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City Year volunteers help keep students on track

Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Cheryl Landrieu, the 2 corps members and Peggy Mendoza, Vice president and Executive Director of City Year New Orleans.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Cheryl Landrieu, AmericaCorps members Shayda Amanat and John Watts and City Year executive director Peggy Mendoza at the City Year opening ceremony celebrating 43 young volunteers.

It was 6 o’ clock on an early October evening and the temperature was still a toasty 84 degrees. But there they were: 43 young men and women on the patio of the Samuel J. Green Charter School on Valence Street, all proudly wearing their red jackets, despite the heat.

They are this year’s members of City Year AmeriCorps and each is dedicating an entire year of service to support some of the highest-need students and schools in this city. Some are from the Crescent City, but most are not. They have come from across America to help public schools and teachers keep at-risk students in school and on track to graduate.

Shayda Amanat came here after graduating from Scripps College in Claremont, California, because, she says, she wanted to apply social justice concepts to her daily work in a way that would be more tangible to her personally.

And while there can be no doubt she was melting inside her new red City Year jacket, it didn’t dampen her opinion of the city she will spend a year in. In New Orleans only few short weeks, she already is excited about how the city's energy and how friendly everyone has been. She has even found a new favorite food: fried green tomatoes.

Talented, personable, totally positive in her approach to her tasks, Shayda, like her colleagues, made it a point to speak with as many guests as she could at the opening day ceremony.  Sincerity and eagerness were obvious in the faces of these young volunteers, as they took the City Year pledge and the national AmeriCorps pledge of service.

“How are you all feeling?” roared Kyle Weddig, CEO of New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) and a former AmeriCorps volunteer himself.

“Fired Up,” all 43 hollered back.

Even the grumpiest of cynics would have to smile at that response.

One local, John Watts, grew up in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. He went to Benjamin Franklin High School before moving to Houston and then graduating from St. Edward’s University in Austin. He never planned to come back to this city.

“This is a complete turn of events,” he says. “But I’m hoping to pursue medicine and I wanted to do something useful before I opened that door.”

John will be coaching in a seventh-grade math class.

“In this school, they’re doing a lot of different stuff and they need a lot more people to help,” John explains. “The teachers are so strapped for time; they have to meet so many deadlines. We have the time and that’s why they respond to us. I think the kids relate to me just because I care.”

The days begin early and the work is challenging.

“We get here at 6:30 every morning,” John says. “And we leave after 5:30 when the parents have picked them up. It’s a long day. But we help by being the manpower the teachers need.”

Peggy Mendoza is the Executive Director of the New Orleans City Year program. Her family came to the Crescent City from Honduras and, for a while, she worked for T-Mobile, one of the underwriters of New Orleans City Year.

“I loved the mission of this organization,” she says. “I loved the program. So this became the place I could put all that together.”

Peggy says that what makes City Year unique is that these young idealists become the human capital solution to a really serious education needs gap. Their national pledge to “get things done for America” is what they do every day for a year. In return, America provides them with a small living allowance and health insurance and, for some, student loan deferments.

And a year of extraordinary experiences.

For more information about City Year and AmeriCorps go to www.cityyear.org.

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]