Economic Development

AmeriCorps Volunteers Serve on the Front Lines

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Eight young people from Vinton, Iowa, arrived in Youngstown March 15 to help the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. fight blight in the inner city.

Within 24 hours of arriving, the team, known as Maple 7, was busy in the YNDC workshop on the West Side measuring, sawing and preparing boards to cover vacant houses.

A day later, they boarded up seven abandoned houses at the corner of Garland and Valley streets on the East Side.

Their ages range from 18 to 24 and they’re part of AmeriCorps here to take on the backlog of vacant houses, trash-laden lots and overgrown sidewalks in troubled neighborhoods.

Such work isn’t new for Jamie Coladonato, team leader of Maple 7. “I was an AmeriCorps NCCC team member last year,” she says, “and I came back this year as a team leader.”

Coladonato worked with Habitat for Humanity engaging in basic construction her first year, helping build three houses in five days. She later served in a disaster relief effort during last year’s floods in Louisiana.

Coladonato and Maple 7 hope to accomplish much during the six weeks they’ll spend in Youngstown.

“We’re having them board and clean up 185 houses on the east side of the city,” says Ian Beniston, executive director of YNDC. “It’s the last side of the city where we haven’t done a large-scale board-up.”

Their first day of work put them on pace to achieve Beniston’s goal.

“We ended up boarding up seven houses,” Coladonato says, “and got ready for six other houses tomorrow.”

The National Civilian Community Corps, or NCCC, dates to 1993 and is based on the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.

One of AmeriCorps’ several agencies – each with a different job – the NCCC is designed for those between 18 and 24. They serve 10 months in designated regions throughout the country and, during their service, they receive room and board, a living allowance and an education award worth $5,775 upon successfully completing the program.

“We serve in five major areas: urban and rural development, infrastructure improvement, environmental stewardship and conservation, energy conservation, and we can also serve on natural disasters,” Coladonato says.

YNDC brought the first AmeriCorps team to Youngstown in 2012. Since then, it has gotten one to two teams a year in a competitive, regional process. The NCCC North Central Region, headquartered in Vinton, Iowa, serves Ohio.

“The NCCC teams have completed a massive volume of work these past few years,” Beniston says. “It’s boarding up and cleaning up well over 1,000 houses. NCCC has also helped in the rehab process. They’ve cleaned out vacant homes, even done interior work, in some cases.”

AmeriCorps members typically arrive in Youngstown with little idea of the work they’ll perform, but each is dedicated to its mission.

Jack Shock, from New Hampshire, is taking a break from college. He hopes that AmeriCorps will help him gain a deeper perspective on his life and career.

Right now, he’s eager to show people the visible evidence of the work AmeriCorps members perform.

“It’s been hard so far, but I like it,” Shock says. “I’d like to get as many houses boarded up as we can. But really, I’d like people to see the impact national service can have and the benefits it has on communities.”

Those benefits have been great, says Bill D’Avignon, Youngstown’s director of community development.

“The work they do is very important for stabilizing neighborhoods,” D’Avignon says. An earlier NCCC team played a key role in a successful volunteer workday in his own neighborhood, Rocky Ridge.

Jack Daugherty, neighborhood stabilization director for YNDC, is responsible for applications to and communication with AmeriCorps and has worked closely with NCCC members.

“What they’re doing is systematically working to secure all of the unsecured vacant homes in the neighborhoods we serve, pretty much anywhere, in the city,” he says. “They’re helping to restore a sense of order in the neighborhoods, and they’re also helping to eliminate the health and safety hazards associated with vacant houses.”

Christopher Tollefsen, from West Chester, Pa., had experience repairing houses before he joined NCCC. “I love that type of work,” he says, “and I wanted to try to do it for 10 months straight.”

He’s eager to employ his skills by working on Youngstown’s vacant housing problem.

“I’d like this work to inspire locals in the community to take up the same projects and work to revitalize the community,” Tollefsen says, “so that once we leave, this work goes on.”

Tollefsen and the other Maple 7 team members spent March 18 working with volunteers who live in the neighborhoods. The team helped to clean out a vacant home on Sunnybrooke Drive, clear debris and repair the sidewalk on Mineral Springs Avenue and at the site of a demolished corner store on Glenwood Avenue, across from the Youngstown Playhouse.

“I got to see a lot of what I wanted,” Tollefsen says. “I got to see people from the community coming out, working to revitalize the neighborhood.”

YNDC lodges NCCC team members in a house it owns on Canfield Road. “That was the spirit of us developing that property,” Beniston says, which serves as an Airbnb unit the remainder of the year.

Since 2009, the YNDC has worked to stabilize inner city neighborhoods through several programs that board up and secure vacant properties throughout the city.

Since 2011, YNDC has hosted AmeriCorps’ Vista – Volunteers in Service to America – members. Unlike the NCCC, Vista members serve one year in one location.

Grant Taylor, one of the three Vista volunteers, works with the NCCC members in the city. A Boardman native, he returned to join Vista and is in the ninth month of his year of service.

“The NCCC members do a lot of the direct service work,” Taylor says. “They’re the ones out in the field. As a Vista volunteer, a lot of what we do is capacity building.”

Taylor helps oversee the Maple 7 team, conducts training and documents their work.

“I do a lot with managing the data behind what they do,” Taylor says. “Everything that they do gets reported back to me.”

YNDC documents all aspects of its AmeriCorps programs. Staff is regularly in touch with state and national offices, host site visits from AmeriCorps representatives and are routinely audited for compliance.

“It’s been about three years since we’ve become our own AmeriCorps Vista project site,” Beniston says, “which is a competitive application process.”

YNDC has two Vista subsites at Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership in Warren and at the South Avenue Area Neighborhood Development Initiative in Youngstown.

Nevertheless, the future of AmeriCorps is under threat. The budget President Trump proposes calls for the elimination of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps.

Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and other Republicans sent a letter to the president last month to argue against the proposed cuts.

Eliminating AmeriCorps would hurt both cities and the people who gain valuable life and work experiences in the programs, Beniston says.

“It would definitely have an impact. It would diminish our capacity to achieve the same level of results that we’ve had over the past several years,” he says.

Pictured, top: AmeriCorps volunteers Kea Johnson and Ashley Hayden paint boards bound for vacant homes in Youngstown.

Pictured, bottom: The eight members of the AmeriCorps NCCC Maple 7 team are, back row: Kea Johnson, Christian Deines, Oluwatsoin Jekayinfa, Jamie Coladonato. Front row: Tali-ona Switzer, Jack Shock, Chris Tollefsen and Ashley Hayden. 

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.