At 21 years old, Jani Toney is thankful to be able to give back every day to the community she grew up in.
A few years ago, Toney graduated from Beecher High School as a shy, quiet teenager. Through mentorship and guidance, she found her voice and a passion for helping Flint kids. Now, as an AmeriCorps member, Toney serves at the Flint Development Center working with and mentoring kids just like her.
“I want to make a difference and see change. I grew up around the corner, walking through Forest Park, so seeing my community come back together and seeing opportunities for the community is why I love being a part of this program,” said Toney. “It’s hard to leave where you grew up. Everybody can’t leave, so somebody has to stay and make a difference.”
The Flint Development Center aims to provide a safe space for Flint and Genesee County residents to enjoy recreational, social, educational, cultural, community and service activities. The Center is home to the Flint Development Center Literacy Lab, summer camps, afterschool programs, FLEX High School, senior programming and other community programs.
Through the training and networking activities offered by the Flint National Service Accelerator, an initiative that has received more than $3.9 million from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Toney has thus far been able to spend two terms with the Flint Development Center, finding her place and learning how she can best give back.
Toney serves specifically with the Flint Recovery Corps (FRC) program, which is administered by the United Way of Genesee County to address long-term needs of Flint residents related to the water crisis. She is one of 13 FRC members at sites across Flint, all focusing on connecting residents with resources in early education, medical management, nutrition, and behavioral and developmental health.
She works with youth most days, helping more than 300 students who come through the center to participate in summer camps and literacy programs. Toney is also responsible for organizing senior programing, refreshing the job posting board at the center, creating a resource book and organizing the volunteers who come through the Flint Development Center.
“We are a family here. Anybody that walks in the door, you would think that [Executive Director Shelly Sparks] knew them for years. She’s very welcoming,” Toney said. “You’re not being judged. Whatever it is that you need, even if we don’t provide that service, we will look other places. You don’t leave without some sort of encouragement or help. That’s what I love about it.”
Sparks and Toney have known each other for years, and Sparks has impacted Toney’s life in major ways.
“I knew Shelly since I was 11. She was my mentor in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Connecting back with her, she got me involved,” Toney said. “Seeing the things she did, especially for me as a young child, made me want to do more in my community. Being involved with kids is something I can see myself doing because I’ve been a part of that. I’ve been that kid that needed someone.”
Toney is the first AmeriCorps member to serve at the Flint Development Center, which has helped the staff better serve the community, Sparks said.
“It’s awesome having Jani here. She does a lot of outreach in the community that our small team doesn’t always have time to do,” said Sparks, adding how proud she is of the person Toney has grown into. “I’ve watched her grow and develop and come out of her shell. She has taken her life into her own hands.”
Now Toney can be a role model and example for the kids that spend time at the center.
“My favorite things are seeing the changes in the community and the kids’ smiles, and when we throw free community events and seeing the impact it has on the community,” she said. “I was in the community growing up. I feel like, if the center was here when I was younger, it would have made a bigger difference in my life. I would have come in.”
Toney doesn’t know exactly what is next for her, but she would like to continue her education and continue to give back to her community. She said that, even when she’s no longer an AmeriCorps member at the Flint Development Center, she won’t stop volunteering there.
Being an AmeriCorps member in Flint was a great experience, Toney added. She said it helped her grow and develop as a person, and it also opened up a lot of opportunities.
“Before AmeriCorps, I was shy and quiet. I broke out of my shell and learned how to be a better speaker,” she said. “Meeting different people and networking with other AmeriCorps members was great. I have met people I didn’t think I would ever meet. I think that’s one of the best parts about AmeriCorps. I’m thankful for the opportunity.”