Flint national service accelerator unleashes the energy of young people to heal a city in distress

Flint, Michigan — a city facing extraordinary economic and educational challenges — has long benefited from the contributions of AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps VISTA service corps members. But a few years ago, the city’s nonprofit community — including the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, local government and service organizations — acted on a growing sense that with more coordination, training and community support, both the number and the impact of these hardworking service members could be much, much greater.

It started small — as an experiment among four nonprofits willing to test the feasibility of doubling the number of volunteers and service members available to the city from the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency that each year deploys more than five million service members through its AmeriCorps and Senior Corps programs.

Bill Basl talks with AmeriCorps memebrs about their work which is part of Operation AmeriCorps. The project operates to assist the Flint Community Schools with afterschool and summer programing for elementary and middle-school students and to engage families through community outreach. The school district also is the beneficiary of a 20-member Reading Corps, whose members tutor at-risk, K–3 students to improve their proficiency. The City of Flint, which recently completed its first master plan in decades, is using nine AmeriCorps VISTA members to engage the help of residents in implementing the plan.

Flint’s Potter Elementary is using a team of AmeriCorps members to implement community school practices.

“We wanted to launch in a grassroots way — and we figured we could do it better together,” said Jamie Gaskin, CEO of the United Way of Genesee County, of the local nonprofits who collaborated to develop the Flint National Service Accelerator.

Five years later, the Flint Accelerator is drawing national interest as a potential model for other communities. Successfully leveraging more than $3 million in local and federal dollars, Flint’s Accelerator also has helped local nonprofits increase the number of service members four-fold to about 100 now working throughout the city.

How the Accelerator boosts national service

Prior to establishing the Accelerator, many of Flint’s nonprofit agencies lacked the manpower and financial resources to meet the rising demands of the city’s most vulnerable populations. While CNCS service members often proved to be of enormous help, feedback from local agency personnel cited difficulties in raising matching funds, a rigorous and competitive application process, and a lack of staff capacity to supervise members as the most common reasons for not pursuing this additional help.

The accelerator initiative was designed as a response to these challenges. Directed by a Civic Engagement Manager who, as a loaned executive from the United Way, also serves as the City of Flint’s Chief Service Officer. The position is central to the model’s success, serving as the “glue” that holds together the growing number of partner organizations driving the project.

AmeriCorps Memebers and Red Cross volunteers working to help Flint citizens during the water crisis.

An AmeriCorps NCCC team is in Flint for three months to help residents affected by the city’s water crisis.

A multi-purpose operation, the Accelerator provides the capacity-building and technical assistance that local nonprofits need to successfully recruit, select, assign and train service members through three streams of service: AmeriCorps State/National; Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA); and National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC). The Accelerator also coordinates with three Senior Corps programs: Senior Companions, Foster Grandparents and RSVP.

Once service members are placed with an organization in the community, the Accelerator — through its Civic Engagement Manager — provides monthly professional development, training and other supports to make sure each has a successful work experience.

A National Service Accelerator Fund, set up at the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, provides support for technical assistance and training costs. The fund also assists local nonprofits in meeting the required federal match to operate the program.

Each component of the accelerator initiative is supported by the Mott Foundation, which has granted more than $1.2 million for the project.

“There are so many ‘wins’ for us,” said Lynn Williams, the senior program officer responsible for facilitating the matching fund requirement through the community foundation.

“This project strengthens the community as a whole, it strengthens the nonprofits that provide services, and it creates a pipeline of young leaders with experience and training that will — we believe — help put the city back together.”

How the Accelerator works

The only national service accelerator in the country, the Flint model enables multiple partners to strengthen their individual service programs and, collectively, grow the number of skilled national service members placed in the community.

Jenny McArdle, director of the Flint National Service Accelerator initiative

Jenny McArdle, chief service officer for United Way of Genesee County

“We knew when we launched that it would be difficult to execute and take to scale, given the challenges we face in Flint,” said Gaskin of the Accelerator. “It’s a complicated and multi-layered approach.”

But it was an approach that appealed to Jenny McArdle, a former AmeriCorps VISTA member and AmeriCorps VISTA Leader who managed a statewide VISTA program before taking the job of directing the Accelerator initiative.

“The idea of a place-based program where organizations work together to scale up the number of volunteers presents a very different way of thinking,” said McArdle of the Accelerator initiative.

In most communities, national service programs don’t work together in a coordinated, deliberate way.

“This is a test — to see if a grassroots, coordinated strategy is a more effective way of serving a community.”

In addition to supporting 10 local nonprofits that host AmeriCorps members, McArdle juggles four major national service programs in Flint. Most notably, she helps coordinate:

  • A new Operation AmeriCorps project placing 30 members with the Flint Community Schools. Flint is one of only 10 cities across the country selected to participate in the project. A local nonprofit, the Crim Fitness Foundation, is responsible for supervising service members who provide activities during the school day as well as after school and during the summer months at five local elementaries. Through tutoring, health education, conflict resolution, service-learning and community outreach and engagement, corps members are helping the district establish a community school program that puts Flint students on a path to academic success;
  • A 16-member Reading Corps, who tutor at-risk, K–3 students from the Flint Community Schools to improve their literacy skills;
  • A team of nine AmeriCorps VISTA members who work with city residents and community groups to implement the City of Flint’s master plan by developing projects to improve the city’s parks and green spaces, safety and neighborhood engagement; and
  • In partnership with the University of Michigan-Flint, ten new AmeriCorps VISTA members who make up an Urban Safety Corps. Service members work with neighborhoods along a major college corridor, helping residents create block clubs, community patrol groups, board up vacant and open properties, map safe pathways for students traveling to and from school and implement crime prevention strategies.

In February, 2016, the Accelerator expanded as the United Way brought a nine-person AmeriCorps NCCC team to Flint to assist in responding to the city’s drinking water crisis. In partnership with the local American Red Cross, these new service members — in Flint for three months — deliver water, filters and testing kits door-to-door as well as disseminating information and education on water health and safety measures. Accelerator staff helped locate housing for the team, as well as helping orient the service members to the community and coordinate their daily activities. Another NCCC team is scheduled to arrive in May.

While not technically part of the Accelerator, federal SeniorCorps members often work side-by-side with AmeriCorps, says McArdle.

“They don’t see each other as competition, they want to support the work together,” she continued. “We’re working on building stronger connections between all streams of service in Flint.

“It’s one of our big challenges: learning to coordinate and not duplicate.”

Accelerating the Accelerator

A Service Champions Work Group — made up of representatives from the Accelerator’s supporting partners, provides direction for the project. Recently, the group completed a draft five-year plan to guide the Accelerator’s growth and sustainability, with an ambitious goal of training and placing 300 service members in Flint by 2019.

Potter Community School Art Club facilitated by NCCC members

Serving in five Flint elementary schools, AmeriCorps members are providing afterschool and summer learning activities.

“It all hinges on people’s willingness to collaborate,” says McArdle of the Accelerator’s future. “And of course, continuing federal support for the Corporation for National & Community Service.”

Because the Accelerator is an evolving model, McArdle also is eager to create a more permanent curriculum for Accelerator trainings, which are held monthly to provide professional development for service members.

It’s one of the things I most appreciate about Jenny,” says Lynn Williams of McArdle. “She’s very focused on getting quality training, a quality experience for each of her service members. For her, program impact goes beyond the number of people recruited, money leveraged or the hours of work logged — she wants a positive impact for the members themselves.”

“It’s a benefit we don’t always consider,” says Gaskin of the effect a quality service year can have on a person.

“Service can be a powerful lens for how you look at the world. It can influence a young person for the rest of their life.”

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