Driven by Dreams, Accomplished through Self-Advocacy

JV AmeriCorps member Maria Watson (Portland, OR ’16-17) serves as the Transitions Program Support Specialist with Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center and Rosemary Anderson High School in Portland, Oregon. Maria shares her story of serving with opportunity/at-risk young adults to promote economic empowerment through college readiness.

The funny thing about college is that tens of thousands of people go every year, and yet no one ever really and truly seems to be “college ready.” When I went to college, I would have described myself as independent and resourceful. Yet, after not checking my email all summer before my freshman year, I showed up 6 hours late to move in and had a half hour to move into my dorm room before orientation events began.


Portland Community Mates

Four years and four months later, I’m a college grad and a JVC Northwest AmeriCorps member serving opportunity/at-risk young adults who are making intentional moves towards self-sufficiency. Often, this involves supporting and promoting an important measure that, in my experience, happens to be pretty vague and arbitrary – college readiness.

During the fall term, I supported four of our students with an Introduction to College and Healthcare Bridge Program. The program offers an Introduction to Healthcare class at Portland Community College and an internship with Providence Health & Services to provide valuable and applicable tools and experiences for career discernment immediately upon starting college. Over the past four months, the healthcare bridge students have redefined my understanding of college readiness, teaching me that the power of confidence in self-advocacy is the most important factor of success – but the only way to refine those soft skills is to practice.

These women have faced language, academic, and financial barriers and have been able to overcome many of those by utilizing their voices and their resources. Their unwavering determination and motivation led them to ask questions and make pragmatic decisions driven by their dreams for themselves. There seems to be a plethora of resources available to current and aspiring college students, so a willingness and confidence to “show up” and utilize those resources is something that has set these young women apart.


’16-17 JV AmeriCorps member Maria with POIC students

In one term of college, they have gracefully handled communication with professors, academic advisers, career coaches, scholarship donors, and financial aid consultants. This has escalated their success and experience with college more than I ever would have predicted. Now that they can advocate for themselves professionally and effectively with confidence, it seems to me that there’s nothing these women can’t accomplish when they set their minds to it.

Through this experience I have discovered how difficult it would be to face college without support. In providing college-readiness support to others, I have realized how much I relied on support systems to prepare me for college and life overall. I was raised in an environment that inherently expected college-level achievements, so my aspirations felt normal, and therefore I took my strides and support systems for granted. Being able to celebrate the successes of these women alongside them has reminded me of the shoulders I stood on to get to where I am today. Supporting these future nurses and midwives has truly been an honor.

AmeriCorps Week: Transforming Youth in Washington County, OR

This AmeriCorps Week we’re highlighting JV AmeriCorps members across the Northwest.  JV AmeriCorps member Kim Utschig serves with youth experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity in Washington County, OR. 

Washington County, Oregon is an odd place. Home of Intel and Nike headquarters, Portland suburbs, and pristine farmland, the demographic of Washington County is diverse and the need is dynamic.  Home to farm worker families, folks couch surfing, and the product of Portland’s poverty purge, there are many marginalized people in need of services in Washington County. However, there is only one non-profit provider of drop-in centers and street outreach for young people experiencing homelessness and instability, and that is HomePlate Youth Services. That is where I join the narrative.

In response to consistent feedback from youth who wanted additional ways to engage in the HomePlate community, 14-15_Hillsboro_HomePlate_KimUtschig_dreams1HomePlate seized the opportunity to bring on a full time Programming Coordinator. As a part of HomePlate’s team, it is my role to honor each youth that comes into our space by offering servant hospitality, open and honest communication, respect for the place they are on life’s journey, and compassion for the burdens they carry. In my role as Programming Coordinator, I get to engage in this mission through programming efforts are that are creative and fun, while also impactful and transferable to the lives of the youth I serve.

