Where else but in Detroit do the stars line up to bring together a power house of community volunteers and philanthropists the likes of Sherri Ketai, Mark Zausmer, Karen Sosnick Schoenberg, Amanda Fisher, Arn Tellem and Eli Torgow? With resumés and volunteer commitments that would fill the next 10 pages, these are just a few Jewish Detroiters now partnering with City Year Detroit to help close the gaps in opportunities for students in high-need schools across the city.
Why City Year?
Founded in 1988, City Year was inspired by the simple and powerful belief that young people can change the world. And they can start by committing to a year of service in our schools. Today, City Year recruits, trains and deploys 3,000 AmeriCorps members (ages 18-25) to serve more than 195,000 students full-time in 29 cities across the United States.
“The big idea behind City Year is that a year of service to our country should be considered a rite of passage for young people – much like it is in Israel,” explains Andrew Stein, Executive Director of City Year Detroit. “Here you don’t have to join the military or go abroad with the Peace Corps. City Year trains and places who we call our corps members for one year of full-time service in public schools around the country.”
A true believer in public education – and now a resident of Detroit with his wife and two children – Andrew, 36, grew up in Franklin and earned his B.A. from Michigan State University in 2004. After graduation, he moved to DC, where he served as a corps member before going to law school. “Fundamentally, my experience with City Year changed my life. I ended up working in a law firm, like most everyone in DC, then left the firm to lead City Year in Washington with the hope to return to Detroit at some point. Three years ago, when my predecessor retired, I moved back to my roots in the city and stepped into the position of Executive Director of City Year Detroit.”
“In Detroit, I think we’ve done a good job getting the word out,” Andrew continued. “It should come as no surprise that in the last few years, Detroit has become one of the most popular and competitive sites in terms of applicants from around the country. Thanks to the support of the school district and the philanthropic community here, we are expanding our work in Detroit from 71 corps members in seven schools last year to 91 corps members who will serve in nine schools this school year. Our hope is to grow to 140 corps members in 13 schools by the 2020 school year.”
Corps members dedicate long hours to their students, all day, every day from 7:00 am to 5:00 or 6:00 pm. Their job is to help improve the school culture and climate, serving as teaching assistants in the classroom and as mentors and tutors, working one-on-one or in small groups with students who are struggling with their attendance, their behavior and their literacy.
“Essentially, our corps members serve as extra – and an invaluable – human capital for the schools,” said Andrew. “Our research shows that struggling students can and do succeed if they get the kind of support they need.”
Corps members make a small living stipend of $1,000 a month; they get health benefits and, at the end of their year of service, they get a $6,000 award from the Federal government for service to the country.
“Just tell us what you need”
Typically, City Year is not a program designed to plug community volunteers into the schools. But that’s where Sherri Ketai comes in, and that’s what makes City Year Detroit a unique program. Three years ago, she spearheaded the effort to enlist the help of her wide network of community volunteers and corporate connections. “I have the volunteers,” she told Andrew. “Just tell us what you need and we’ll figure out the best and highest use of our community resources.”
And so they developed City Year Ambassadors. Sherri’s involvement with City Year started several years earlier when she was first introduced to the organization at the invitation of board member Karen Sosnick Schoenberg. “I was inspired by the work, the passion and focus of the corps members and instinctively wanted to help support their efforts in any way I could.”
“It’s unusual for a volunteer to come in with the organizational skills, patience and perseverance Sherri has,” observed Andrew. “She took the time needed to learn and understand our organization before launching City Year Ambassadors’ pilot program and taking on its challenges.”
A “talent pipeline” for the city
Under grey skies and a café umbrella at a table outside Birmingham Roast, Andrew, Sherri and City Year Board Member Katie Katz recently met to discuss the logistics of expanding City Year Detroit to nine schools this year. Formerly an attorney with Honigman, Katie left the practice of law two years ago to join City Year Detroit as Development Director. “I fell in love with the organization and its mission, and now that I’m back in the private sector – as Executive Director of Wealth Advisory at J.P Morgan Private Bank – I look forward to continuing the work as a community volunteer and co-chair with Sherri to bring a new group of Ambassadors into the program and to promote and support their service in any way I can.”
