The AmeriCorps Experience in the Pandemic
By Max Harris-D’Amato
The blue glow of computer screens delivering LEAP for Education into students’ living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms, describes the typical interactions that many AmeriCorps members are having in the midst of the pandemic. For some of its programs, LEAP also runs in person classes where Corps members Evan and Maiya are seen beaming despite their masks, their enthusiasm revealed through their eyes and voices. Their improvisation and initiative reminds students that LEAP is a safe haven.
Born and raised in Salem, Evan Aroko, a LEAP Hub Leader and Corps member at United Way, chose to serve the two organizations to prepare for a career in education. He believes the skills he is developing during his year of service will prepare him to teach overseas after completing his service. “It’s been challenging due to Covid-19 and the virtual atmosphere,” Evan admits, “But I have learned a lot of applicable skills from how to act, how to teach in a classroom setting and how to prepare lessons. That’s definitely why I chose to serve for a year long term.”
Maiya McNaughton, a United Way AmeriCorps fellow serving at Salem High, shares similar feelings to Evan. She’s aiming for a career in public health. She views her work with LEAP and United Way as “bridging the gap between health and education.” Maiya is now in her second term with United Way and LEAP working in LEAP’s Teen Center and its English Learner (EL) program, called EL Street, which are held at LEAP’s location at Shetland Park in Salem. Maiya finds her work with EL Street to be a valuable tool for bonding with her Salem High students in an after-school setting. “It is really good to see them during the school day, and build relationships with them after school and be able to relax and catch up,” Maiya states. “They get practice having more relaxed social conversations in a less pressured environment than at school.”
The challenges of education during the pandemic weigh heavily. In the past year Zoom has emerged as a vital tool in both professional and social circles which certainly includes the world of education. Teaching through Zoom is a shared struggle for teachers, parents and students alike.
“When they come to our program our students are exhausted. They are tired of that online atmosphere,” says Evan. “In order to make in-person learning and socializing safe, LEAP has done a tremendous job of implementing protocols and living up to them.” He describes how ritualistic his pupils are about hand sanitizer, wearing masks and social distancing. When teaching remotely through Zoom, Evan coordinates projects and games with enthusiastic students who eagerly present their latest trophies from their scavenger hunt, or proudly display their photo assignments through their webcam.
In normal times LEAP provides a hospitable environment at its Shetland Park location that offers everything from food to WIFI. Students drop by as one might drop by a relative’s house. Maiya explains how difficult it’s been for students used to a comfortable and relaxed environment, now having to abide by strict regulations. However, Maiya states, “We have had a really good turnout for the Social Justice Initiative which is held over Zoom. The conversations are amazing. Students get to safely voice their ideas and hear other students’ perspectives.” Maiya continues, “They’re hearing common themes… They’re really honest and raw about their own experiences and the things they’ve heard and seen at their schools and in their friend groups.” Maya’s own work has also benefited “every single time we’re learning more, either when setting up the lessons or delivering them.” Maiya uses this knowledge to hone lessons and connect on a deeper level with students. “Through social media many of them stay updated on happenings across the world whether the Middle East or California. It’s been really cool that they are so curious and willing to share with us.”
When looking back on her time with LEAP, Maiya expresses optimism at the opportunities provided by her experiences. In addition to her current work, she has worked as a summer internship facilitator for students who participated in LEAP’s Summer Internship Program. “The LEAP staff has given me many opportunities. I really appreciate them thinking of me, reaching out to me, helping me build stronger relationships, learning more about nonprofits and serving Salem.”
Through the unique challenges of these unusual times, Evan also expresses appreciation about his time in service. “As a resident of Salem, I’m pretty proud to see LEAP dedicated to uplifting students both on the academic and social side. Working with students from Salem and helping them pave the path for their future has been really cool to reflect on.”
This year has required many adjustments. However, despite these new layers of challenges, AmeriCorps has prevailed in their mission to uplift the most vulnerable students on the North Shore. The resilience and adaptability of Corps members have been vital to LEAP for Education’s success. With persistence and adaptability, LEAP and its Corps members will continue to empower its students and meet their needs, through the pandemic and beyond.