Story by Juila DiGiacomo
Resources are not widely available in Columbus Junction, Iowa, a tiny town home to over 45 percent Hispanic residents and a Tyson meat packing plant. However, two RISE AmeriCorps members are set on guiding residents over obstacles and helping boost their self-sufficiency for a better future. Their work readiness, citizenship, and unemployment projects are impacting lives everyday.
When Mandy Grimm, Columbus Junction Public Library director and RISE supervisor, received unprofessional resume after resume from students, the idea for a work readiness high school program was sparked.
“As a community employer who hires for many positions, I was kind of appalled by the resumes I was getting from our school students,” Mandy says. “A work readiness class is one way we could address some of these needs without creating more work for our school staff.”
The project finally came to fruition in early 2021 when RISE AmeriCorps member Margaret Peterson took things into her own hands. Margaret is now finishing her second rotation of the class, which she developed to teach Columbus Community High School seniors the basics of applying and securing jobs successfully.
Using the RISE AmeriCorps program workforce readiness training modules as a reference, she prepared a series of presentations on resumes, cover letters, and interviewing for jobs.
Although Margaret is only able to spend about a half hour per day with students for eight days, she says she has seen the confidence levels in her students rise. They’ve developed a better grasp of the material and improved scores on a post-test vs a pre-test.
“I’ve learned, especially through the high school workforce readiness class, that none of us are really as prepared as we think we are when we go out into the workforce,” Margaret says. “I was grateful for the workforce readiness course from RISE and I’m grateful that I get to do this for other people as well.”
Outside of her time helping high schoolers, Margaret has been working to meet the need for citizenship test classes despite the COVID-19 pandemic. She adapted in-person class materials for a website and created new content after the citizenship questions changed in late 2020. Margaret is also currently helping a client prepare to retake the writing portion of his test.
“I’m really excited to keep working with my client so he can get his citizenship,” she says. “I’m excited to keep working with more people because they are just coming out of the woodworks, people who need help.”
Columbus Junction’s second RISE AmeriCorps member, Ana Vazquez, has been changing lives through unemployment casework, citizenship tutoring, and much more. On just her second day, she resolved a communication mishap which allowed an unemployment client to get his job back.
Ana says another big accomplishment has been helping a recently widowed woman back on her feet. Due to a lack of English skills and other factors, she hasn’t worked for years and relied on her husband’s salary to take care of her young granddaughter. Ana has used her Spanish skills to intervene in the client’s life and obtain new marriage and guardianship licenses, which have enabled her to receive various benefits. Ana’s still committed to working with her to help her family thrive beyond hardship.
She says she was compelled to assist other immigrants and people in need after immigrating from Mexico with her family as a child. The experience helps her connect with her primarily hispanic clients.
“There’s not many resources available in Columbus Junction so helping people is crucial,” Ana says. “I see helping anybody as a great accomplishment because we experienced the same barriers and I know the struggles of coming here and not knowing anything.”
Mandy says she has especially been impressed by both of her RISE AmeriCorps members’ intuitive natures and problem solving skills in all of their endeavors. As a result, she says their positive reputation has spread around the community to people in need.
“They’ve just been such incredible assets and have gained our community’s trust,” Mandy says. “There's been so many word of mouth referrals and I think that's the biggest accolade they could receive."
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