I encourage you all to think for a minute, about the some of the most transformative14-15_Hillsboro_HomePlate_KimUtschig_CoastTrip_4_2014 moments in your life.  Was it on a basketball court? An annual trip with your family? Creating an artistic masterpiece? Recreational opportunities can be transformative, but are often a luxury unattainable for so many youth at HomePlate.

14-15_Hillsboro_HomePlate_KimUtschig_ClimbingatPRG_9_2015Thus far, programming has looked many different ways. Whether it is watching the youth challenging each other to scale the wall at the Portland Rock Gym, making a juice carton wallet at weekly Wednesday crafts, or building community around climbing the giant sand dunes along 14-15_Hillsboro_HomePlate_KimUtschig_dreams2the Oregon coast, our programming encourages youth to find a sense of belonging amongst our HomePlate community and take ownership of their gifts and abilities.

Economic Empowerment in Anchorage, AK

JV AmeriCorps member David Quigley serves as the Workforce Development Youth Specialist at Covenant House Alaska in Anchorage. He tells his story of working with homeless youth to promote economic empowerment.


JV AmeriCorps member David Quigley along with Workforce Development team members Kim and Camille.

Covenant House Alaska provides shelter, food, immediate crisis care and a variety of other services for homeless youth ages 13-20. The ultimate goal is to direct them out of homelessness and into a sustainable, independent life. In my four short months at Covenant House, I have learned a myriad of things about homelessness, service, and myself. Among these are two essential principles. First, there is no cookie cutter blueprint or magical formula for ending homelessness. Each youth deserves respect, care and individualized attention to help him or her become a confident, capable and independent person. Second, economic empowerment is invaluable in aiding someone out of homelessness. Financial instability is a major underlying cause of homelessness. Without a steady source of income, how is someone supposed to pay rent, purchase food, buy clothes or perform any other tasks requiring money that are basic for living?


David leading a job readiness presentation for Covenant House youth.

At Covenant House Alaska, we tell the youth, “our job is to help you get a job.” We are the support that enables independence and a way out of homelessness through economic stability. We offer a multitude of resources, opportunities and support to the youth in a variety of ways. Each morning I co-facilitate a “Job Group” workshop to a group of youth, presenting on different job related skills. Topics include “Mock Interview Mondays” and the “Do’s and Don’ts of Resumes” (do-add relevant work experiences to the job you are applying to; don’t-use Comic Sans font). Workforce field trips allow the residents to get a hands on feel for different occupations and presenters from local businesses come in and discuss their career paths and the obstacles they overcame, such as the high school dropout who became one of the managers at Bear Tooth Theater Pub. We bring in companies that have entry level job openings, and they extend interviews to our residents. Schools present the different opportunities and programs they provide, such as attaining a GED through Nine Star or the different vocational certifications offered at AVTEC (Alaska’s Institute of Technology).

I often work individually with the residents. I sit down and discuss what the youth needs and assist from there, and no day is the same. One day, I’ll work with someone to create or update a resume and explain the importance of marketing oneself through past work experiences as well as the “soft skills” a homeless youth has, such as perseverance and the ability to adapt to difficult situations. The next day, I’ll help youth sift through job applications to separate scams and non-sustainable jobs from the legitimate opportunities. Any of these services can happen on any given day, but the constant from Covenant House Alaska is support and encouragement that the youth are smart, talented and capable individuals. The combination of these services is critical to economic independence and exiting homelessness.14-15_Anchorage_ChugachMountainsfromJVHouse

One of the unique opportunities Workforce Development offers is a 30 day internship with local businesses. The internship provides the youth with an opportunity to earn money and gain valuable work experience. It has enabled some of our youth to transition from homelessness to independent living. One youth, we’ll call Joe, came to Covenant House in the middle of September, frustrated and upset. He was placed on full time job search, and he worked tirelessly applying to any and every job opening he could find, but was discouraged at the lack of response or his acceptance to menial, low paying jobs. We worked with him to figure out his career goals and how to best attain them, and he expressed interest in the restaurant industry. We informed Joe that the owner of a local restaurant was going to give a presentation in an upcoming Job Group. When the owner came in, we encouraged Joe to introduce himself, and they stayed after the presentation to talk. After filling out an application, Joe was offered a 30 day internship as a prep cook in the restaurant. Three months later, Joe has a full time job at the restaurant and has been cross trained in food prep as well as cooking, warranting a promotion enabling him to move out of Covenant House. He currently resides at one of our affiliated agencies, where the residents pay a fixed rent to prepare them for the transition to completely independent living. Through his hard work and perseverance, and with the assistance of the services and programs provided at Covenant House, he is now on a path to true economic independence.

