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DHS News June 2013    


KEYS Welcomes a New Class of Recruits

Helen Wachter has a binder, nearly two inches thick, of pictures and text that document community projects completed through the Americorps Knowledge to Empower Youth to Success (KEYS) program in the past six years.

There are mitten and book drives. Public gardens and murals.  Assisting at the Rainbow Kitchen food pantry. Gathering pillows and pajamas for homeless children. Collecting and counting pennies for Children’s Hospital. KEYS members have wrapped up hundreds more in the 17 years that Helen has been director of the program, which is administered by the DHS Office of Community Service, Bureau of Family and Community Services.

All KEYS projects center around youth in economically disadvantaged communities. KEYS members tutor, mentor and encourage them to also participate in public service. But KEYS members and the communities benefit in many ways as well, say the members, administrators and program partners.

Although KEYS is a year-round program, it has a large summer component.  This year, 64 members, mostly college students or recent graduates, will serve with KEYS from late May to mid-August, assisting in everything from playground programs to tutoring. Their participation is “from soup to nuts,” Helen says. “Design through implementation. You’re a project manager and you’re interacting with multiple groups: Kids, site managers, the community.”

AmeriCorps Allentown 
AmeriCorps members help prepare a community
garden in Allentown.

“One of the things that defines us as a program is leading service projects,” she added, emphasizing the word “lead.” “We never go in and say, ‘This is what you need.’ Members do research. They go in teams to the community to see what its assets are” as well as working collaboratively to discover needs and how to address them. “They know their community before they step foot in it.”

KEYS members serve at 40 host agencies. Those include Mt. Ararat Baptist Church in Larimer; the borough of Braddock; the Girl Scouts, Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania; and the Methodist Union of Social Agencies (MUSA).

Summer members receive two weeks of orientation and training, based at the Human Services Building, Downtown.  Sessions include conflict resolution; mandated reporting, safety; mentoring; bullying prevention training -- even a ropes course for team-building held at Camp Guyasuta in Sharpsburg.

“KEYS is fantastic,” said Sandy Kiefer, Director of Academic Support Services for the Crossroads Foundation, who attended a meet-and-greet on May 30. The program helps low-income, non-Catholic students succeed at the region’s Catholic High Schools. KEYS members tutor students at the 17 Catholic schools that feed into six high schools. “The members that we’ve had have been a sheer delight,” said Sandy. “Very, very good. They are open to suggestions and constructive ideas. We’ve benefited, but they have also benefited.”

Summer KEYS members make $3,202 for their commitment of about 40 hours a week for 11 weeks.  This year, they will be in service from May 28 to Aug. 15. They may also receive an additional $1,468 post-service education award.  

The reasons members give for participating in KEYS vary, but most profess dedication to public and human services.  “Some say, ‘I love the idea of helping people,’” said Aaron Gray, assistant KEYS program director, in explaining why people aspire to serve with KEYS. “Some say, ‘I’m going into ‘X,’ but I want to do this and give back while I can.”

Shanai Sloan of Highland Park, a senior psychology major at Chatham University, is a KEYS member for the first time. She said she enjoyed the orientation and training. She is assigned to the DHS summer food program. “It wasn’t what I was expecting, but in a good way. It’s interactive. Everyone is very relatable. I wasn’t expecting that,” Shanai said.

KEYS is funded by the Corporation for National Community Service. For fiscal 2012-13, DHS received $1.2 million in federal funding for the year that ends Aug. 30. With required matching funds from participating sites, the KEYS budget totals $1.7 million. ­­­­

“For many of our members, this is their first job,” Helen said. “Businesses want experience. We give them that. They can develop the passion for education, working with youth, their life’s work.”

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