Monday, November 14, 2005

Putting Talents into Action!

“Don, don’t do it! You’ll be sorry! It’s just not worth your organization’s time and effort. At least this was our experience.”

I remember this moment quite well. It was more than two years ago, and a colleague was trying to talk me out of a decision to become host of an AmeriCorps program. Her well-intentioned advice was way too late. On behalf of my organization, Rise, Incorporated, and our core partners AccessAbility, Lifetrack Resources, and Opportunity Partners, I had already made a formal commitment to write this grant proposal. There was no turning back.

The original idea for becoming an AmeriCorps host was presented by my colleague David King, vice president at AccessAbility, Inc. in Minneapolis, Minnesota. David wondered if pursuing an AmeriCorps grant would add measurable benefits to the collective efforts of a multi-agency partnership of community employment providers named Work In Progress (WIP). WIP’s management team examined and then transformed David’s original vision into a formal grant application to ServeMinnesota, the local commission that administers AmeriCorps in Minnesota.

For readers who may be unfamiliar with AmeriCorps, it is a national service program that is often referred to as America’s “domestic Peace Corps." AmeriCorps offers opportunities for Americans, ages 18 and older, to strengthen their communities by participating in national service. AmeriCorps members serve their communities by becoming actively involved in issues pertaining to democracy, human services, education, social justice, environmental concerns, national security emergency response, and workforce economics.

By choosing to become involved in national service, AmeriCorps members learn about personal responsibility, leadership, and contributing one’s talents to make America’s communities better places to live. Members receive a small living allowance and can earn post-secondary education awards after successful completion of one or two-year national service commitments.

WIP’s original grant application to ServeMinnesota was forwarded to a national funding competition administered by the Corporation for National & Community Service. In 2003, WIP’s management team learned that its competitive grant application had been funded for three years! The WIP AmeriCorps Program officially began its operations with approved performance objectives in three primary focus areas. We chose to address the high unemployment, underemployment, and social segregation of Minnesotans with significant disabilities in our interagency grant application.

WIP’s vision is to engage the participation of everyday citizens in improving the job placement and community integration of people with significant disabilities. Our project serves a wide geographic catchment area including Twin Cities’ metropolitan area, Central Minnesota, and East Central Minnesota. By design, WIP’s performance objectives are shared by all partner organizations. We work collectively to recruit, train, and support AmeriCorps members in 34 full-time and part-time positions with roles defined by each partner organization. The majority of AmeriCorps members provide one-on-one mentoring in support of each program participant’s employment or community integration goals.

WIP AmeriCorps’ motto is “Putting talents into action!” This motto is translated into actual practice on two separate levels. First, WIP actively recruits people with disabilities to participate in its corps by offering national service in support of others who live in their communities. On the second level, our corps actively assists people who are unemployed, underemployed, and socially isolated so they can contribute their talents to the local workforce and within other community venues.

AmeriCorps members assist WIP partner agencies in many different ways. For example, they provide intensive, one-on-one job search assistance, mobility or bus training, assistance with job interviews, supervisor/co-worker training, on-site job coaching, off-site job support, peer-to-peer community support, supervised leisure activities, instruction in self-dependency skills, or other customized supports to increase job placement, economic self-sufficiency, and community integration outcomes.

The support activities of AmeriCorps members are closely supervised by direct service professionals who are employed by WIP’s partner agencies. The members’ services are intended to augment or increase the employment or community supports people with disabilities need or desire to achieve their expressed program goals. In most situations, one-on-one, customized supports of this kind are unavailable due to agency budget limitations and high staff-to-participant ratios.

AmeriCorps members have been invaluable in addressing the support needs of people with the most challenging and complex disabilities. For this reason, WIP is dedicated to enlarging and strengthening the role of its communities because our far reaching social and economic change objectives are impossible to achieve without the active involvement of ordinary citizens.