JV AmeriCorps community in Anchorage, AK.

JV AmeriCorps community in Anchorage, AK.

Creating Opportunities, Community and Candles

Taylor Walt serves as a JV AmeriCorps member with L’Arche Noah Sealth in Seattle, WA. October marks National Disability Employment Awareness Month; L’Arche provides opportunities for people of different abilities to live and work together.


David and Patty chopping wax for the candles.

L’Arche is an organization that serves people with and without developmental disabilities to provide a loving and nurturing environment in adult family-style homes. The focus on the values of faith, dignity, and mutual respect shines through in every community, and I am fortunate enough to experience it personally in L’Arche Noah Sealth, the community in Seattle, WA. As the Activity Center Assistant, I interact with the Core Members on a daily basis and support them in a variety of ways. We explore different places surrounding the greater Seattle area, paint celebratory signs for other members of the community, or simply enjoy a hot mug of cocoa and good conversation. One amazing, unique asp14-15_Seattle_LArche_waxect of the Activity Center is the production of gorgeous candles that the Core Members work enthusiastically to make every day.

Wax is a common sight in the Mamook Workshop. Whether it be melted in crock pots, hardened in pie tins, cubed to fill candle molds, or poured delicately to create beautiful masterpieces; wax is everywhere! The Core Members do the majority of all candle work, from chopping, to filling molds, and one member, Paul, weighs and prices each candle by hand! All of the candles are made from recycled wax, which is donated by local community members, churches, and friends of L’Arche. It is incredible to see boxes and boxes of old candles, especially after all the Holiday church services!

The Core Members at L’Arche are always ready to give back to the community that has welcomed them with open arms. It is wonderful to see their giving spirit and the love that goes into each candle sold. The Activity Center was created as a space for members of L’Arche to be part of something larger than themselves. The breathtaking candles are often sold to other L’Arche communities, area parishes, local shops, and even for weddings!

The candles seem to be a perfect representation of the amazing people that create them, and of L’Arche as a whole. Our community includes a variety of people, all different colors, shapes, and sizes. Some of the candles, like people, seem to have a personality of their own; some have chips, some lean to one side, others have a blend of colors that is surprising and refreshing to see. All of the candles are made with gentle hands and even gentler hearts. When they are shared throughout the community, you know that it is not just the candle that will burn brightly, but the light of this incredible L’Arche family.14-15_Seattle_LArche_candles

Veteran’s Stand Down

Caitlin - JumpingCaitlin is a Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) Northwest AmeriCorps member in Wenatchee, WA, at The Northwest Justice Project. She also served last year in San Antonio, TX, with JVC.

I grew up thinking of “service” as exactly what I am doing now, as a Jesuit Volunteer AmeriCorps member. For the majority of my privileged life, I was blinded to the fact that for many Americans, joining the Armed Forces is a way to make it out of poverty, or to pay for school, or to simply commit to something greater than themselves. It’s a calling for a lot of people, but it’s also a means to an end for many Americans, especially young men and women in our poorest and most marginalized communities. Many veterans find themselves homeless after their discharge, especially if it is anything other than honorable, with few opportunities for civilian life. Many endure psychological and/or family life struggles, and those without support or who are afraid of reaching out for support self-medicate and develop substance abuse issues.

