Leaven Blog

Give a year, change a life

by Jill Ragar Esfeld

Austin Edwards was crying. And that’s a sight to see.

Big and burly, Austin is often mistaken for a football player; he’s a formidable guy.

So to see him dressed in a bright red jacket, crying and hugging a sea of other young people in bright red jackets, also crying, was surreal.

But they had good reason to cry. 

Last Friday, Austin was part of a group celebrating a year of commitment to service with Americorps City Year Kansas City, a program that places successful young adults in underprivileged schools to mentor, tutor and encourage struggling students.

After graduating from college, Austin decided to spend a year in service while he discerned his future. He applied to City Year and was accepted. 

It’s been one of the best decisions of his life.

Because Austin, along with many other young adults, chose to dedicate a year to this service, students at the edge of failure have changed the trajectory of their futures and are now headed for graduation.

That’s something to get emotional about.

City Year is an amazing organization with a simple but enormously important mission. 

It employs diverse teams of young adults specifically trained to provide academic and emotional support to students who are at risk of falling behind their classmates and dropping out of school.

Teams serve in high-need schools across the country, including Kansas City, Missouri.

Team members range in ages from 18 to 25 and are easy to spot by their signature red jackets.  They’re called ‘near peers’ because of their unique ability to relate to students — they were in high school themselves not long ago.

Each City Year member makes a commitment to work full time for one year, alongside teachers and administrators, to help improve student attendance, behavior and course performance (the ABCs).

City Year Kansas City recruits and trains 58 members each year, forming teams in six high-poverty urban schools. They serve more than 3,300 middle and high school students in the area.

City Year teams are the first to arrive at the schools in the morning and the last to leave at night.

Their tutoring is intensively concentrated in math and literacy. 

Beyond tutoring, they befriend and mentor students, building relationships and instilling a desire to improve attendance and stay on track to graduate.

City Year members also sponsor after-school enrichment programming, clubs and activities.

During his City Year, Austin started an art club for middle-school students, begging for supplies through his Facebook page.

He was surprised by the attendance at his first meeting.

At the end of the school year, one of Austin’s students presented him a yearbook opened to a section reserved for the signature of his best friend; he asked Austin to sign there.

City Year AmeriCorps members not only make a difference in the lives of students they serve, but also realize the power of civic engagement, and that’s knowledge they will take with them into the future..

At one point during the City Year Kansas City Celebration on Friday, Austin looked at me and said, “I really don’t know why I’m crying.”

But he wasn’t alone; there were plenty of tears to go around.

These young adults were from all over the country; they didn’t even know each other a year ago. But they were bonded in their efforts to help at-risk students succeed.

And they were realizing what an amazing success they had achieved together — the impact of that awareness was emotionally overwhelming for many of them.

Currently there are 3,000 Americorps City Year Members serving in 29 cities. They help 234,000 students at 349 schools.

City Year keeps track of its impact on students and the results are impressive, with substantial improvement in math, literacy and attendance, resulting in improved graduation rates.

To find out more about this incredible organization, or to apply to be a City Year member, visit www.cityyear.org.

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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