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O'TOOLE: How I found myself in serving others

• Jun 5, 2018 at 3:00 PM

Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” That is exactly what happened to me when I joined AmeriCorps in August 2017.

Another job had just ended. It wasn’t my fault — the employer decided not to renew the lease on the building where a couple hundred people worked scoring tests. That job had felt like a great fit for me in so many ways. It made use of my college degree and my advanced English skills, it allowed me to work independently, there were many terrific people employed there, and I could sometimes work from home. I didn’t know how I would ever find another job that fit me quite so well.

Then I saw the online ad for an elementary lead literacy tutor in the AmeriCorps program. I have teaching and tutoring experience, so I was intrigued. I completed the online application and attached my resume. In a couple of weeks I was in training, learning how to perform literacy interventions and learning how to be an AmeriCorps service member.

Founded in 1994, AmeriCorps is known as the “domestic Peace Corps.” According to my trusty Michigan Education Corps Program Manual 2017-18, “AmeriCorps engages more than 80,000 Americans in intensive service each year at nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith-based groups across the country.” More than a million people have served as members since 1994.

AmeriCorps focuses on disaster services, economic opportunity, education, environmental stewardship, healthy futures, and veterans and military families.

As part of the Michigan Education Corps arm of AmeriCorps, my focus was, of course, education. Specifically, as an elementary lead literacy tutor, I served to provide supplemental reading practice for children kindergarten through third grade. I did this in daily — one-on-one, 20-minute sessions, five days a week. This may not sound like much, but it added up to 100 minutes a week, and research proves those 100 minutes make all the difference in the literacy skills of an elementary learner.

I was placed at an elementary school in Grand Haven. The staff was friendly and welcoming.

And the students. Oh, the students. They made me feel I was doing very important work. More than that, they made me smile and laugh, and they made every day a great day. They could always find a silver lining in every situation. They loved jokes and humor.

One recent day, a first-grader approached me in the hallway and said: “Knock-knock!”

Me: “Who’s there?”

FG: “Joe.”

Me: “Joe who?”

FG: “Joe mama!”

He smiled up at me and walked away. For the rest of the day, I chuckled whenever I thought about that joke and that little boy’s smile.

Sometimes the kids just needed someone to listen to them. One morning, my student was in tears because of something that happened on the way to school. I spent our 20 minutes letting her talk about what happened and offering her encouragement and support. Though we didn’t read that day, I’m satisfied I gave her what she most needed at the time. Afterward, she gave me hugs every time she saw me in the hall.

The smiles, waves and hugs from students were the best perks of my service. A precious moment for me was right before Christmas break, when three students hugged me simultaneously. I felt all warm and fuzzy, and I knew I was loved and appreciated. Because of moments like that, I looked forward to arriving at school every morning.

I received a stipend for my service as a tutor. I was also required to volunteer outside of the school and participate in AmeriCorps activities. I met so many wonderful people at AmeriCorps events, and in my volunteering, too.

I spent a few hours picking up trash along the Grand River in Grand Rapids in September. It was touching to see the enormous crowd there to help clean up the river. Afterward, I learned that something like 50,000 pounds of trash was picked up that day. It felt good to contribute to that.

I also volunteered on weekends at Cheapstacks, the used book store in the lower level at Loutit District Library. I’ve checked out many books from the library over the years and participated in many library events with my daughter, so I was glad to give back to an institution that offers so much to our community. I met many interesting people and had many interesting conversations while behind the counter at Cheapstacks.

Now that the school year is nearly over, my work with the students is done. I’m going to miss them over the summer. I have reapplied with AmeriCorps, and I hope I am accepted into the program for another year.

I may have served as an AmeriCorps member, but the staff, teachers and, most of all, the students, have served me. I’m grateful for each and every one of them.

Helping children improve their literacy skills is what I feel I’ve been called to do. I heard that call thanks to my service with AmeriCorps.

— By Kelly O’Toole, Tribune community columnist

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