A career of volunteering

Lyssa Beyer

After finishing high school, students often go onto school or a career. For freshman Coryn Davis, there was a slight detour. She spent two years volunteering, working for the Americorps program. The program changed her outlook on the world and helped her choose her future career.

The application process
Davis heard about Americorps from her brother who also participated, she said. Davis decided she wanted to apply to the National Civilian Community Corps program to travel.

Her father, Jeff Davis, was thrilled when she decided to join Americorps.

“We had talked to her about it because she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do yet,” he said.

Americorps is a program that offers 75,000 opportunities for adults to service national nonprofit groups, according to its Web site. The organization is involved in a variety of services, including tutoring and mentoring disadvantaged youth, fighting illiteracy, improving health services, building affordable housing, teaching computer skills, cleaning parks and the environment, managing and operating after-school programs, aiding in disaster relief and building organizational capacities.

The Americorps program is very competitive, Coryn Davis said, and the application process is rigorous.

A year ahead of time, Davis said she had to fill out an application. She also applied to several universities as backups in case she didn’t get into the Americorps program. UW-Eau Claire wasn’t one of those colleges.

The application process is similar to applying to a job, Davis said. Her father said she handled the process well.

“She weighed out all her options,” he said.

Davis received her acceptance letter April of her senior year.

“It was very stressful waiting,” she said. “That was probably the worst part.”

After being accepted, Davis said she worked out to get in good physical condition because she knew the work would be physically tiring. She also tried to mentally prepare.

“I tried to get myself in a mindset and get ready for a new story,” she said.

In early September 2005, as many of her high school friends were settling into college, Davis arrived in Charleston, S.C., for training.

The day Davis arrived, she was assigned to a team with eight people from around the country. For the next month, she and her team trained for different projects they would undertake later in the year. Davis said they received tutoring training and became certified in first aid and CPR. The group also trained with FEMA and the Red Cross for disaster relief, since Hurricane Katrina happened a few months earlier.

The training also included team building activities to get to know her teammates, Davis said. This was an important component, Davis said, because the team would work together on projects for the next 10 months.

“They become more than a family,” she said. “They become your support system.”

During training, Americorps also taught them how to pack light, Davis said. Each member was only allowed to bring one bag, issued by Americorps. The bag was about the size of two backpacks.

Building organizational capacities
In mid-October, Davis said her team got their first assignment, and was sent to Baton Rouge, La., to work at the Red Cross headquarters.

She and other members of her team were assigned to various jobs at the Red Cross. Davis was assigned to transportation and issued out vehicles to volunteers to get to the gulf area.

Davis said the work was grueling. For three and a half weeks, she worked 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

“It was a long three and a half weeks,” she said.

While they were working at the Red Cross, Davis and her team lived in a church building with over 100 volunteers. She slept on a cot and the only personal area she had was the small area underneath her cot. The lack of personal space wasn’t an issue, Davis said.

“You learned to live on very little,” she said. “The space didn’t matter. All we needed was a place to sleep.”

Though the church was close to the Red Cross headquarters, it still took an hour to get to work because of the mass relocation to the area and the streets being unable to handle all the traffic, Davis said.

“There were traffic jams during all hours of the day,” she said.

Building affordable housing
The second project sent the team to Sebring, Fla. to work with Habitat for Humanity to build homes for victims of the 2004 Florida Hurricanes.

Davis and her team worked with another Americorps team on every aspect of the homes.

“We learned how to build houses from the bottom up, from tiling floors to putting in cabinets,” she said.

She stayed in an apartment above the Habitat for Humanity Resale Center. Davis shared a room with 13 other girls and a bathroom with 19 people.

“The apartment sounds luxurious but it wasn’t much better,” she said.

Despite the living conditions, Davis said building the houses was a lot of fun, as was being outside.

“It was nice to be in warm weather during the winter,” she said.

Returning home
After Florida, Davis had a two-week break. Coming home was difficult for Davis, even just to see her family.

“I had a whole new view on the world,” she said. “The little things that people worried about weren’t such a big deal to me anymore.”

Her father said he noticed a difference in his daughter.

“She had really grown up a lot,” he said.

Connecting with her high school friends was also difficult, Davis said. Many of her friends had gone to college, a different experience than Americorps. Being the only one who had done such a program was lonely.

“The hardest part was not being able to talk to anyone who understood,” she said. “My friends could talk to other friends about college. It was really the first point I had realized I had changed.”

Jeff Davis said being unable to connect to her friends might have been the most difficult part for her.

“She came home and noticed that her friends that she had in high school didn’t have the same interests anymore,” he said. “It was hard for her.”

Fighting illiteracy
When she returned to Charleston, Davis and her team were assigned a project in North Charleston, a suburb of the city. The group worked at an elementary school tutoring students with literacy issues and worked at the school’s after school program. This project is where Davis found her career.

