Bill Ellis Column April 19, 2009

AmeriCorps allows opportunity to pay it forward

The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act was passed by Congress and will be signed into law by President Obama soon.

One provision of the act triples funding for AmeriCorps to boost enrollment from 75,000 to 250,000 people. (For more details go to and click on the badge,

“We are service nation.”) I am proud to say I am a member of service nation and would like to share part of my story as an AmeriCorps worker in 2002.

Trained to mentor at-risk teens, I developed a writing program coaching teens in alternative schools. I proposed getting the students to create poems, essays and actual news reports.

The results would be compiled into a newspaper that was more like a magazine and distributed at the school to motivate the kids. Then Pat Verstraete, the Mesa State College AmeriCorps director, made a suggestion.

“Please, Bill, just visit the detention facility,” Pat said after a staff meeting. “I think you’ll like it.” I agreed to a transfer and off to jail I went to work with small groups of “juvies” in a glass-walled computer room. They wrote in every class and between classes. And they soaked up my coaching like it was the first time anyone had ever paid attention to them.

Our newspaper was approved by the superintendent and ruefully titled, “Inside Edition.” All contributing writers had pen names for anonymity and security. There were extraordinary poems and essays, many recounting tales of mistakes and promises of contrition and to go straight once on the “outs,” the general term for freedom.

“Spyder” was their leader. He was a very smart young man of 17, and brought up the big news story of the day involving corruption by top corporate managers and political officials in Washington. And in the middle of a heated debate, he said, “Why should we follow the rules when the people who make the laws don’t follow them?” It was a pin-dropping moment. Still, I saw this as an opportunity to talk straight to the other kids and wrote up an article for the next “Inside Edition.” Allow me to share part of it here:

“I care about your writing because you matter. It is a message I take pride in passing on to your generation as my father’s did for me. And, it is a message I expect you to pass on to the next generation. Think of this obligation as a social contract. We do good things because we want to, need to and have to. Our good deeds, contributions if you will, hold the community together, forming social glue. You cannot solve all the world’s problems but you can affect your community. Believe this. It is true. Equally as true is the fact that all of us contributing good deeds will far outweigh all the bad acts you’ll hear about. So, I choose to make my contribution where I stand, trying to change one writer at a time. If I can push you along to being better citizens as well, then I’ll be mighty pleased.”

Verstraete has trained 25 AmeriCorps workers each year for the past 10. She sends them out to over 20 non-profits to work in the community. Our class mentored kids in school, taught single-moms-to-be how to care for their babies and find a job, helped distribute food at a local food bank, partnered with young kids in foster homes and assisted handicapped young adults to ski and snowboard. We ranged in age from 18 to 78, with my friend, Ruth Anderson, being the oldest AmeriCorps worker in the state.

The Serve America Act provides full- or part-time pay for your work. You will also be awarded an educational grant of up to $5,350.

Nightly news shows tell the stories of people all over the United States paying it forward, doing good work, just because it’s needed.  Check it out. Contribute. Give back.

Bill Ellis has published three novels and has been awarded grants to mentor eighth graders in the public schools by the Longmont Council for the Arts. He lived in Grand Junction from 1999 to 2002. Connect with him at


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