Honors students get involved with Empower Portage

Alison Adams

Every Tuesday, 13 honors students volunteer their time to take care of children whose parents participate in a program aimed at helping get them out of poverty.

Empower Portage is a program created through AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America, a branch of the Peace Corps that helps families in Portage County gain the resources needed to improve their lifestyles.

“Our purpose is to eliminate poverty overall,” said Lauren Syzmanski, a member of VISTA. “We recruit a volunteer base so it stands as a community program.”

Most adults participating in the program have children, and the honors students are in charge of helping with dinners and creating interactive and educational activities for the kids.

Honors students are required to fulfill experience requirements, which can come from independent study, study abroad and community service projects. Freshmen must complete three, sophomores and juniors two and seniors at least one.

Students participating in the program chose Empower Portage from an e-mail sent to them listing opportunities to fulfill their experience requirements.

Stephanie Black, a senior English major, said volunteering for Empower Portage has expanded her view of poverty.

“I didn’t know that much about how people are struggling,” Black said. “When I thought about poor people, I thought about people in Africa.”

David Axe, a sophomore integrated lab sciences major, said he has always volunteered, but the program has still changed him.

“It gives you a better sense about how to deal with poverty,” Axe said. “I try to help people out.”

Although the program focuses on helping adults, Black said it benefits the children, too.

“The kids are really cute and you can tell that they need someone to be here,” Black said.

The students said they enjoy working with the kids; they put a lot of thought and meaning into the programs each week.

“Today we taught them about nutrition — it was a lot of fun,” Axe said. “It’s nice to help kids and not have to worry about organic chemistry.”

Syzmanski said some adults would not be able to participate in the program if childcare wasn’t provided.

“It opens up the doors to the parents,” Syzmanski said. “And they really like what we do here.”

AmeriCorps VISTA is a domestic version of the Peace Corps that is designed to fight poverty. VISTA provides full-time members to nonprofit, faith-based or other community organizations and public agencies to create and expand programs that bring low-income individuals and communities out of poverty, according to nationalservice.gov.

Empower Portage is a program created through VISTA and combines three programs into one.

Bridges Out of Poverty trains employers and organizations to create a common language and provide better services to connect people in poverty to those in the middle class.

Those in poverty who want to transition to middle class participate in Getting Ahead workshops. Participants gain the tools they need to find community resources that aid them in their transition.

The Circles Campaign is made up of Getting Ahead graduates who have moved up to middle class. They establish relationships that support the current Getting Ahead members as they move forward.

There are currently 10 participants in the Getting Ahead program that began last May. So far, 11 students have graduated.?Syzmanski said she would like to recognize the great work the students are doing and thank them for their efforts.

“I’m grateful that so many capable people stepped up,” Syzmanski said. “I hope they stay for next semester.”

Contact Alison Adams at [email protected].