This is the reality in our country; it is neither a criticism of the Armed Forces as a whole nor of those who so bravely have given a significant part of their lives to be of this type of service to our country. It is the real situation Veterans face after their time of service. The lack of civilian life support for veterans and the existence of barriers to self-sufficiency is a reality, but it is a reality that many doctors, social workers, families, community organizers, and attorneys work to “combat,” in another sense, every day.

The Northwest Justice Project, where I serve in Wenatchee, Washington, has a statewide Veterans Project that provides free civil legal assistance specifically to low income veterans. The program focuses on finding better ways to help veterans access the legal system and educates on anti-poverty legal issues that adversely and disproportionately affect veterans. I was given the opportunity to participate in a Veterans’ Stand Down in Wenatchee on September 27th. Stand Downs are events that provide services and connections to homeless and economically marginalized veterans. They are commemorative of the service the veterans have given to their country, regardless of the circumstances surrounding their discharge. Stand Downs create solidarity among veterans and promote awareness of veteran presence in communities in which they are held. In two days, over 2,000 veterans stopped by the National Guard Armory in Wenatchee to pick up food, warm clothing, and talk to representatives of the local social services organizations in the area. We spoke to veterans who had questions about legal problems, Veterans’ Administration, criminal records, access to healthcare, and about navigating the court system. There is a certain kind of liberation in serving those who serve us by answering questions that will help them understand their rights that are protected by being citizens of the United States of America.

Caitlin - Wenatchee

Caitlin (far right) and her Wenatchee house community

We all come into a year of JVC Northwest AmeriCorps service knowledgeably passionate about something (or everything), may it be a cause, a marginalized group of people, an experience of solidarity, environmentalism, etc. I challenge you to take the month of November, the month in which we commemorate those who give a different kind of service to our country, and find a way in which to serve them. Attend an event like a Veterans Stand Down, or a commemorative Veteran’s Day event, or simply invite a veteran over for dinner with your community to talk to him or her about their experience in the military. Maybe you are a veteran yourself, or have a close friend or relative who has served in the Armed Forces. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, and challenge you to make yourself visible in your community you are now serving, so that more veterans may feel comfortable to share and less afraid to get help if it is needed.

Miracle Runners

Sarah Brewster is currently serving as a second year Jesuit Volunteer/AmeriCorps member in Portland, Oregon, as the Recreation Coordinator at the Volunteers of America (VoA) Men’s Residential Center (MRC). 

Portland MRC Running 1

The first of many race medals for MRC client Mike.

When I first arrived at the Volunteers of America Men’s Residential Center, I could never have imagined what scheduling recreations like laser tag, pottery painting, and kayaking could hold for our clients. At the MRC, recreation is still considered treatment time; a time for clients to re-engage in activities, hobbies, and interests that they may have lost sight of in their addiction and/or never had the opportunity to explore because of life circumstances. Yet, to get a group of 20 or 30 people excited about the same thing can be a tough deal, especially when trying to get them to step into something new and unfamiliar. But I found solace and, at times, sanity in the recreation outings; they became rich opportunities to get to know the clients outside of a regular treatment setting.

In January, we had a small, but avid, group of runners in house. For these clients, running was becoming part of their treatment program and daily self-care. They started to log some serious miles, and one even took social passes to get in longer runs. I had started planning my own summer race schedule, and figured I would look into registering a few of the guys in some upcoming races. What began with a few hopeful emails has snowballed into an incredible story of resilience, inspiration, hope, and utter steadfastness.

At the end of January, I officially received confirmation from AA Sports that all the race entry fees would be waived for two of our clients and one of our staff members to compete in the Heartbreak Half and 10K races on February 9th. I had modest expectations for our two client runners, and, more than anything, was hoping for a positive first race experience.

