I began my AmeriCorps journey when I was recruited into the program by the Community Action Agency in Annapolis, MD. My first job was to create a mentoring system for families of Head Start students. The next year, I continued serving in the program by training others in mentoring as a regional coordinator, and I returned for a third year with AmeriCorps to lead the program as a state coordinator with Volunteer Maryland.
After my term ended, I began working at Johns Hopkins Health Care LLC, first as a Community Relations Coordinator and later as a Community Health Educator. But soon I would receive a call that would put me on another path. My children's school, Van Bokkelen Elementary in Severn, MD, was in danger of a State takeover due to poor test performance and high student population turnover.
A Parent Helping Parents
Upon hearing about the school's difficulties, I went to Rose Tasker, the Principal, and asked what I could do to help. She told me that challenges with parental involvement at the school were a major part of the problem. I found that not only were many of the children struggling, but that the parents were too. Many had a hard time supplying daily needs such as food, health care, and clothing for their families.
When I learned this, I took a bigger role with the school's PTA and began developing a strategy to improve the involvement of other parents. In doing so, I took everything I learned from AmeriCorps: first you get a plan, and then you find the key players involved. Throughout the project, I drew from the experiences of my first year of AmeriCorps service.
Soon, I found myself leading the school's PTA. In this role, I created the Van Bokkelen Family Network, a program that promotes parental involvement and focuses on meeting family needs so parents can help children with their academic needs. I joined with other school leaders to form partnerships with the local Boys and Girls Club, Southwest Airlines, Anne Arundel Community College, the YWCA, Maryland Food Bank, Community Action Partnership, and other organizations to create a community hub that provides support and resources to the school's families.
After three years, the school emerged from the threat of the State takeover. Today, everyone in my community can take pride in the fact that the school has registered improvements for the last five consecutive years. Our efforts led to a national PTA award for the Van Bokkelen Family Network, and the model has been used to assist other troubled schools.
The Next Phase
After working on the Van Bokkelen project, I realized that I could help other families facing the same difficulties. In 2008, I applied for and received the AmeriCorps Alum Eli J. Segal Entrepreneurship Award, which helped me create University for Parents, an effort to expand the Van Bokkelen Family Network to other schools and provide parents with the family education and mentoring needed to improve student success.
I believe that when you educate the entire family, everyone becomes accountable for the information they receive, and that's what we're accomplishing with University for Parents.
Although I have received numerous honors for University for Parents' innovative approach, I am most proud of the example I have set for my children. My children serve with me and they serve on their own. The greatest reward is having the opportunity to involve my children in my daily work.
After starting University for Parents, I had plans to continue my education. These plans were put on hold when I was diagnosed with a retroperitoneal sarcoma, a type of cancer, in December 2009. My doctors removed a 13-pound tumor the size of a football during the surgery, and, after I recovered, I continued my work with University for Parents.
Last year, University for Parents participated in the “American Graduate” public broadcasting initiative that addressed the dropout crisis in U.S. schools. We led a six-week University for Parents curriculum for students and their families at two Maryland schools near a military base to provide resources to break the cycle that leads to high school dropouts in that community.
Just before Thanksgiving 2011, I was diagnosed with cancer again. I just had a second surgery in January and I remain determined to continue my work when I finish my recovery.
Why? Because I believe that no matter what your situation or your challenge is, you can always give back.
Rhonda Ulmer is an AmeriCorps alum and is the Founder of University for Parents.