When I got the offer to join AmeriCorps as a member of Operation REACH’s Gulfsouth Youth Action Corps (GYAC), I didn’t know what to expect. While I had grown up in New Orleans, I never felt like there was a reason for me to be here, since so much of what I had loved about the city had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, crime, and other issues. My experience at the Desire Street Ministries camp this summer, however, helped me realize that I should not turn my back on where I came from.
The GYAC is a network of college-age volunteers who pledge a summer of service through AmeriCorps to assist summer programs throughout the Gulf South. As a GYAC member, my mission is to engage, empower and inspire community-focused youth leadership in the American South. Along with seven other corps members, I spent my summer of service with the Gulfsouth Youth Action Corps at the Desire Street Ministries Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School, where a majority of the program’s participants came from the Desire neighborhood, which is part of New Orleans’ Upper Ninth Ward and was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Having grown up in Desire, I know just how valuable the Desire Street Ministries’ programs are for the children in the community. Because the GYAC members were there, the children had a place to play sports and games, and they were able to go on field trips each Friday. More importantly, we gave them the attention, compassion and support they needed. I worked hard to create a space where they could just be kids and not worry about the problems outside the camp’s walls. I also served as a role model, especially for the kids who didn’t have older brothers and sisters they could look up to. I disciplined them when they did something wrong, but I also tried to be a positive influence. For example, I will always remember one child who asked me to read the same Little Bear book with him every day during DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) time right before lunch. By the end of the summer he was reading the book to me because his reading skills had improved each day. I know I made a difference in that campers’ life, even if only in a small way.
At the end of our summer of service, the corps members coordinated a GYAC challenge project, a youth-led service-learning project designed to elevate youth voice in addressing community needs. We led the campers in creating a community garden right on the camp site as a way to develop community pride and beautify their school and neighborhood. We didn’t think the kids would like the idea of working outside in the summer heat, but they were more excited than I was to get in the garden, shovel and water the flowers.
As a GYAC member, I was supposed to inspire them, but their excitement about the project ended up inspiring me as well to continue giving back to the neighborhood I came from. The community garden we planted together is blossoming, and my hope is that it will still be around next year so the campers will be able to see the growth of what they did this summer. We want them to see that though what they created may not seem like a big thing, it’s so important to take pride in what they are capable of doing.
Follow in David’s footsteps by learning more about the Gulfsouth Youth Action Corps or find a similar opportunity in your community. Search keyword: “community center” “at-risk youth” “afterschool”