AmeriCorps: Then and Now

This week is AmeriCorps Week. It’s the time to show your AmeriCorps spirit and passion for national service – an opportunity to celebrate, recognize, and appreciate members, programs and organizations that make the national initiative successful. As we celebrate AmeriCorps Week here at the CNNC, we look back almost 25 years to the beginning of the AmeriCorps ACCESS Project and how the program has changed over the last 10 years.

The Vision

Center for New North Carolinians’ (CNNC) Director Emeritus Dr. Raleigh Bailey started the AmeriCorps Cross Cultural Education Service Systems (ACCESS) Project in his living room. He began with a small, $20,000 planning grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service, a network of prospective partner organizations, and a vision for a thriving statewide program. No one, including Raleigh, was quite sure how successful the program would become.

ACCESS was created to be a state-wide, interagency-coordinated program to help immigrants and refugees gain access to existing services and address their human needs through a network of trained AmeriCorps participants who serve as culturally competent case managers and advocates.

AmeriCorps members commit to a year of full, part, or quarter-time service, placed with a partner agency. Partner agency sites have included small and large nonprofits, public libraries, health departments, community colleges, and religious institutions. Members earn a position-specific stipend and an end of the year education award that can be used for either future or current educational expenses or to pay back qualified student loans. As part of Raleigh’s vision, all graduating members earn a Cross-Cultural Human Services Credential from the UNC Greensboro’s Department of Social Work.

Twenty members placed at thirteen diverse sites made up the first program corps. Emphasis in recruitment focused on members reflecting the communities to be served. During those early years, 75% of the corps included immigrant and refugee members from the communities served, providing rich training and professional development to these communities that would have an impact for years to come. As the number of members has grown annually, roughly half have come from immigrants and refugee communities.

In This Together: Intentionally Cross-Cultural

The emphasis on cross-cultural practice early on in the program meant developing equal, common ground between cultures. Members received intense human relations training incorporating this approach to meet the needs of both the program and the communities served.

The program’s scope was broad in those early years. It focused on: targeting human needs, rebuilding neighborhoods, strengthening community development programs, and enhancing opportunities for people to come together to assess economic problems and address health care issues, including education and prevention programs. For ACCESS members, this meant providing culturally appropriate interpreting, increasing their site-agency’s capacity through volunteer recruitment and coordination, providing culturally competent health and human services case management, and job training and placement for a growing immigrant and refugee population across the state.

Raleigh reminisces, “the early years were fun and involved intense cross-cultural human relations training, overnight camping to build community, and a sense of family and common purpose among members, but the logistics of the grant were challenging.”

Finding a fiscal home for the ACCESS Project prior to the incorporation of the CNNC in 2001 was one of the main challenges in the first few years. Lutheran Family Services of the Carolinas held the grant initially, but when it became too logistically challenging, Dr. Bailey approached UNCG.

The Program Grows

In 1997, ACCESS came under UNCG’s Social Work Department with the support of Dr. John Rife, the Department chair at the time. The ACCESS Project grew, and the population of newcomers in N.C. continued to rise. In response to this influx, UNCG Chancellor Dr. Patricia Sullivan launched a task force which determined that these newest North Carolinians needed greater access to education, medical and social services, and job training. Two years later, the Chancellor received approval to create the Center.

Under the direction of Dr. Raleigh Bailey, the newly formed Center for New North Carolinians took on the work of the ACCESS Project. Other programs followed, including the Immigrant Health ACCESS Project, a Cone Foundation funded initiative providing health access to newcomers, and the Interpreter ACCESS Project providing professional interpreter training to interpreters across the state.

By 2004, the program more than doubled, with a member corps of over 60 placed at over 30 sites across North Carolina. ACCESS was the largest AmeriCorps program in the state for a number of years, and the only one whose mission was, and continues to be, serving immigrants and refugees.

Alums from the program have had a lasting impact on social service agencies across the state. Many members were hired on as staff in their sites, a couple started new agencies, moved into local and state government, and several became directors of other non-profit agencies. The ACCESS Project’s current director, Khouan Maoxomphu Rodriguez, started as an AmeriCorps Member. Serving at the Greensboro Buddhist Center in the late ‘90’s, Khouan helped others from Southeast-Asian communities learn English and navigate U.S. health and human services. Khouan went on to serve as a site supervisor, was then promoted to ACCESS program coordinator, and finally director. “I am truly where I am today because of AmeriCorps.” Khouan reflects, “I highly encourage everyone who is eligible to join AmeriCorps and experience the joy of giving back. The experience can be life-changing.”

Find out about the impact other Alums have had on our community.

ACCESS in Jeopardy

As the oldest running AmeriCorps program in the state, ACCESS is fortunate to be celebrating its 24th annual AmeriCorps Week. However, challenges persist. Throughout the last ten years, funding from the AmeriCorps parent agency, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) has decreased by over 65% with big cuts occurring in the last two years. Consequently, the program has suffered. The decrease in funds has meant a significant cut in ACCESS Program staff, from three-full time employees seven years ago, to one this coming year, tripling the director’s workload.

For partners and members, this has meant a smaller corps, shrinking from 80 members less than ten years ago to 28 in the 2018-2019 program year. With less member positions, ACCESS has had to limit the number of partners. Partner sites have had to reduce both the quality of services provided to the community and the number of individuals served. Previously, members received monthly training sessions involving specialized, outside speakers, broad professional development, and team building activities. In the last couple of years, trainings have shifted to quarterly events throughout the year, limiting team cohesion and only emphasizing the essentials of the program.

The loss in federal funding for the ACCESS Project limits the CNNC’s capacity to meet growing community needs. With fewer members, and fewer dollars coming into the CNNC, we have had to reduce assistance given to vulnerable new arrivals, job-seeking adults, and youth struggling in their new academic setting.

This is AmeriCorps Week. Now, is the time to show your support. Whether you are an alum, a partner-site, or an admirer from a distance there are lots of ways to help ACCESS thrive again.

  • Apply to be a member! Does AmeriCorps sound interesting to you? Know someone who might be a good fit? Applications for the coming 2019-2020 year are on the CNNC website.
  • Read-up on where AmeriCorps funding stands at the federal level. Raleigh Bailey shares his thoughts in a recent Op. Ed published in the Raleigh News & Observer.
  • Read ideas from AmeriCorps Alums on four things you can do right now!
  • Donate! Decreases in federal funding can be offset by local support from individuals and businesses. Invest in your community through a contribution to CNNC to see the AmeriCorps ACCESS Project continue for another 25 years.