as well as educational resources,” Abad said. “The interconnecting of resources is really important and so is pooling efforts for a common goal.”

LindseyMalia Lindsey

Malia Lindsey works as a literacy tutor for ninth-graders at Forest Grove High School, leading independent novel reading workshops and working through comprehension problems.

Through her work, Lindsey has realized a language barrier is still a significant problem for many students. “A lot of problems are race- and class-related,” she said. “Certain privileges really boost certain students and [for] those who lack those privileges, it doesn’t help them.”

Lindsey’s fondest memories “have a lot to do with seeing kids improve and seeing them want to come to school,” she said. “For many of them, their attendance improves because they have a staff-student relationship. They build trust with an adult associated with school. They see we are not the enemy; we are here to help you succeed.”

Lindsey has learned about the education system by observing qualified teachers. The experience has made her even more confident that she wants to teach high school. Next up, she’s moving to South Korea to teach English for a year.

HorresValerie Horres

For Valerie Horres, working at Echo Shaw Elementary School brings setbacks every day. But she thinks she’s taking more steps forward than backward.

“Every day I’m surprised to find the capacity kids have to learn,” Horres said. “They are so funny and so imaginative.”

Horres tutors kids, kindergarteners through fourth grade, in literacy. “Patience is mandatory,” she said. “But I think when you have patience they blossom.”

The one-on-one tutoring has given Horres an opportunity to form relationships with her students, she said, which makes for an effective learning environment.

When Horres hurt her back and was out of school for a few days, she was touched that her students made her cards.

Although she’s considering signing up for another year, Horres’ ultimate goal is to go into book editing.

CarsonKrissi Carson

Krissi Carson has a master’s degree but no work experience. So she decided to join AmeriCorps, which landed her at Joseph Gale Elementary School, where she tutors students and runs the photo, crochet and art clubs.

Carson was looking for an experience that would challenge her and allow her to make use of current skills and creativity.

With no previous teaching experience, it took Carson about five months to feel comfortable in her position, she estimated.

But after learning “student dynamics” and getting the hang of the after-school programs, Carson is hooked.

“I love the kids,” Carson said. “It’s been valuable being in AmeriCorps for two years because I can go back this year and redo things that didn’t work out the first time.”

Carson secured most of the funding and gathered the supplies for the after-school clubs through word of mouth and Facebook, so she only has to charge students a minimal fee, making the opportunities accessible to everyone.

“This program has been amazing. I will take so much away from it,” she said. “I don’t think I realized it was possible to love your job this much.”

GrandyWilliam Grandy

William Grandy had no teaching experience when he started working at Cornelius Elementary School. The work complemented his interest in early childhood development, though, which had its genesis while he was studying neuroscience at Montana State University.

After working as a math and reading tutor and running the after-school fourth-grade cell biology program, Grandy, 24, is considering a career in teaching.

“At first, this community is so small, I got the feeling I was an outsider,” Grandy said. “But the students have been so receptive. I think I will come out to Cornelius and volunteer when my AmeriCorps job is up.”

Now that he’s been introduced to the education system, Grandy has learned teaching techniques and about funding and education policy.

Grandy is also considering working in health care or education policy. “I’m getting a look at how the system works and where improvements can be made and what I can do,” he said. “I want to look out for those who have less.”



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