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AmeriCorps program in Purdy opening new horizons

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Details about the AmeriCorps Reading Coaches program at the Purdy R-2 School District were shared by director Renee Neill at last week's meeting of the Monett Kiwanis Club.

The AmeriCorps program, modeled after the Peace Corps, was created by President Bill Clinton in 1994 to serve the needs of communities. Nationwide 75,000 people participate in the program. Four hundred have been involved in programs in Missouri. Currently 14 work in the Purdy schools.

Since AmeriCorps' inception, more than one million staff members have gone through the program, Neill said. Those working for AmeriCorps must sign a contract pledging to give 1,700 hours of their time or an average of 45 hours a week. Pay is $1,400 for the year. Those who complete the two-year program earn a $10,000 scholarship.

"Very special people volunteer for the program," Neill said.

Staff come to Purdy from Monett, Cassville and as far away as Marionville.

The challenge for Neill is keeping staff, since participants are only eligible for two years. Neill said she is constantly recruiting, which is particularly challenging in a community the size of Purdy. Some volunteers are recent high school graduates. Most are retirees.

Staff members concentrate on improving the reading skills of students during one-on-one tutoring sessions which typically last 30 minutes. The goal is to get students back to the reading level of their peers.

The process is sometimes difficult, Neill said. Children who read poorly may be facing unspoken stresses at home. At times a child will stonewall the reading coach, at which point the AmeriCorps staffer has to get the child to talk about life in general, then work into what may be at the heart of the child's concerns.

Neill said the bond that develops between a child and a reading coach can be deep and last a lifetime. Because the reading coaches are role models, Neill likes to recruit people from diverse backgrounds, bringing a lot of life experience to the relationship.

Around one third of children from kindergarten to fourth grade see the reading coaches. The STAR test is used to measure reading skills. Coming from another culture can be an obstacle to reading. Neill said this year she is fortunate to have a bilingual coach on staff.

The AmeriCorps program has its own library of 2,500 books. The library represents its own lesson plan, offering a progression for learning. Spelling is also emphasized, Neill said.

In addition to two weeks of training on reading, the AmeriCorps staff receives training in emergency response and first aid. The program's motto is: "We are AmeriCorps. We get things done."

Neill recalled how AmeriCorps staff have volunteered their time in ice storm and tornado clean-up in the Purdy community, checking on residents door to door after the May 8, 2008, tornado, and helping with post-flooding clean-up at Jolly Mill. Many who begin community service as an AmeriCorps volunteer continue to assist with other programs the rest of their lives, Neill said.

The AmeriCorps program in Purdy is largely funded by federal grant money. The school district provides a little more than 40 percent of the pay. Neill starts recruiting in earnest around March for the following year. She and the elementary school principal make the final staff selection.

Neill is the second director of the AmeriCorps program. Before moving to Purdy, she worked for the Social Security Administration. When she and family moved to Purdy, her husband's hometown, she began working as a substitute teacher and became involved in a number of activities. When Renee Schallert left AmeriCorps after heading the program for seven years, Neill agreed to be her successor.

Kiwanis President Randy Henderson presided at the meeting. Lisa Balmas was the program chairman.

The Monett Kiwanis Club meets on Tuesdays at noon for a meal and a program, usually at Happy House restaurant.

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