NORMAN — The Boys & Girls Club of Norman and the social workers who help it serve the community welcomed Congressman Tom Cole for a roundtable discussion about AmeriCorps and its influence Wednesday.
Cole visited with three AmeriCorps workers who spend their time at the Center for Children and Families Inc. in Norman, where the Boys & Girls Club is housed.
While celebrating 50 years of providing services to children in Norman, CCFI is also celebrating its AmeriCorps connection.
"We're able to serve more children in a safe environment when we have more dedicated adults," said Deanna Wilkinson, CCFI clinical director. "You should see the way they run up to them. They're out there playing with the kids on the playground, and then they stay afterward to have the difficult discussions. These young women are here every day to work, and it is inspiring."
Cole, who also visited The Virtue Center later in the day, told the group that thanks to the recent passage of the appropriations bill through Congress, AmeriCorps should be well-funded beyond this year.
He also voiced the need to handle the budgeting process quickly in the future, as that can impact how community organizations like CCFI budget their own resources.
"We know we put local organizations in a difficult spot," Cole said. "If we don't get our work done on time, it makes it difficult to budget. This program here has done well. And if you get the members [of Congress] out here, they see it and they see you. This is a small investment that pays enormous dividends."
During the round-table, Randall University senior Sarika Willis and University of Oklahoma juniors Alexa Sheppard and Jordan Cotton answered questions about their time with AmeriCorps, what it has provided them and what they strive to provide for the children in their care.
"I've never had a job like that," Sheppard said. "I've never had a job so centered on serving other people."
Cotton, who received a scholarship through Cole's foundation, said she found AmeriCorps while attending her first year at OU. After a year of service, she brought her friends Sheppard and Willis on board, and now all three do their work at CCFI and the Boys & Girls Club of Norman.
Cotton works with children from kindergarten to second grade on developing social skills. They learn about sharing, how to resolve conflict and how to form good friendships.
"They're little and they're learning about who they are going to be," Cotton said.
Sheppard works with third through fifth grade students and much of the time focuses on tutoring and developing good study habits.
"We really strive for academic success here," she said.
Willis works with the teenager group, and that involves several aspects of personal growth.
"The main thing we focus on is I have to take what [Sheppard and Cotton] do and roll it all into one," Willis said. "Right now, it's teaching how to have and how to form healthy relationships and academic success outside of high school."
The long hours can be exhausting, as all three attend school full time and come to the Boys & Girls Club every day for work. But the experience is fulfilling in several ways.
"After my first year, I knew I wanted to come back," Sheppard said.
Cotton said she didn't know she wanted to enter the field of social work until she joined AmeriCorps. Melinda Points, commissioner with Oklahoma AmeriCorps, said it was important for Cotton to keep sharing her experience with others and encourage more to join.
"The more you can tell your friends about your experience, it helps us out," Points said. "Recruitment is a challenge."
Cotton said a major aspect of the trio's jobs with the Boys & Girls Club is the one-on-one conversations they get with children. This can help CCFI identify potential issues that could be solved by intervention and, potentially, counseling or similar action.
With more members, those one-on-one conversations can happen with more children.
"Truthfully, with the staff we have right now, we are serving more children," Cotton said. "But some of these one-on-one conversations, we're not having because there are so many kids."
Barbara Stewart, CEO of the Corporation for National & Community Service that oversees AmeriCorps, said there is definitely room to improve when it comes to telling people about it. She said a recent poll revealed that only about half of Americans are aware of AmeriCorps and how they can sign up to serve communities.
"That means there's another half who may want to join AmeriCorps, but they don't know about it," Stewart said. "So we need to do a better job of marketing and communicating that."