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Hidden service force

Meet five young adults serving Menlo Park

Beneath the celebratory air at graduation time – with caps and tassels flying amid promises of bright futures by commencement speakers – lies a quiet terror, especially for college grads. "What's next?" they ask themselves.

For some college graduates, a temporary answer is found by joining AmeriCorps, a domestic version of the Peace Corps, which assigns members to a year of community service in the United States and pays them a stipend.

Five relatively recent college graduates are working quietly in the Menlo Park community as AmeriCorps volunteers. Two of them, Megan Ryan and Vashon Guidry, work at the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula, teaching after-school classes. Three others – Elizabeth Allen, Griselda Ramirez and Laura Simpson – work at Belle Haven Elementary School, helping students in kindergarten through eighth grade develop academic skills.

By the time they complete their service terms, each will have spent 1,700 hours doing community service in the city. The Almanac asked the five to reflect on what they've learned and how they're planning to answer that "what's next?" question.

Megan, bike shop coordinator

The summer after Megan Ryan finished high school, she biked across the country.

"It was the most independent feeling I've ever felt," she says. "I have everything I need and can fix anything that (goes) wrong."

She picked up bike repair skills working at a bike shop, and when she learned about an AmeriCorps position opening with an operation called Belle Haven Bikes, she decided it was perfect for her. Belle Haven Bikes works out of shipping containers at the Pierce Road clubhouse of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula. It repairs bikes and teaches bike repair and safety skills.

"There are not really bike shops here," she says of eastern Menlo Park. "There are not the resources if someone were to get a flat." Instead, she says, people have to find a way to get to the other side of Menlo Park and pay for repairs at an elite shop.

Her role is to help run Belle Haven Bikes. She is developing and teaching a curriculum for middle- and high-school students, who are learning how to repair bikes and develop other skills necessary to get hired at a bike shop. She also teaches bike safety to younger students.

After she finishes her AmeriCorps service, Ms. Ryan says, she plans to embark on an 8,000 mile bike trip from Deadhorse, Alaska, to Key West, Florida, to raise funds for a bike safety nonprofit launched in memory of Patrick Wanninkhof, who was killed by a distracted driver while on a bike ride for charity.

"Bikes are an amazing tool not only for physical mobility, but for social mobility as well," she says. "Having the joy of sharing that with others is what I am most passionate about."

Vashon, high school success coordinator

Vashon Guidry is an alumnus of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula who grew up in East Palo Alto when there was more violence and crime, he said.

As a high school student, he was inspired by Sean Mendy, his mentor at the Boys & Girls Clubs and now development director of the organization.

In his AmeriCorps role, Mr. Guidry, who has a degree in psychology from California State University at Monterey Bay, works with high school students, helping them with homework and teaching them how to apply for federal student financial aid.

He also runs a discussion and mentorship group for young men of color, called Boys Circle. The group of high school boys meets once a week and has open discussions about manhood and the racial struggles they face.

"I guess I'm kind of like him now," says Mr. Guidry, speaking of Mr. Mendy. "People actually look up to the role models and mentors here. You can tell you have an effect."

Mr. Guidry wants to pursue a graduate degree and then return to work at the club full-time.

Elizabeth, after-school coordinator

Elizabeth Allen graduated from Santa Clara University in June 2015 with a bachelor's degree in sociology. As an AmeriCorps volunteer, she's an academic mentor at Belle Haven Elementary School, teaching fourth-graders during the homework "power hour."

She also developed a curriculum to teach an elective to middle school students on nutrition. One of her favorite lessons of the year was when she demonstrated to students what 46 grams of sugar looks like, which is the amount found in some sodas. Their facial expressions, she says, told her: "Oh my gosh. I had no idea."

She also teaches earth science to seventh- and eighth-grade boys in the after-school program. During the school day, she works with a middle school teacher to help seventh-graders gain college-readiness skills.

A highlight of the year was when, after working to build a relationship with one unruly student, that student told her one day after school, "I want to let you know that you're my favorite teacher."

Now, she says, she is confident she wants to go into social work and hopes to pursue a joint master's in social work and law degree.

Griselda, after-school coordinator

Griselda Ramirez grew up in Modesto, graduated from U.C. Davis with a degree in psychology in 2014, and says she was always interested in working with kids, along with pursuing development psychology research. She's now living with family in Union City, and commutes to Belle Haven Elementary. She's a homework tutor for first-graders and works with third-graders to get them thinking about college.

She says she wants to continue to work in underserved communities.

In the future, she says, she plans to get a master's degree in counseling or teaching after another year of AmeriCorps in a different program that's more focused on social work.

Laura, Reading Partners coordinator

When she first took the job, she didn't consider herself a "kids person," says Laura Simpson, who works as a site coordinator with Reading Partners at Belle Haven Elementary School. She had studied religion in North Carolina, and says she wants to be a religion professor someday.

Her job was to train and organize volunteers to help struggling readers improve their literacy skills. Within about a week on the job, she says, her fears about working with kids dissolved. "Every student has a different story," she says.

Though some students do face financial or family difficulties, she says, that's not something she spends too much time thinking about. "When I'm working with my students, it's hard to focus on their limitations," she says. All her students, she says have "awesome thoughts going in their heads all the time."

That message she tries to pass to the volunteers she manages, people ages 14 to 74 who give students one-on-one literacy lessons.

"When you're helping out, you're not saving them," she says. "You're giving them an extra boost."

Her proudest moment? When a student approached her on the playground to turn in a book report early.

After she finishes her AmeriCorps service, she'll move to Nashville to pursue a master's degree in theological studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

National Civilian Community Corps

Not all local AmeriCorps programs are focused on working with youth. Jennifer Fields and Lindsey Hutchison work in a local National Civilian Community Corps program, focusing on protecting nearby watersheds.

One afternoon, they were out with Acterra, a local environmental nonprofit, removing ivy – an invasive species – from around the San Francisquito Creek at the Alma Street Bike Bridge in Menlo Park. A corps of Mormon missionaries was also helping.

The volunteer group, which called itself the "Ivy League," routinely removes ivy from various sites along the creek. Other conservation activities involve testing water quality and planting native species to restore and maintain the nearby habitat.

Making ends meet

Serving in the Menlo Park area is an economic challenge for AmeriCorps volunteers, particularly due to the high cost of housing. Stipends vary, but all who complete their term of service receive $5,775 to use for education purposes. According to Monica Hassan, AmeriCorps spokesperson, the stipend is listed at $14,700 for those working with the Boys and Girls Club and $17,400 for AmeriCorps members working with Reading Partners.

To make ends meet, those we interviewed moved in with a family or, in one case, a higher-income significant other. Some rely on food stamps. Others have weekend or side jobs to supplement their incomes.

The AmeriCorps supervisor for the Peninsula/San Jose Region, Jose Lopez Garcia, commented on the effects of the booming local economy: "People are coming in, and the economy is rising so quickly. Marginalized communities are being pushed aside."

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