Upon my return, the Monday after the race, I was greeted by absolute exuberance and glee as I received a minute by minute recounting of the race. I knew these guys could do it and do it well, but I was still captivated, moved, and awed by the embodiment of their success. For our two client runners, this race held great significance, measure, and accomplishment. And for one, this race was going to be the beginning of something truly spectacular. Ten months prior to the Heartbreaker Half, Mike was living on the streets, in despair, and in the depths of his heroin addiction. At mile 9 of the half, Mike paced out with his fellow miracle runner: a woman who had had surgery a year prior and was told she was never going to be able to run again. And yet, at mile 9, she was there. And so was he. Portland MRC Running

When Mike crossed the finish line, he had no idea how he had done. The important thing was that he had finished, and that he felt good about it. After a finish line reunion with his fellow miracle runner and her supporters, Mike awaited the reunion with his MRC running mates. He searched for his name and number to find his finish time, but it wasn’t posted yet. It wasn’t until the times were posted online that Mike was able to discover just how well he had done. What he found completely blew him (and all of us) away. He had run his first half marathon in 1:38:12, an average mile of 7:29. He placed third in his age group and his overall finish was 56th of 474 runners. Even more remarkable, Mike had quit smoking, a half pack a day habit, four days before the race.

Overflowing with appreciation, Mike contacted AA Sports to express his gratitude for the opportunity and experience. Lynne Sanders, the Director of Sales and Marketing at AA Sports and who had made the race registrations possible, was profoundly moved and inspired by Mike’s story, graciousness, and victory. She sent Mike his finisher’s medal for placing in his age group, and also informed him that, with his permission and willingness, she wanted to share his story with an editor at RaceCenter NW. She also notified Mike that AA Sports would like to offer him entry into a few of their upcoming races including the Spring Classic Duathlon, the My First Tri, and the PAC Crest Olympic Triathlon.

In addition to his treatment responsibilities, which at the time included finding a job, Mike drafted a letter asking for bike and equipment donations so that he could compete in the upcoming races. A taxing and emotional experience, he struggled to find a bike shop that would listen to his story. Unable to definitively secure his own bike, Mike rented a bike for the Duathlon the day before the race.

On March 30th, Mike completed the Spring Classic Duathlon, a 15 mile bike ride sandwiched by two 5K runs, in 1:28:32, and placed 12th of the 23 men in his age group. Again, Mike had impressive splits: his first 5K he completed in 18:42, the bike in 46:23, and the second 5K in 21:22. Even with the struggle and stress, Mike showed up, completed, and was victorious.

Big things were falling into place; Mike completed a half marathon, interviewed with RaceCenter NW magazine (his story is expected to be in a summer edition), reconnected with family estranged through his addiction, secured a good job, and completed a Duathlon. Overwhelmed and amazed, Mike remained grounded in grace and gratitude. Seeking opportunity to give back and show appreciation, Mike ran in a Boston Marathon solidarity run on April 15th with fellow Portland runners.

Portland MRC Running 2

Mike, and the owners of Athlete’s Lounge, with his new bike.

Today, Mike is working full-time, completing his aftercare, staying grounded in his recovery program, and training hard. He remains closely connected to Lynne, who has become one of his biggest champions and supporters. Through her, Mike was connected to Tri Pacific Coaching and a triathlon coach, and through that connection, Mike was donated a race bike from Athlete’s Lounge, a local triathlon shop.  And as if this hasn’t snowballed enough, Mike was just informed that he will be donated a brand new wetsuit, from ProMotion Wetsuits, for his upcoming triathlons.

One afternoon Mike came into my office and I expected to hear more excitement from training successes and new gear, but he greeted me with a longer, more emotional pause. He had been entrusted with keys to the restaurant where he works; his first keys to anything in years. For Mike, it symbolized a kind of rebirth into life.

For this moment and the daily moments at the MRC, I am honored to be the Recreation Coordinator; to witness the greatness of recovery and re-discovery and to be reminded of strength, spirit, and the human capacity for change and growth. And the greatest gift is not being able to witness it for myself, but the opportunity to observe the clients realize it in and for themselves; to watch them hold it, be inspired, motivated, and moved by who they are and have the potential to be.

