For Phillip Barnhart, AmeriCorps prompted a mid-life career change

Phillip Barnhart sits at his desk.
A year with AmeriCorps led to a career change for Phillip Barnhart, who now directs the Flint Recovery Corps. Photo: Cristina Wright

A midlife crisis — of sorts — spurred Phillip Barnhart to become an AmeriCorps member. Through most of his professional life, he pursued a career in academia while also working a variety of jobs far removed from scholarly pursuit, such as selling cars and managing construction projects. Then a few years ago, he pushed the pause button to care for a family member suffering from dementia.

“Caring for Aunt Peg taught me there was something a lot deeper in life than what I’d been doing. After she passed away, I realized that service might be a more meaningful path for me. It was what I really wanted to do.

“So instead of buying a sportscar, I joined AmeriCorps,” he said.

All joking aside, Barnhart said his career switch from the private sector to program manager for the United Way of Genesee County’s Flint Recovery Corps program was, at times, difficult. Though he still teaches as an adjunct professor, he’s put the pursuit of full-time academia on hold. Giving up an old dream and pursuing a new career in mid-life was a humbling experience for the lifelong scholar, who holds not only a bachelor of arts degree, but also three master’s degrees.

Through my AmeriCorps experience, I’ve come to believe that, if we want a healthy society, we first and foremost have to learn to serve.” Phillip Barnhart

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew there was more important work to be done than what I had been doing,” he said.

“I was aware of AmeriCorps, but I thought it was for younger people. But after a good friend assured me there was no shame in joining at my age, I applied, was accepted, and was placed at Doyle-Ryder Elementary School as a community resource developer.

“It was the deepest, richest, most life-changing experience I’ve ever had,” Barnhart said.

Through AmeriCorps, Barnhart came to realize he had skills, life experiences and connections that were valuable to the larger community. It was his service year, he said, that provided the foundation for him to enter the field of nonprofit administration.

“It built my confidence,” he said. “It gave me a buffer as I attempted to transition into a new industry.”

As the first director of Flint Recovery Corps, Barnhart is responsible for placing AmeriCorps members with local nonprofits that provide programming related to food security and nutrition, behavioral and developmental health, early education, and medical management as part of the city’s efforts to help residents recover from the effects of the Flint water crisis.

“It’s a direct service program that may result in capacity-building,” said Barnhart. “We work with a variety of organizations that have different needs, but our primary goal is to have a direct connection with the community through those organizations.

“Sometimes I think of my job as a version of Stratego!©, the old board game. It’s my responsibility to understand what these organizations are working to accomplish so that the right member is matched with the right site,” he explained.

The placement of an AmeriCorps member can make a big difference to nonprofits stretched to provide services, Barnhart said. But it makes an equally big difference for the member.

“It transforms people,” he said. “Through my AmeriCorps experience, I’ve come to believe that, if we want a healthy society, we first and foremost have to learn to serve.”