AmeriCorps in 2020: An unpredictable year with unprecedented results

AmeriCorps Partnership for Protecting Children (APPC) is a small AmeriCorps program that many have not heard of. In Iowa, about a dozen APPC members work with local Community Partnership for Protecting Children boards throughout the state, including Flourishing Families of Benton and Iowa Counties.

With a philosophy that protecting children is everybody’s business, the focus of this program typically involves activities that engage community members in child abuse prevention and creating nurturing homes and communities for children. These activities often include hosting community events and partnering with schools on a variety of projects that involve kids and their families. Sometimes, these activities lead to unexpected collaborations.

In the fall of 2019, Ruby Bodeker signed on to serve as the APPC member for Benton and Iowa counties. A year-long plan was developed with some lofty goals with most of the collaborations involving the usual partnerships—schools, libraries, local child abuse prevention councils.

Hitting the ground running, there were many noteworthy accomplishments in the first half of Bodeker’s term, including:

  • Working with area pastors to start local grief support groups, one in Blairstown and the other in Vinton.
  • Hosting suicide prevention trainings for approximately 50 social service providers and community members.
  • Writing a series of articles for the Faces of Benton County campaign sponsored by the Family Nurturing Council. The series featured people in Benton County working to improve the lives of children and helped to raise awareness of some great programs.
  • Helping with after school programs at community libraries in Benton and Iowa counties. For many families, our local libraries provide a much needed safe space for kids to go after school. Bodeker frequently helped with the Makers’ Space at the Marengo Public Library where it was common to have 30+ children present.
  • Planning and co-hosting a series of mental health roundtable discussions in collaboration with United Way of East Central Iowa. This event brought together over 40 individuals from dozens of organizations to discuss services needed and available at each stage of life and different stages of wellness. The first roundtable discussion was held in person in early March with the remaining discussions being held virtually due to the pandemic.

By mid-March, the pandemic had upended the carefully made year-long plan for Bodeker’s term. Meeting in person, especially in large groups was no longer advised. Collaboration with schools changed as the school year ended early. Many families were dealing with job loss, a reduction of income and scarcity of child care. Accessing social services changed rapidly.

Figuring out new ways to support families, children and communities quickly became a top priority.

When schools closed in March, the Marengo Public Library partnered with the faith community to provide sack lunches to more than 90 students a day. Bodeker changed gears and went from volunteering at the library’s after school program to volunteering with the sack lunch program.

The next big change came when all AmeriCorps State and VISTA programs were asked to provide support to food banks across the state–packing food boxes, stocking trucks and delivering food to families.

Bob Andrlik, Coordinator of the Mobile Food Pantries for HACAP shared his gratitude, “Ruby Bodeker has helped out at multiple pantry locations. She is a great worker and I appreciate her being there to hand out food to folks coming through the pantry. By helping out at pantries, Ruby puts her compassion into action…helping out those in need and helping HACAP distribute food throughout our service area.”

Bodeker wrote an article titled ‘It is a Privilege to Serve’ discussing her service during the pandemic. This article was published by Volunteer Iowa and can be found here:

In the article, Bodeker wrote: “During several of the pantries in May, I worked alongside members of the U.S. Army National Guard’s Alpha Company 248th Aviation Support Battalion/Task Force Log. Their support was invaluable as we worked to get food to those who desperately needed it.

During my first few days in the HACAP warehouse, I was exhausted. It involved a lot of heavy lifting, bending, walking, and repetitive motions. But I knew how fortunate I was to be able to do the work, to serve during a disaster, to be healthy.

My interactions with those who attended our pantries were always positive. Many would roll their windows down halfway and tell me ‘I don’t know how to do this’ or ‘I’ve never had to visit a food pantry before, please tell me what to do’.

Some had tears in their eyes. Many attendees were veterans.”

While serving at HACAP’s Food Reservoir, a new collaboration presented itself and Bodeker was able to work at the Old School Produce community gardens in Vinton, helping distribute fresh produce to several area food pantries.

Greg Walston with Old School Produce explained, “As the pandemic ramped up we saw more need for our produce and she has helped us expand our delivery of produce to a larger market of food pantries because of her connections with them. An even greater need popped up after the derecho and she was able to allow us to respond to the greater need.”

Walston noted that Bodeker helped to distribute 6,300 pounds of produce while completing her term with AmeriCorps, and will continue to work with the garden through the end of the growing season.

Within days of the derecho storm on August 10th, Bodeker organized ‘pop up’ food distributions in hard hit communities, including Shellsburg and Garrison. She has continued to facilitate these food distributions in collaboration with Old School Produce and Wesley United Methodist Church’s food pantry in Vinton.

Barb Rego with the food pantry at Wesley United Methodist Church shared that from August 10th to September 26th, food was provided to 1,073 individuals impacted by both the derecho storm and the pandemic.

By the end of her term, Bodeker was responsible for engaging 93 volunteers to participate in various aspects of her service term. That would be an impressive number in a typical year. To recruit so many at a time when many people are socially distancing or were preoccupied with storm recovery is remarkable.

Erikka Abusharkh, Program Director AmeriCorps Partnership for Protecting Children said of Bodeker, “We couldn’t have imagined something like Covid-19 would strike our communities. Ruby really stepped in to reach local families where they most needed support— through providing access to food. I know that the partnerships she developed throughout the year were made stronger by her service activities. Ruby was an inspiration to so many people, and we can’t say enough about the positive impact she had on her fellow AmeriCorps members and on the program as a whole.”

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