Davis was assigned to work with three classes of fourth graders. She worked one-on-one with students and worked with the same students during the after-school program.

One student who really impacted her was a boy named Jermaine. Jermaine was a bully in one of the classes, Davis said. But he was also very far behind his classmates. When Davis began tutoring him, he didn’t know how to write his name. Davis decided her goal was to get him to write his name.

“He hated me in the beginning,” she said. “The teachers just passed him on.”

After working with him for five and a half weeks, Jermaine was writing his name – and writing some of the assignments in class.

“He’s my warm and fuzzy story,” she said. “That was the project that made me want to become a teacher.”

Davis’ father said he and his family were surprised when they heard she wanted to become a teacher.

“At first we weren’t sure about it,” he said. “By the end of the year we were thrilled. She’s really good at what she’s doing.”

Aiding in disaster relief
The next project sent Davis and her team members to Biloxi, Miss. to do disaster relief from Hurricane Katrina with the nonprofit organization Hands On Gulf Coast.

Davis and her team members spent the next nine weeks living in a church auxiliary building with 200 to 400 other volunteers, depending on the time. They slept on plywood floors in sleeping bags. There were three makeshift showers made of plywood for the volunteers to use, all located outdoors.

“You were lucky if you got one,” Davis said.

During the day, Davis said the team led volunteers through gutting homes, mold remediation and dry walling.

Davis said she spent most of her time leading teams of 12 to 14 doing mold remediation, removing black mold from homes. To protect herself from the mold, Davis said she had to wear a TYVEK suit and a face respirator in the muggy, hot 70 to 80 degree Mississippi weather. Despite her protective gear, Davis got what people called the “Katrina Cough” from the black mold.

“It’s bronchitis and a sinus infection at the same time,” she said. “It’s really difficult to breathe.”

At the end of nine weeks Davis said her team degutted and removed mold from 20 to 30 homes. They were then sent back to Charleston to be briefed about their last project.

Cleaning parks
Their last project sent Davis and her team members to Roan Mountain State Park, Tenn., to do trail maintenance.

The team cleared trails and did environmental pick up. The group stayed in a cabin for two weeks and a tent for the last week.

After three weeks, the team was sent back to Charleston for a few weeks. Davis said she spent a lot time filling out paperwork for her placement for the next year. She also spent time saying goodbye to her team.

“It was hard,” she said.” “I knew it would be a while before I got to see them again.”

Living and working with the eight people in her team made Davis’ views of friendship change.

“You’re whole definition of a friend changes,” she said. “You’re expectations change.”

In June, Davis graduated from the program. Transitioning back into society was difficult, Davis said.

“Americorps is a very idealistic world,” she said. “Everyone wants to help people. When you get back into the real world, not everyone wants to help people and not everyone can.”

Her father said she kept herself busy while working two jobs

“She was really focused on what her next year was about,” he said.

Washington, D.C.
In September 2006, Davis went to Washington D.C. She was assigned a new team which was assigned a year-long project doing literacy tutoring.

During the year, Davis went into five different schools, four elementary and one high school, doing one-on-one and group tutoring.

Ken Stark, who participated in the Washington D.C. program with Davis, said she was energetic, passionate and always punctual.

“During the teaching sessions she was always willing to get there early and stay late,” he said. “She’s really devoted.”

Stark also said Davis used creative ideas to get students involved.

“She tried to find out what got the kids enthusiastic by learning what they were interested in,” he said. “She didn’t just want to go through the motions. She loved learning herself and wanted to see other people develop that as well.”

Davis said her year in Washington, D.C. convinced her teaching was the career for her.

During her year of tutoring, Davis applied to college. Originally wanting to go into international affairs, Davis said UW-Eau Claire now made the list because of its educational program.

Her father said distance also played into the decision.

“She said she was tired of being away,” he said. “And it was a medium point, not so big and not so small.”

College and beyond
In August 2007, Davis began college at Eau Claire.

Her father said he remembers moving day

“She was a freshmen, but she was a 20-year-old freshmen,” he said. “It was the difference between night and day.”

Davis, majoring in elementary education with a minor in teaching English as a second language, said her college experience feels different.

“I feel like I have a completely different outlook,” she said. “I’m trying to get out earlier. I know exactly what I want because I’ve done it already.”

Her time in Americorps has also helped her achieve in college. The life lessons help her contribute a unique view to group discussions, she said, and her organizational skills help keep her on top of her schoolwork. College, she said, is just another detour.

“I know where I want to go,” she said. “College is a step in between for me.”

After college, Davis said she plans to join the Peace Corps in the Education, program.

“After school, I feel like I have to do something,” she said. “I want to take it a step further (than Americorps) and engulf myself in a whole new culture.”