Has AmeriCorps made any difference? You be the judge. Here are some annual program highlights and accomplishments from our most recent AmeriCorps class of 2004-05:

  • Collectively, AmeriCorps members assisted 99 adults with significant disabilities find customized and competitive employment in our community’s workforce.
  • The average hourly wage of all participants with disabilities placed was $8.03 and the average number of hours worked by these individuals was 28.
  • Eighty (80) individuals with disabilities were supported in obtaining job progression objectives including new career ladder jobs, increased wages and hours worked, and mastering of new job skills.
  • The forecasted annualized wages of all people obtaining integrated employment with assistance from AmeriCorps members was 1.2 million!
  • Sixty (60) individuals with disabilities served within segregated service programs increased their participation in integrated community activities by an average of 60 hours or five hours per month per individual.

    Want more evidence? How about these accomplishments:

  • The AmeriCorps “I-Team” was introduced to deliver customized job support for: (1) unserved people with disabilities who are ineligible or inaccessible to employment services due to long waiting lists, funding eligibility issues, etc; and (2) underserved people who were unable to secure competitive jobs through traditional community rehabilitation approaches.
  • AmeriCorps members assisted WIP’s welfare-to-work programs in finding jobs for unemployed refugees and immigrants with disabilities who receive TANF assistance; this program was later identified as Hennepin County’s highest performing job placement program for welfare recipients in 2005!
  • AmeriCorps members helped Lifetrack Resources, a WIP partner agency, close its center-based employment program by assisting with community job placement activities and coordinating program reassignments for others.
  • AmeriCorps members helped to secure affordable housing for homeless individuals, ran job seeking groups for unemployed individuals, helped with transportation assistance for people who are inaccessible to public transportation, talked directly to employers about hiring people with significant disabilities, and offered mentoring support to individuals seeking employment.
  • AmeriCorps members also participated in a variety of community service projects ranging from serving meals at homeless shelters to planting trees at local community parks for the enjoyment of all citizens in our community.

    (Editor’s Note: this year’s corps is planning a trip to New Orleans to assist with clean-up efforts due to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in the Mexican gulf region).

Wow, what an incredible year! The spirit of the national AmeriCorps program is “getting things done for America.” And WIP is a shining example of what can be accomplished when everyday citizens pool their time and talents to achieve a common purpose. In sum, it was a year of outstanding team effort and individual achievements.

WIP’s AmeriCorps program is an excellent example of “gray thinking” and employing creativity outside the borders of traditional resources. The support of AmeriCorps members resulted in increased job placement outcomes and improved community integration for more than 200 people with significant disabilities served by WIP's four organizational partners. And for some people with disabilities, AmeriCorps was the only job placement service they were eligible to participate in.

Finally, one of the benefits of WIP is the hands-on training of more than 80 interested citizens over a three-year period. Our AmeriCorps members receive the best disability awareness training available via direct peer-to-peer experiences. In an article called The Butterfly Effect http://donlavin.blogspot.com/2005/07/butterfly-effect.html, I shared how we have no way of fully knowing or measuring the future impact of everything we do. However, we know instinctively that everything we do makes a big difference in how future events will unfold. AmeriCorps members are key factors in this equation.

To illustrate, WIP’s 80 AmeriCorps members will rejoin their respective communities once their national service commitments are completed. And virtually all will become business owners, managers, supervisors, or co-workers in our community’s workforce. Further, some will become landlords while others will be next door neighbors. And we certainly believe all of them will become informed citizens who better understand the issues and fully appreciate the value of this important work we do. We hope to rely on these future community leaders. And this is no small matter in impacting our growing community.

During this past week, we hosted a site visit from senior management staff from ServeMinnesota and two grant officers representing the Corporation on National & Community Service. With much pride, we shared the team accomplishments of our corps and described how individual members are indeed “putting their talents into action.”

You know, I can faintly hear the unsolicited guidance I received more than two years ago: “Don, don’t do it! You'll be sorry!” Yeah, right. Sometimes the best advice is to ignore bad advice.

For more information about the Corporation for National & Community Service and AmeriCorps, you can visit their web site at http://www.nationalservice.org/. For more information about opportunities available through ServeMinnesota, visit their web site at http://www.serveminnesota.org/. Finally, for more information about Work In Progress' AmeriCorps Program, visit our web site at http://www.rise.org/americorps/ or contact Program Coordinator Ryan Kelley at rkelley@rise.org.

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