Story and photos
by Nikki Carlson
Jamie Smartt walked around the Highland Park area of Havre knocking on residents' doors to ask for canned goods for the Everybody Loves Firefighters - ELF - food drive on Tuesday night.
Smartt's face was chapped and red from the bitter wind. It takes dedication to be an AmeriCorps Campus Core volunteer at Montana State University-Northern.
For more than a decade, AmeriCorps at MSU-Northern has been lending a helping hand to the community. The goal is simple: get college students involved through community service.
“The community is really important. We all have to be involved,” AmeriCorps volunteer Starlaen Perkins said.
The annual ELF food drive sponsored by the Havre Fire Department on Monday and Tuesday is one example of their efforts.
“It's a lot of fun,” said Smartt, an MSU-Northern junior. “It's a good feeling to be able to help the community.”
AmeriCorps is a campus-based organization with four part-time members and one full-time team leader. Katherine Williams, site supervisor, said the campus-based organization uses federal and state funds through the Montana Campus Compact in Missoula. Part-time members put in an average of 10 to 15 hours of community service each week. Once a member has completed the hours she or he was contracted for, the member receives an academic scholarship to help pay student loan debt or tuition. Perkins, for example, has to complete 300 hours of community service this year in order to qualify for the academic scholarship.
Some members get a small stipend; others don't, Williams said. Williams is the local coordinator on a volunteer basis. She works for Northern as a community service instructor.
Perkins, 39, said she's volunteering to develop more opportunities and resources for her seven children, two of whom are special-needs kids. One of her children has autism and fragile X syndrome, and another child has fragile X as well. Fragile X syndrome is an inherited mental impairment that produces too little protein for the brain to have normal cognitive development.
One of her AmeriCorps activities is to set up a support group for the parents of special-needs kids.
“I want a better life for my children, and also better the lives of parents with special- needs children,” she said. “I'm trying to educate myself so I can help the children of the community. I'm also trying to build a network and get out into the community so that when I get out of college, I can educate my kids.
“There's so many resources that I think we need in Havre,” she added.
Perkins is a community service major, which she said goes hand-in-hand with the AmeriCorps program. The program has strengthened her mentally and changed her attitude to “I can do this,” she said.
Smartt, 24, works with the domestic abuse and mentoring programs at the District IV Human Resources Development Council in Havre through the AmeriCorps program. She works about five hours each week in the domestic abuse program helping with outreach, talking on the crisis line, and performing other tasks thrown her way. She also puts in about three hours each week with the mentoring program.
“I just do whatever they need me to do,” she said.
Smartt has to complete 900 hours of community service in two years in order to get financial aid to pay toward her college loan debt.
Smartt, a junior, is working toward a double major in communications and community service. Besides the ELF food drive, Smartt has helped the community in a variety of ways such as serving food in the Feed My Sheep Soup Kitchen and donating blood to the American Red Cross. Establishing community connections by volunteering and “getting people to help our cause” is key to the AmeriCorps program, Smartt said.
AmeriCorps has assisted a variety of community organizations and activities including: helping with the Boys & Girls Club of the Hi-Line and at Northern Montana Care Center, reading to children at the Havre-Hill County Library, reading to Highland Park Early Primary School students for Make a Difference Day in October, and lending a hand at the Havre Food Bank.
“We really try to work with a lot of different organizations,” Williams said.
Denise Pankratz, another AmeriCorps volunteer, is majoring in elementary education. Pankratz, a junior, has learned the importance of community involvement, which she can carry with her after she graduates.
“The community does so much for you and it's just nice to be able to give back,” she said.
Of course, AmeriCorps can't do it alone. Smartt said the group needs help from community members. If a resident or college student is interested in volunteering or becoming an AmeriCorps volunteer, contact team leader Sandy Derry at MSU-Northern's Cowan Hall at 265-3577.
“What I've learned from AmeriCorps is everybody can make a difference. Networking is key, and I'm not alone. There's other people out there fighting the same battles,” Perkins said.
Perkins said parents who are interested in joining her support group or those wanting more information can contact her at 265-8983.