Cristina Varriale reflects on her time serving with Youth Service Opportunities Project (YSOP), a CVN-AmeriCorps program that encourages community participation among young people by engaging them in direct service to homeless and hungry people. As a teacher, Varriale has seen how much of an impact participating in YSOP has had on her students, her colleagues and herself.
What attracted me most to being an AmeriCorps Member with the Youth ServiceOpportunities Project (YSOP), which provides service-learning workcamps for students who are interested in learning about hunger and homelessness, was that it was a total immersion experience. My students, colleagues and I would not only be asked to prepare and share a meal with homeless guests and serve at various work sites the following day, but we would be required to sleep on a floor and forgo some of our modern day comforts such as cell phones and fast food. Clearly, we would not be experiencing what it feels like to be homeless, but we would be getting a small taste of what it feels like to go without- even for a little while. They were small sacrifices that would have a deep impact on all of us.
I will never forget that first workcamp my students, colleagues and I participated in. The students who came were not in honors classes. They were not leaders in student government or star athletes. One of the students participating was even in a wheel chair. But they all shared some things in common: a desire to learn about hunger and homelessness, and more importantly, to give back to their community. The experience of working side by side with my students, listening to their thoughtful and reflective questions, was nothing short of profound.
Over the course of this AmeriCorps year, I have had the privilege of leading a vast variety of students in service-learning workcamps. I never cease to be inspired when I observe these students stretch beyond their personal boundaries and comfort levels to share themselves openly with our homeless guests. My favorite part of these workcamps is when I’m leading the evening reflection and I hear the students share how their expectations and preconceived judgments about people who are homeless were shattered within the first five minutes of meeting our guests. And I especially love when the student who perhaps doesn’t always shine as bright as their classmates finds a little more confidence through their service.
It is hard for me to adequately express my gratitude for this AmeriCorps year of service. This experience allowed me to do something I love and share a greater part of myself with my students, as well with students from many other schools and youth organizations. I believe being an AmeriCorps member has helped me grow as a teacher, counselor, mentor and, most importantly, a conscientious member of my community. I hope to continue my service with AmeriCorps and will continue to advocate for my students’ participation in the program as well.
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