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We can help: AmeriCorps workers lend hand

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Kashmira Mehta works with volunteer musical entertainer Garry Vreeland. In her role with AmeriCorps, Mehta trains and coordinates volunteers at Just Friends Adult Day Services.
Kashmira Mehta works with volunteer musical entertainer Garry Vreeland. In her role with AmeriCorps, Mehta trains and coordinates volunteers at Just Friends Adult Day Services. PHOTO BY JOE HARPRING

When volunteers bring their guitars, karaoke machines or dogs to Just Friends Adult Day Services, the mostly elderly clients’ faces light up with joy.

College student volunteers at Columbus Learning Center help teach young students about teamwork, math and computer animation.

And at Foundation for Youth, volunteers help make sure children can safely enjoy after-school programs or events such as the Princess Ball.

As tax revenues and donations for nonprofits decline and the need for many of their services increases because of the struggling economy, the organizations increasingly rely on volunteer help. But encouraging, keeping track of and scheduling the thousands of local volunteers and matching their skills with the nonprofits’ needs is a lot of work. Thanks to AmeriCorps, a quasi-domestic Peace Corps, local nonprofits have received professional helpers who can organize the volunteer programs, with the goal of making them self-sustaining.


What is it: Program for adults to work with domestic nonprofits.

Number of AmeriCorps members in Bartholomew County: 16.

Their role: Make volunteer programs at local nonprofit organizations self-sustaining.

Host sites include: Foundation for Youth, Just Friends Adult Day Services, IUPUC.

Commitment: Members work 900 hours per year.

Pay: $6,300 annually. Can obtain additional $2,700 stipend for continued learning. Stipend is transferable to children and grandchildren.

Annual members in U.S.: 80,000.

Number of volunteers they mobilize: 3.4 million.

Funded by: U.S. government.

Amount of AmeriCorps funds invested in nonprofit, educational, and faith-based and community groups since 1994: $7.6 billion.

Value of cash and in-kind donations leveraged by AmeriCorps members in fiscal 2010: $480 million.

Number of disadvantaged youth tutored, mentored, or served by AmeriCorps members in fiscal 2011: 3.5 million.

Number of nonprofit, faith-based, and community organizations served by AmeriCorps members: 15,000.

More information:

Volunteers needed

Just Friends Adult Day services, which provides day care services mostly for frail elderly adults who cannot be left home alone, needs volunteers to serve as senior companions and for the following event:

Event: The Amazing (Mill) Race

When: 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. Aug. 4.

Where: Mill Race Center.

Includes: Dinner, cash bar, silent and live Auctions, Dancing DJ’s and entertainment by Columbus Chinese Association. Dinner provided by Chef Daniel Orr.

Benefits: Just Friends Adult Day Services and Mill Race Center.

Volunteers needed for: Set up, tear down, hospitality room, check-in, ticket sales, silent auction room, auction checkout, cleanup during event.

Contact: Kashmira Mehta at or 372-6415.

AmeriCorps members in different communities perform different roles, but in Bartholomew County they focus on recruiting and managing volunteers.

At Just Friends, which provides day care services, mostly for frail, elderly adults who cannot be left home alone, AmeriCorps volunteer resource manager Kashmira Mehta has expanded the volunteer database by more than 100 people in 10 months.

Just Friends has a daily calendar, which lists such events as social hour, morning exercises, lunch or bingo. A monthly special events calendar features events such as free haircuts, musical entertainment and visits from furry friends.

Mehta lines up volunteers who are willing to share their talents or make a presentation or to serve as senior companions, who provide one-on-one support and companionship for Just Friends’ clients.

Mehta has added cultural presentations, in which international volunteers tell stories about their country and culture.

Clients always look forward to visits from volunteers, whether they play piano, provide haircuts or talk about the history of radio, Mehta said.

“Whenever a volunteer comes in, they are very, very happy,” Mehta said. “They love the volunteers. They wait for the volunteers.”

Mehta recruits volunteers at events such as Ethnic Expo, by making presentations to local employers and by talking to people in her daily activities.

