Senior Jazmine Kenny’s “campus” job involves a commute in an electric car, her own desk and students who do not go to Knox.
That’s because Kenny works for KnoxCorps. As a sophomore and junior, she helped the YMCA develop its after-school programs. Now, she coordinates volunteer opportunities for students at Carl Sandburg College.
“It was definitely an eye-opening experience to see how a nonprofit ran, to see how an organization can really make an impact in the community,” Kenny said, reflecting on her first year at the Y.
Founded in 2012 by President Teresa Amott, the program gives Knox students and recent graduates the opportunity to work with local nonprofits and foundations in Galesburg. KnoxCorps partners with organizations that are ready to pursue larger projects but may lack the personnel to do so. Through student- and graduate-led projects like Kenny’s, its members have worked over the past four years to help these organizations realize their goals.
Looking forward to the program’s five-year anniversary, President Amott highlighted the importance of assessing the program, asking how it can continue to best serve the community and extend new opportunities to students and recent graduates.
The idea for the project originally sprang from a conversation between Amott and Executive Director for the Galesburg Community Foundation Josh Gibb, who was looking for ways to support local organizations. Amott wanted to break the “Knox bubble” and help support Galesburg in the wake of its economic blows by creating new opportunities for students to connect with the community.
She started KnoxCorps during Knox’s 175th anniversary year to recognize the special relationship Knox shares with Galesburg dating back to their shared founders, basing it on the AmeriCorps or Peace Corps model.
“[Community engagement] is in our culture,” Amott said. “We’re sending people to other countries, we’re sending people to other parts of the country. Why not send people into our backyard?”
KnoxCorps fellow Missy Preston ‘15, who is working with the Orpheum Theatre, chose the program over AmeriCorps during application season last year because it allowed her to stay in Galesburg. She has already created a new volunteer program and settled into working with staff and the 100-year-old building.
“Getting to work with [the staff] is like visiting someone’s family over the summer, and having that family adopt you and teach you everything you know,” Preston said.
Since 2012, the program has grown to include a wider array of organizations beyond the original group that Knox connected with through the Galesburg Community Foundation. Its members have engaged in projects and activities that range from working with the local school district to creating improv classes for the Prairie Players and assisting the Knox Prairie Community Kitchen.
But moving forward, the program continues to face some basic challenges, such as making the right match between KnoxCorps members and community organizations and financing those placements.
“More people want a volunteer than we have the funds to support,” Amott said. “That’s always a problem.”
KnoxCorps fellows, who apply to the program during their senior year, receive a stipend for living expenses while associates, who are current students, are paid the same hourly wage they would receive working any other on-campus job. The school provides funds for the eight to ten associates hired in any given year, while funding for the fellows’ stipends (usually two to six of them) is secured through grants. The organizations where they are placed seek these grants, although Knox applies for some, too.
Director of Government and Community Relations Karrie Heartlein, who heads KnoxCorps, noted that the program must work within its means and has been fortunate to receive funding from the community. That funding helps provide these organizations with student workers who are able to work on growing and improving nonprofit programs.
“Many nonprofits don’t have the time, resources, staff to do everything they want to do, everything that they could do to make our community better,” Heartlein said. “The KnoxCorps program gives them a person who can help them accomplish those goals.”
Kenny feels she was able to do that in her roles at the YMCA and then at Carl Sandburg College.
Working with the YMCA’s youth-development program, Success, serving at-risk youth, she created a curriculum for site directors who may not have programming planned on a given week. Once, she got to observe an activity she’d created in action at Lombard Middle School.
“Even though a small thing like an after-school program may not seem like a lot…and these ideas that I’m putting on this paper don’t seem like anything in the moment, in the broader scheme of things it has the ability to change students’ lives,” Kenny said.
According to Heartlein, the grades of the students who participated in Success rose by several points and their absences, tardies and detentions fell overall.
This year, Kenny is building on Carl Sandburg’s volunteer program and utilizing a volunteer directory created by two former associates in her role as community outreach coordinator.
KnoxCorps also involves more immediate collaboration between fellows and associates through weekly meetings. During that time, the group brainstorms possible collaboration efforts and hosts professional development events.
Kenny acknowledged that there are challenges unique to the job. Unlike on-campus employment, she must factor in time for her commute and share the KnoxCorp car with her fellow members. She also hopes to see the program offer students positions at organizations that more closely match their interests in the future.
Although KnoxCorps offers a variety of opportunities to associates and fellows, the program tends to attract particularly ambitious individuals, according to KnoxCorps fellow Payton Rose ‘15, who works at the Galesburg Convention & Visitors Center.
This Thursday and again next Friday, this year’s fellows and associates will hold a drop-in at the Gizmo for interested students to learn more.
“You got to be the type of person who is a self-starter, self-motivator,” Rose said. “You got to be able to see an opportunity and make a pitch with it. That’s the person that’s going to succeed in KnoxCorps.”
Stefan Torralba contributed reporting.