Servin’ the Suburbs

JV AmeriCorps members of the Hillsboro community share their varied experiences serving in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon. From stream clean-up to adult literacy courses, they address a wide range of Hillsboro’s challenges. 



Hillsboro JV AmeriCorps members Gina Graziano and Charlie Vogelheim lead a trip with Clackamas High School students at Rock Creek as part of their service with the environmental nonprofit SOLV.

AmeriCorps members in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest Hillsboro “Casa de Paz” are doing well out in the suburbs! While many of our fellow JV AmeriCorps members serve in either very urban or very rural placements, we find ourselves in a suburban setting, one that is not traditionally associated with high need. However, service in Hillsboro becomes more important with each new resident of increasingly-popular Portland. As the city becomes more and more expensive, people who used to be able to afford to live within the Portland city limits are being pushed out to the suburbs, where we are honored to be able to serve in a variety of ways. Although we are all proud JV AmeriCorps members, each of us serves in a very different way, and experiences a unique day-to-day experience. Here’s a brief glimpse into the world of Casa de Paz:

JV AmeriCorps member Gina Graziano samples macroinvertebrates with Gladstone High School Students.

Gina Graziano: SOLV is an Oregon based non-profit organization that brings together individual volunteers, service and conservation groups, businesses and government agencies in activities to restore our natural spaces and provide educational opportunities to encourage environmental stewardship. Established in 1969 by Governor Tom McCall, SOLV is well-known for its annual Beach and Riverside Cleanup as well as its Saturday community tree planting events through Team Up for the Watershed Health Program. I have the great joy, excitement, and adventure of working with SOLVs educational outreach and stewardship program, called Green Team. We work with elementary, middle, and high school science classes throughout the Portland Metro area to engage students in restoration work at stream sites near their schools. This year we are working with 80 classrooms and over 2,200 students. It has been truly life-giving, hopeful, and just plain fun seeing kids connect with nature and be inspired to conserve and protect their creeks and watersheds.

JV AmeriCorps member Lauren Vilardo spends her days supporting foster youth in the skill-building they'll need to live as independent adults.

Lauren Vilardo: The Independent Living Program (ILP) through LifeWorks Northwest assists foster  youths  in Washington County in the transition from foster care to independent living. The ILP helps individuals with goal-setting and skill-building, enabling youths to find jobs, go to college, and live on their own.  Additionally, the ILP provides a stable support system and social network for youths who often move from home to home or from school to school.

Charlie Vogelheim: While working at SOLV, I have been encouraging a lifelong sense of stewardship to both community and the environment to Portland-area students by leading service learning trips at local streams. Students learn about stream ecology and they are given the opportunity to work to improve a local degraded urban stream. Gina and I have lead students in activities such as invasive species removal, native tree planting, stream bank stabilization efforts, and maintenance and monitoring of native species.

Taking a break from pulling invasive English ivy to restore native habitats, JV AmeriCorps member Charlie Vogelheim smiles for the camera.

Kelly Mennemeier: As an AmeriCorps member at the Metropolitan Public Defender, I spend my days going back and forth between the office and the jail, meeting with newly incarcerated clients and preparing them for their first court appearance. My position affords me the opportunity to examine social justice issues from a legal angle. By focusing specifically on clients being held in custody, I am encouraged to consider the societal costs of a punishment-focused criminal justice system, and I push to understand the needs and vulnerabilities that lead my clients into the system, while also working to address the issues they face once there.

Raine Dalton: My placement, Bienestar, is a non-profit working for affordable housing and resident services for farmworkers and low-income families in the Hillsboro area. There is a great need for help with economic sustainability, education, and literacy. As the JV AmeriCorps member, I lead Bienestar’s homework club, teach citizenship classes and adult ESL classes, and help with residents’ taxes. I also help with the summer lunch program. It’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to serve Bienestar because the work is a direct result of the residents’ expressed needs and has a direct impact on their well-being. When my time is done, I will be able to say that I know someone who has a place to live, who obtained citizenship, and who learned how to read.