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WIU Peace Corps Fellows/AmeriCorps Program Recognized as "One of Most Innovative in U.S."
October 15, 2010
MACOMB, IL -- For more than 15 years, communities across Illinois have benefited from a group of Western Illinois University students, who also are returned Peace Corps volunteers and AmeriCorps members. Through Western Illinois University's Peace Corps Fellows (PCF) Program in Community Development, rural communities in the Land of Lincoln have been able to utilize this unique program to help jump-start, as well as maintain, economic development in all parts of the state.
Established in 1994 through the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (the IIRA, which is housed at WIU) and grant funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the PCF Program in Community Development was among the first of its kind in the Peace Corps Fellows/USA Network. Over the years, it has continued to provide a means through which innovative community programs – such as economic and business-development initiatives, recycling programs and health and wellness programs – are initiated and sustained in rural communities in Illinois. In addition to helping the citizens in rural towns and villages in the state, the PCF Program in Community Development at WIU provides an opportunity for Western students to utilize their Peace Corps experience, serve stateside in AmeriCorps during their time at WIU and obtain an advanced degree.
Recently, the PCF program was recognized for its innovation and contributions to rural life in Illinois by two national non-profit organizations, the Innovations in Civic Participation (ICP) organization and the American Association of State Service Commissions (also known as America's Services Commissions, or ASC). In a June 2010 report, "Transforming Communities through Service," WIU's Peace Corps Fellows Program in Community Development was named one of "52 of the most innovative AmeriCorps programs in the United States." In the report's foreword section, Susan Stroud, ICP executive director, noted the 52 AmeriCorps "tremendously creative and meaningful" state programs recognized are "from 39 states…from Alabama to Wyoming" and "are making a difference in the lives of Americans. … Whether a program recruits mentors, preserves our environment, helps children read, empowers persons with disabilities to serve, or provides direct assistance to at-risk, low-income seniors, AmeriCorps is 'getting things done.'"
According to Ted Gibbs, executive director of the Illinois Service Commission, the organization through which he nominated WIU's PCF Program in Community Development for the ICP/ASC honor, the program has substantial impact in small, rural communities across the state.
"The program leverages the expertise of returning Peace Corps members to meet local needs and activates local citizens around a community project," Gibbs said. "WIU's Peace Corps Fellows Program is the type of innovative program that President Obama spoke of when he stated that AmeriCorps programs can be 'force multipliers'; they leverage small numbers of members into thousands of volunteers.'"
Karen Mauldin-Curtis, program manager of WIU's PCF Program, noted that, indeed, the program leverages volunteer contributions, as well as funding from a variety of levels and resources to impact communities in rural Illinois.
"AmeriCorps funds allow us to operate our state program and enable us to train and support our graduate students assigned to underserved communities. Additionally, we obtain funding support from national resources, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as from the local communities themselves – whether through local fundraising efforts, through private grant funds communities are accessing, or through in-kind contributions, such as personal time of local volunteers," Mauldin-Curtis added.
How It Works
In the ICP/ASC June 2010 report, one of the PCF Program's innovations highlighted was its "delivering meaningful service." The report states: "The Peace Corps Fellows program focuses on providing dedicated leadership and on-site technical assistance to small, rural communities across Illinois through its Members. The program accomplishes this by providing specialized training to Members; through Member recruitment and management of local volunteers in service to their communities; and through Members building capacity of local organizations and individuals."
Each "member" is the Western Illinois University student – a Peace Corps Fellow who is pursuing a master's degree in business administration; economics; political science (public administration); recreation, park and tourism administration (RPTA); geography (regional planning); or health sciences – who serves in an 11-month internship position in an underserved rural community in Illinois after an academic year of courses and service assistantship.
"Our Fellows are continually leveraging local resources to get things done, as Stroud mentioned. They are raising funds. They are recruiting volunteers. They are coordinating community efforts in these small communities across Illinois," Mauldin-Curtis said. "I think that's why the ICP/ASC report also recognized our program for 'outstanding resource generation.' Not only are we generating dollars from the various funding resources, but we're also utilizing volunteers, which the State of Illinois equates to about $22 per hour for volunteer labor. That's the equivalent of a serious investment on the local level in the projects taking place in these small, rural communities."
In the Land of Lincoln… and Beyond
Next week, along with Mauldin-Curtis, a few of the WIU Peace Corps Fellows and AmeriCorps members will help the state's AmeriCorps program kick off its service year in the annual National Service Recognition Day event in Springfield, Thursday, Oct. 21. According to Mauldin-Curtis, more than 800 of the State of Illinois' AmeriCorps members will be in Springfield to take part in a service activity and take their AmeriCorps oath and pledge of service. Attending from WIU are: Judy Torres (Chicago, IL), RPTA; Emily Schoenfelder (Bradenton, IL), RPTA; Dustin Hinrichs (Macomb, IL) political science; Dan Socha (Springfield, IL) political science; Kathryn Nees (Portland, OR), health science (health education); Adam Kohlrus (Springfield, IL), health sciences (public health); and Jennifer Chancay (Macomb, IL), health sciences (public health). Mauldin-Curtis added that 2010 is the eighth year of the partnership between the Illinois AmeriCorps program and WIU's PCF Program in Community Development.
Later this month, Western's PCF Program will provide its Peace Corps Fellows/AmeriCorps members/students with the opportunity to attend the Fourth Annual West Central Illinois Volunteerism Conference, for which the WIU PCF Program in Community Development and the IIRA serve as steering committee partners. The conference is slated to take place in Macomb on Thursday, Oct. 28. (More information about the West Central Illinois Volunteerism Conference is available at www.wcivc.net.)
Beyond Illinois, Western's unique PCF/AmeriCorps program is also in the running for a national award by the University Economic Development Association (UEDA). Mauldin-Curtis noted that the program was recently notified of its finalist status -- one of three in the entire U.S. -- in the UEDA Awards of Excellence. She will present next month at the UEDA Awards of Excellence competition in Reno (NV) at the UEDA Annual Summit, "Higher Education Institutions as Catalysts for Economic Transformation." (For more information about the UEDA Annual Summit, see www.universityeda.org/summit2010/.)
For more information about WIU's Peace Corps Fellows Program in Community Development, contact Mauldin-Curtis at (309) 298-2706 or at K-Mauldin-Curtis@wiu.edu. Learn more about the program on the Peace Corps Fellows website at www.peacecorpsfellows-wiu.org. Download the "Transforming Communities through Service: A Collection of 52 of the Most Innovative AmeriCorps Programs in the United States" (PDF) June 2010 report at www.icicp.org/ht/a/GetDocumentAction/i/12506.