To celebrate AmeriCorps Week, we visited with a few City Year Tulsa AmeriCorps members about their experience serving in Tulsa. Here is what they had to say:
Let’s start at the beginning. What inspired you to join City Year?
Hannah: I stumbled upon City Year and fell in love with the model after volunteering at a MLK Day of Service event. My friend called me at midnight on a Sunday and asked, “What are you doing tomorrow?” She told me, “You have to be at the Union at 5 a.m., You get a free t-shirt—and we’re going to Milwaukee.” I showed up, got my free t-shirt and asked, “What are we doing?” and she said, “Some group called City Year.” We made it Milwaukee and I spent the day with two City Year Milwaukee AmeriCorps members. They were just genuinely in love with and passionate about what they were doing. It resonated so strongly with me. We talked about the mission and I was like, “Sign me up, I’m going!”
Tom: I applied to City Year after high school. I was really inspired by the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam. The book focuses on the decline of community involvement and how that was having a negative impact on education and crime. I thought AmeriCorps would be a good way to get involved in my community and actively try and make it better.
Ella: I just graduated high school in May. I’ve always known that I wanted to take a gap year and do some sort of national service. And I’ve also, ever since I remember, wanted to be a teacher. I actually found out about City Year from my cousin who did City Year New York City. I visited her on one of their physical service days and we went to the food pantry in Brooklyn which was very eye opening. That was two years before I graduated, but I never forgot what I learned that day. It’s been a great experience to work with the kids—and everything that I had hoped for from a year of service.
What was your first impression of Tulsa?
Jerico: I definitely thought Tulsa would be a cowboy town. I did not expect sky scrapers. I thought there would literally be tumbleweeds rolling around. I was pleasantly surprised because there’s a lot of diversity in the interests and activities of Tulsans.
Hannah: When I was driving to Oklahoma, I think that I expected Hicktown, USA. I didn’t expect art deco and beautiful buildings and eclectic, sort-of “hipster” culture that’s in Tulsa. The biggest thing that I was mesmerized by was the sky. It’s huge. When I was driving into Oklahoma, there was this huge rainstorm. And the clouds were all different colors and there was a rainbow and I thought, “Alright—this is a sign!” It was so beautiful.
Working in Tulsa Public Schools, what do look forward to each day?
Hannah: My school is on the national historic registry. I get to work in a really beautiful space and the kids are awesome—they’re amazing. As a kid who really, really struggled in school, I would have benefited from having someone like City Year in my life— my entire trajectory could have changed though school. I love the idea of the power of young people and being able to make social change. It feels good to be in the middle of it and not just reading about it.
Jerico: I love working with the students. We’re with the students eight hours a day. We’re by their side and know their ups and downs—the administration recognizes that and really values our work. I love working with the assistant principal. We know she’s always there for us and that we can always talk to her about things. It might be because she was a TFA teacher and understands what it’s like to be an AmeriCorps member. She values the weight of our opinion when it comes to working with focus list students. She’ll ask us, “What’s going on in this kid’s life?” It makes me feel good that we can work together as a team.
Jerico made a great point—you guys are with the students every day, through good times and bad. Can you a share a moment when you realized the impact that your service is having on your students?
Tom: There was this one girl that doesn’t like me at all—we started off the year on a bad foot. The first day of school, I walked in and all she said was “Mr. Tom, I hate you. You’re ugly.” She’s continued to be hateful to me throughout the year. Yesterday she asked me to pull her out and I asked, “What do you want to work on?” She said “I never learned division. I have to leave math class so early every day that I don’t really understand anything what’s going on anymore.” So I sat down with her and I taught her how to do division and by the end she was just excelling. As she left to go to the bus, she turned around and said, “Thanks, Mr. Tom. I’m really sorry for how I’ve treated you.”
Hannah: There is a student on my focus list that is amazing and bright, but has a lot of personal challenges to overcome. I call her parents a lot to check in—and her dad was like, “You’re the only person she says she’ll talk to about anything.” That’s when I realized that if she’s telling her parents about me, I’m really getting somewhere with her.
Jerico: There’s one specific parent and she’s used to getting phones calls for not so great things. The first time I called she was on guard and ready to be like, “Well, he has this going on in his life and he’s on this medication…” But, I told her it was something good—that he was doing well in class and completing his homework. And she was like, “Wait—I’ve been noticing this too! He brought home a history book and did homework on the weekend. Things are happening! I’m so glad you noticed!” I love making those calls home. It feels like I’m part of the community. We can get isolated in the school—working with the kids and only talking to the kids, but when I talk to their parents I feel like I’m part of the community, like I’m a Tulsan.
You guys are from outside of Oklahoma. Was relocating to Tulsa an easy adjustment?
Hannah: I was used to walking and biking everywhere. And you can do that here in Tulsa if you plan it out. There’s so much to see and do. Where I’m from you can’t really explore. So, having a day to walk around with your camera—visiting Turkey Mountain or really great restaurants or exploring downtown architecture—Tulsa really does have a little bit of everything. For me it took a little longer to realize that because I had to get out of my apartment.
Ella: I came from a pretty small town and I was nervous to move to a city, but I think it’s a good starter city, because there are different districts that seem like smaller communities. And the people are really friendly. Southern hospitality is a thing. There’s also an abundance of coffee shops, which I appreciate.
Jerico: Going in reverse, I came from a really big city to Tulsa. It’s a nice change of pace. I’m not stressed about going anywhere and I never change my plans based on parking. It’s really good to be able to do what you want and not worry about the hassles of commuting there or getting around.
Tom: I lived in St. Louis, Missouri. I think Tulsa and St. Louis are similar in size and population. It kind of reminds me of home, which makes staying here easier. When I first moved here I was worried that I would be sitting at home bored when I wasn’t at work. However, I’ve found a couple different communities to get involved in and I’ve made a lot of friends outside of work.
Hannah: Tulsa is the hidden gem! It’s affordable, there’s a lot to do and it’s fun. It might take a little time to get used to it based on where you’re from, but I’ve never been anywhere quite like Tulsa. It’s really easy to meet people and get involved in the community. The art director for the Tulsa Drillers was at the dog park the other day and is going to give my team free tickets –and that’s kind of how Tulsa works. I introduced myself and she was like, “City Year? My friend did that!”
How can new City Year Tulsa AmeriCorps members get involved in the community outside of City Year?
Tom: Walk around one day. Go into shops. Meet people. Become a regular at a coffee shop,because you see the same faces around and you begin to establish relationships with them. They become your friends and you begin to do things outside of the coffee shop.
Ella: Check out the music scene, because it’s awesome.
Hannah: It's a very affordable music scene.
Jerico: Last year I was on a soccer team that was all adults wanting to meet new people. It was a social team and we didn’t play that hard and they were some of my best friends and it was awesome to meet new people.
Lastly, what advice do you have for potential City Year AmeriCorps members?
Hannah: The faster you jump in, embrace it, get on board and get excited, the easier it is.
Jerico: Worry about your students first and everything else will fall into place.
Many thanks to our talented AmeriCorps members for sharing their City Year experience!
Interested in serving City Year Tulsa as an AmeriCorps member? Apply here before April 30.
Jerico Phillips serves Clinton Middle School. You can read more about Clinton Middle School's literacity initiative here.
Ella Caplan serves at Sequoyah Elementary School. You can follow the Sequoyah Elementary team on Instagram at @cytsequoyah
Hannah Bonneville serves at Rogers Junior High School. Find Hannah's Pinterest board of all things Tulsa here.
Tom Sarsfield serves at Kendall Whittier Elementary. Find out more about the Kendall Whittier neighborhood and our partnership with Growing together here.