Last fall, for a modest living allowance and a sizeable academic scholarship, SUNY Cortland psychology major Matthew Cranson pursued his dream to make a difference in the lives of Cortland youth through the federally supported AmeriCorps Project.
Cranson and three boys ages 13-15 who were struggling in school bonded over shared experiences of rainy camping trips, successful and not-so-successful fishing excursions and evenings around the ping-pong and pool tables.
“During this time period, young men go through many changes in life, not only physically but mentally,” observes Cranson, who lives in Freeville, N.Y., and grew up in Preble, N.Y. “This is the time that they decide who they want to be as people, their values, their strengths and their weaknesses. Through working with these boys, I see the changes they have made. Through mentoring I learned more and more about these boys and their lives: the good, the bad, the praise and the punishments.”
Cranson, who is pursuing a minor in sociology, performed his volunteer AmeriCorps service at the Family Counseling Services in Cortland.
AmeriCorps is a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), an independent federal agency whose mission is to improve lives, strengthen communities and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering. Funded by a federal grant to SUNY Cortland, the Cortland AmeriCorps Project offers educational awards and stipends to those who complete the required number of service hours. Twelve local agencies currently offer AmeriCorps volunteer opportunities.
“I gradually began to bring the boys together through group activities and trips,” continued Cranson. “We shared stories about school and tried new activities such as tennis, sports, going to museums and camping. Their friendships and cooperation with each other have changed drastically. Though they may not always be the best of friends, they all have a mutual respect for one another.”
A year later, one shy teen now reaches out and sees the world in a more accepting and less critical light. Another brashly outgoing youth has learned social boundaries and is demonstrating more responsibility and control in his life. And the third, a formerly emotionally withdrawn boy, now expresses himself as an individual and has begun suggesting new outings and engaging in friendly, verbal give-and-take. All three of the unlikely companions have thrived under Cranson’s mentorship, yet perhaps none so profoundly as Cranson himself.
“These young men aren’t the only ones who have changed,” said Cranson, who graduated from Homer (N.Y.) Central High School and attended SUNY Oswego for two years before enrolling at SUNY Cortland as a junior. He plans to graduate in May.
“They taught me patience, definitely. They opened my mind to new activities such as bike riding and hiking and have taught me that I really like to fish, even though I think I am cursed. They helped me through a tough decision and made me realize that I want to work with kids and teens as I advance through my education. They taught me to be myself and to have more confidence, to explore new possibilities and reach for the unreachable.”
Richard Kendrick, a SUNY Cortland professor of sociology and anthropology who directs the College’s AmeriCorps Project, is convinced the lasting legacy for Cranson and the 35 other AmeriCorps volunteers to date will be their imprint on the community’s future generations.
“Reaching out to and helping children and youth, that’s the hardest part to get at,” Kendrick remarked concerning evaluating AmeriCorps’ community revitalization and improvement efforts. “But human capital is probably the most important part of our community. I think youth and children are where the AmeriCorps members’ contribution have been the greatest.”
Between October 2008, when AmeriCorps first established a local presence, and May 31 of this year, the community has reaped the benefits of approximately 26,000 hours of volunteer service by part-time and full-time volunteers, noted Kendrick, who also directs the College's Institute for Civic Engagement.
“I think the impact of the AmeriCorps volunteers in the community has clearly been enormous,” Kendrick continued. “It varies depending upon what the individual AmeriCorps member is doing. For example, at Lime Hollow, they are running various summer camps programs for environmental education but they are also building infrastructure. They are leaving behind new, completed trails and new drainage. A number of our members have also been involved in community gardening.
AmeriCorps’ Cortland branch was recently notified it will receive its third year of funding, $154,000, and is recruiting volunteers for the 2010-11 program year, Kendrick said. For full-time volunteers, who will perform 1,700 hours of service over their year with AmeriCorps, the living allowance has increased to $11,800. The Segal Educational Award to pay for college, graduate work or to repayment of qualified student loans is now $5,350. Full-time volunteers receive several weeks of vacation and benefits such as health care. Part-time AmeriCorps members earn a partial award.
Representatives of Cortland's AmeriCorps program, including the program coordinator, members and site supervisors will be available to tell the public about the program and answer questions from 4-5 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 9, in the Bookmark Cafe in Cortland's Memorial Library and from 5 to 6 p.m. at Main Street SUNY Cortland, 9 Main St.
While most full-time members have completed at least a bachelor’s degree, many part-time AmeriCorps volunteers are currently enrolled at a college or university.
“It’s difficult to be a full-time student and also an AmeriCorps graduate,” Kendrick said. “We discourage doing both. Some volunteers are our students and others are college graduates or are taking a leave from college. Some are graduates of SUNY Cortland.”
The 12 non-profit agencies now offering volunteer opportunities are: Catholic Charities of Cortland County, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cortland City Youth Bureau, Cortland County Community Action Program, Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District, Cortland County Youth Bureau, Cortland Downtown Partnership, Family Counseling Services, Lime Hollow Center for Environment and Culture, Seven Valleys Health Coalition, SUNY Cortland Institute for Civic Engagement and YWCA of Cortland.
“The volunteers are fairly widely dispersed throughout the community at participating agencies,” Kendrick said. “We accept applications nationally. We try to match the interests of the individuals who apply with the host agencies, who interview the individuals and might offer them a position.”
Individuals interested in volunteering with AmeriCorps or learning more about the Cortland AmeriCorps Project should visit the organization’s website at www2.cortland.edu/americorps/ or contact Manny Lann, AmeriCorps project coordinator, by telephone at (607) 753-5067 or by mail at Cortland County Youth Bureau, 60 Central Ave., Cortland, NY 13045.