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Do you have what it takes to serve?

Serving with City Year AmeriCorps

Elexsa Perello wasn’t sure what career path she wanted to explore after college and initially thought that she would serve with the Peace Corps. Then, she learned about City Year at a service fair.  She didn’t know exactly what she was getting herself into when she signed up to serve with City Year Orlando, but she was really excited about working with kids. This is her story:

Because I graduated from an under-resourced high school myself, I knew how much I would have benefited from having someone in my corner when I was going through some of the things that high school students go through in challenging school environments. I wish I had had a City Year! For me it was a personal decision to serve as a City Year AmeriCorps member in Orlando to support high school students in my own community.

My boyfriend and I joined City Year for the 2018-2019 school year and we both had a great experience in service at different schools, especially working with our students every day. We learned how to work within a team and about the Orange County Public School System, one of the largest school districts in the nation.

Now, my boyfriend and I are off on another service journey together, this time in South Korea. We’re hoping to teach youth ESL classes there and build on the leadership skills we picked up while serving with City Year, this time from an international perspective.  While our City Year experience was transformative, it requires a lot from each person and is not for everyone. It’s important for young adults to understand what is expected, as well as what they will gain, from a year of service.

Why I’m sharing my City Year AmeriCorps experience with you

In July 2018, I started my 10-month program with City Year Orlando, serving in a systemically under-resourced public high school that was full of talented students. Every day, I worked in partnership with a teacher in her classroom, serving as a one-on-one tutor, mentor and role model for students—a student success coach.

To start off, I will say this, service is really hard work. Making an impact in your community takes real commitment and that commitment is not for the faint of heart.  If you’re not up for the challenge of putting the needs of others before your own and you can’t see the silver lining in things, it’s better to be honest with yourself up front. If you’re not ready to embrace what will likely be one of the most difficult experiences you will ever have the privilege of exploring, don’t do it! Save yourself some time and respect the time and enthusiasm of those who come fully committed to serve.

At this point you may be wondering, “Do I have what it takes to serve?”

That, my friend, is a good question to ask yourself now, before you apply.

When I was looking into serving with AmeriCorps, I wondered the same thing. I started looking for more information, trying to access other people’s personal perspectives on how challenging the City Year journey actually is.  I wanted to learn as much as I could about the reality of serving with City Year. In retrospect, I wish that some of my teammates, too, had seriously considered the journey ahead of them before jumping in without first doing some research and checking their motivations and expectations.

My initial search for information on lived experience didn’t turn up too many helpful videos. While I was doing City Year, I kept thinking, “Well, this would have been helpful to know before joining AmeriCorps.” For one, in order to reap the full benefits of a City Year, corps members must be consistent throughout their service hours. They must show relentless empathy and dedication to the lives of others.

City Year believes that empathy—the ability to put yourself in the place of another—is an essential skill for anyone committed to social change. Given the complexity of the problems we seek to transform, a strong capacity for empathy is essential. It empowers us to collaborate effectively to maximize our impact. Read more about City Year values.

At the start of my journey, I didn’t fully understand the sacrifices required, the long hours, the rapid learning that would at times leave me feeling just as lost and confused as some of my students when they were working hard to learn new skills. It’s hard to explain these things to someone just entering a year of service. With patience, the understanding comes day by day, but AmeriCorps members must be prepared to show up ready and fully present every day, no matter what is going on in their personal lives.

The truth is, service work is no joke

A lot of people, myself included, struggled to embrace the mindset required to successfully get through a year of service. I think in part it was tough because many of us had never done service work and didn’t know what to expect.  In addition to that, a lot of people my age have, through just living in the world we live in right now, cultivated a sense of entitlement that makes it difficult to put the needs of others first. If you’ve never been challenged in this way, it might be a painful shock to experience the intensity that the work demands day in and day out, for 1,700 hours over 10 months of your life offered in service to your community.

One of the main things that I experienced during my service year was a feeling that I couldn’t put into words. It was an existential feeling. I was dealing with things in my interpersonal life (I lost a family member while serving) and also dealing with emotional work at City Year, learning how to work on a team with a mix of personalities—people I liked and some people I didn’t get along with as well.

On top of that, when it came to my students and my work, I wanted to be extra involved in everything that was happening with them and I spread myself thin. I didn’t always make time for self-care and there were moments when the work became overwhelming.

I learned a lot about myself from the experience. I learned to listen to what my body, mind and soul needed and to actually make the time to take care of myself. I learned that if I’m going to do work that fills and supports others, I first need to fill myself to have something helpful to offer. I learned the need for this the hard way because in the moments during service when I didn’t take care of myself, the imbalance became apparent in the work that I was doing. If I was neglecting myself, I wasn’t able to do my job to the best of my ability and I knew it.  Even though it was an extremely challenging experience overall, I came out on the other end better for having done it.

In support of your journey, I decided to “be the change I wish to see in the world” and help inform those of you out there searching for lived experience on service work, what it is, how it works and how to embrace it–if and when you’re ready.

I made and posted a few videos: 8 Reasons You Should NOT Do An AmeriCorps Program and on the flip side, 8 Reasons AmeriCorps is Right for You.

I hope this blog and these videos help bring clarity to your decision-making process. Serving your community is a big deal. You will be required to show up daily with an open heart and an open mind.  Can you do it?  Do you have what it takes to serve?  Can you make space in your life for this journey?

If nothing else, I hope that this post inspires YOU to make an informed decision to serve or not to serve (that is the question).

Whatever you decide to do, live it up, share your journey and remember… “BE the change you wish to see in the world.”

Elexsa Perello, 23, was born and raised in Orlando, Florida and is Puerto Rican. She attended systemically under-resourced public schools similar to schools served by City Year. Elexsa attended Rollins College thanks to her mother’s G.I. Bill support and majored in sociology, with a double minor in Sexuality, Women and Gender Studies and Political Science. She remains passionate about issues of social justice. 

Do you have what it takes to serve?

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