Recently, while at Columbus North High School, she struck up a conversation with a woman from Sweden. After offering her help with her transition to the U.S., Mehta invited her to make a presentation at Just Friends about Sweden.

“I want to bring the whole world to the participants,” Mehta said.

A former practicing attorney in her native India, Mehta has a long history of volunteering. In India, she was active with Rotary Club, helped children with special needs and provided legal services to International Justice Mission, a human rights organization that helps victims of oppression, slavery and sexual exploitation.

When she moved to the U.S. in 2003, her son, Eshaan, was born, and she initially worked as a stay-at-home mom. She moved to Columbus in 2008, because her husband, Sandeep, works at Cummins Inc. She saw an advertisement in The Republic for AmeriCorps and thought it would be a nice way to give back to the community, while networking and easing back into the work environment.

When she heard about Just Friends’ mission, her decision was clear, because she had taken care of her grandmother until she died.

“I said, ‘Yes, that’s the place where I want to be.’ I could relate to all the participants.”

Marilyn Clerc, executive director of Just Friends, said that, as state and federal support has waned in the past few years, the importance of volunteers has increased.

“They’re all critical for our program,” Clerc said.

Before Mehta arrived, the volunteer program lacked structure and continuity, Clerc said. Employees were too busy taking care of the clients to spend enough time on the volunteer program.

Mehta’s work, to identify the volunteer needs, find volunteers to meet those needs, confirm that they are coming and keep track of them in a database, has been highly beneficial, Clerc said.

“Our volunteer program has increased dramatically,” she said.

Sixteen AmeriCorps members are providing services in Bartholomew County this year. Next year, the county will get two more.

A grant from the Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives pays for the program. The local program is in its fourth year.

The program pays the volunteer resource managers $6,300 per year for 900 hours of work. AmeriCorps members also can get a $2,700 stipend for continued learning. The stipend is transferable to children and grandchildren.

Donna Phillips, who coordinates the local AmeriCorps program from the Doug Otto United Way Center, said AmeriCorps members include a variety of people, including part-time students trying to get management experience and retirees who want to give back to the community.

Host organizations have to pay part of the position, and that share goes up every year. AmeriCorps members, who must be U.S. citizens or legal resident aliens, can serve for four years.

Phillips said the county’s 16 volunteer resource managers have recruited 2,700 new volunteers.

At the Columbus Center for Teaching and Learning, AmeriCorps volunteer resource manager Vicki Bartlett makes sure college student volunteers find opportunities to use their skills effectively, such as supporting education camps for young students and conducting a voter registration drive. Volunteers also have decorated bulletin boards and the computer lab, which now has sections including haikus, travel and Newsweek magazine’s “My Favorite Mistake” essays.

As part of a college scholarship, recipients frequently have to put in some volunteer hours. Before the AmeriCorps member arrived on campus, matching the needs and resources often proved challenging.

“Vicki is a perfect connector to get those volunteers hooked up with the volunteer opportunities,” said Marsha VanNahmen, the Learning Center’s assistant director.

Without the volunteers, some of the camps would not take place, VanNahmen said.

Bartlett, who has lived in Indianapolis most of her life, has a master’s degree in education and teaches sociology at Ivy Tech Community College. She worked as an elementary school teacher for 17 years and as a marital and family therapist.

At 65, she said she cannot see herself retiring.

“I have something of a life history of giving up my comfort zone and relinquishing the familiar,” she said.

Before joining AmeriCorps, Bartlett worked for an African author, Malidoma Somé, organizing meetings, his tour schedule and traveling repeatedly to Burkina Faso.

She said that in 2009, she was ready for another adventure, when the AmeriCorps opportunity came along.

Working with an indigenous shaman, she said, one learns to expect the unexpected.

Bartlett said the experience has been rewarding, and she would recommend it for young and old.

“For young people, just getting out of college, it’s an opportunity to learn job skills, public relations skills. (It provides) service and volunteerism experience that will serve them well, no matter what career they choose.”

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