Vanessa Bennett: The Power of Service For Rural Young People

Vanessa Bennett is an Associate Director with the Center for Apprenticeship and Work-Based Learning at Jobs For the Future focused on increasing economic mobility for opportunity youth and young adults. Previously she was the Senior Manager of Career Pathways at YouthBuild USA where she designed and implemented strategies to expand access to careers, post-secondary education, and national service. She has a background in youth development and direct service, and experience in housing and food policy. Vanessa is an AmeriCorps alum and we excited to have Vanessa as part of the staff team for the Rural Youth Assembly Summit.

When it comes to the idea of service, rural communities are often framed as the recipients of service or as the individuals in need of service. Less often is the narrative one that highlights the agency and innovation of these communities to be service providers. National Service, through programs like AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps VISTA, National Civilian Conservation Corps, and The Corps Network, can be a powerful and transformative tool in reshaping this narrative and supporting rural community capacity.

I grew up in New Hampshire and after graduating from college planned to travel for my service year. I wanted to experience new places, meet new people and was incredibly resistant to the idea of returning to the small, economically divided town I had grown up in. It wasn’t that I didn’t like my hometown, my family was there and some of my friends were moving back, but the division always felt palpable and the limited investments in education, enrichment, or supportive services for the young people living there was something that I could never understand. Outside of afterschool sports and the local rec center’s after-school and summer camp programs, which often struggled through push-back from the community and the town’s budgeting process, there wasn’t much going on. Growing up it wasn’t uncommon for young people to become disengaged and then quickly written off or to have their narrative become one of laziness and troublemaking. I had seen this happen to many of my classmates and then to many of the young people I worked with at the rec center. In a moment of transition in my own life, I felt few if any ties to the community and felt no real sense of agency or ownership of the space. My service experience changed that entirely.

I had planned to head to New Orleans for my service year but as I was getting ready to leave found out that the program could no longer host me. I didn’t know what to do and spent the next month applying to odd jobs, trying to figure out my next move. It was a tough moment. There weren’t many AmeriCorps opportunities in New Hampshire and as more and more programs closed their application process to usher in the next cohort of corps members, I was convinced that service experience wasn’t something I’d get to take part in. Then I got a call from a program I knew well, PlusTime NH. They were looking to fill a position at the rec center I’d spent the previous 6 years working at and wanted to know if I would be interested. There had been a lot of staff transition and it was a chance to not only serve but to serve my community and build something meaningful.

As soon as my service started, it was a rollercoaster. I quickly realized how much I hadn’t been privy too, how much had been quietly happening behind the scenes to create barriers to programs and participation. The center was struggling financially and without enough staff, there was talk of closing programs. My service year became less about completing a few projects and more about building meaningful and important capacity, about finding solutions to fiscal challenges, and about galvanizing support for programs that served all members of the community, young and old.  Over the course of that year, I was able to really see the constellation of challenges facing my community and I developed a strong understanding of how each systemic issue fed into another creating an environment where capacity was always lacking and support was always needed. While my service was supposed to focused specifically on working with middle and high-school students, I ended up working across socio-economic issues and had to think critically about how to create solutions that could be applied holistically to the challenges facing the community. I by no means solved these challenges but I contributed to positive and sustainable change and through that grew as a leader and saw myself as someone with agency and the power to help others and re-write my own narrative.

For rural young people, service can be an incredible experience that fosters an inclusive and supportive community in which they are the leaders, critical thinkers, and problem-solvers, tasked with finding meaningful solutions to the challenges they see within their communities. Service can be an opportunity for young people to work on the issues that they are most passionate about and understand how they connect to broader community needs. It can also help them find an identity within their community, build stronger ties to their neighbors, and for those who want to travel, make the idea of leaving more real and tangible.

Service can increase access to post-secondary education and careers through expanded social and professional networks and educational supports and training. AmeriCorps members earn an education award that is matched by dozens of post-secondary institutions across the country and have access to virtual college fairs and voluntary online courses. They also build their soft and technical skills through gain meaningful hands-on work experience in an array of industries and sectors like nonprofit management, education, conservation, and land management, and construction.

Regardless of where or how one chooses to serve, there is an undeniable value that is gleaned from the experience. As we work towards building a more inclusive nation, service can be a catalyst for creating shared experiences and forging bonds between neighbors.

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