One of the many benefits of working in partnership with the Ambassadors is the tangible career benefits for the corps members. The University of Michigan School of Law, for example, offers a $30,000 scholarship to every City Year alum who enrolls in the school. Noting that many who come in to the program for a year tend to stay and seek jobs in Detroit, Katie stated, “City Year Detroit essentially turns into a talent pipeline — giving participants a lifeline to the community and the opportunity to connect with professional mentors and individuals who can advise them on what steps they might take post City Year.”
Building the network of volunteers, City Year Ambassadors are asked to work together to support teams of corps members throughout the academic year in nine Detroit schools. As Ambassadors, they commit to helping corps members navigate living, working and serving in the city of Detroit so that they feel welcome, safe and connected as they focus on their day-to-day work.
Creativity and resourcefulness will always be a plus. Ambassadors are asked to support the four principal activities of the program:
Stocking gift baskets: At the start of the school year in September, Ambassadors present corps members with a welcome basket filled with items – such as toiletries and gift cards – to make their year of service a little easier.
Furnishing the amenities of a City Year home base: Every City Year team has a City Year home base in their school – a classroom dedicated to City Year activities including one-on-one and group tutoring, after-school enrichment and academic games. The room also functions as a student lounge, a lunch room for corps members and a storage area.
Each team does its best to make the room an inviting space for learning, despite limited resources and, in some cases, deteriorating building conditions. Ambassadors help by adding their own homey touches in the décor to make an ordinary classroom setting conducive for learning. The following items are needed for each home base: a mini fridge, a microwave oven, Bluetooth speakers, snacks, hand sanitizers, paper towels, dish soap, paper plates, cups, paper utensils, Kleenex, fans and a space heater.
School supply drives: School supplies that corps members can use with students are always needed. As a way to support each home base throughout the year, Ambassadors help provide these supplies. Suggested essentials include: pencils, markers, crayons, pencil sharpeners, loose leaf paper, large graphing chart paper, dry-erase markers and erasers, small white boards, games, notebooks, 3 x 5 cards, folders, calculators (with a square root button), math flash cards and books with handouts (multiplication and division), folders with pockets, wet wipes, Lysol spray, etc.
Corps members appreciation events: Given their busy days, corps members rarely have time for outings. Instead, they prefer their gifts of appreciation to be given in the form of Kroger gift cards that they can use as rewards to their students and their families. Other token gifts may include a pizza party at holiday time, lunch and/or a cookie tray sent in during Corps Members Appreciation Month in March and a large donation of candy for “Count Day” at the schools to encourage attendance to qualify schools for their funding from the state.
Always welcome and still on the wish list:
- People! With the request from the school district to expand the program to two more schools, including Central High School, this upcoming school year, City Year Detroit is growing by 20 corps members. To help support this larger corps, City Year Detroit is now recruiting volunteers with the need for at least 40 Ambassadors to cover the needs of teams working in nine schools.
- Partners to “adopt a school” and join the City Year School Supply Drive
- Deep pockets, checks or cash donations are always welcome and always needed to purchase uniforms and other items for the City Year Detroit team
- 2 Keurig coffee machines for the two new home base rooms
- Coffee for the machines
- 7 microwave ovens and 7 dorm-size refrigerators for the home base rooms
- Washers and dryers (where installation can be arranged at the schools)
- Computers, printers and power cables
- Cleaned carpet samples and area rugs
- Beanbag chairs and sofas
- Books! Thanks to generous donations from Bookstock, City Year Detroit has the start of a mini library with books for students from pre-K to high school. Gifts of books offer students the incentives and reward for reading books they can take home.
- Art supplies and easels
- Musical instruments
- Soccer balls and basketballs
- Posters and wall decorations