GU Students, AmeriCorps Crew Say Goodbye to Neighborhood

Americorps Member works at middle school.
Americorps member Austin Johnson works at middle school.

April 15, 2020
Jeff Bunch

It’s no secret that Gonzaga’s students and AmeriCorps members are the backbone of the impactful work done by the University’s Center for Community Engagement (CCE).

On any given weekday, you can find them in a variety of locations – both on campus and in Spokane neighborhoods. They joyfully serve every demographic, from K-12 school children, to adults and families struggling with hunger, and seniors desiring companionship.

CCE’s programs are prolific and wide-ranging. This year alone, dozens of seniors served in CCE’s youth programs with Spokane Public Schools, including: Campus Kids, Zag Study Buddies, Sparks, Connections, GAME and the Walking School Bus.

In the youth work, unique bonds are formed between young adult mentors and mentees, as they often (literally and figuratively) walk alongside each other in a spirit of accompaniment.

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The AmeriCorps members manage student leaders and are often on the front lines of whatever crisis or communication is needed. They work hand-in-hand with teams of students who seamlessly plan and execute activities, manage behaviors, and unconditionally support kids.

In some situations, the rewarding relationships change the hearts and professional trajectories of the GU students. Zags who previously planned to graduate and start a career find it hard to walk away. Many often choose to come back for another year or two as AmeriCorps members. The great majority of this year’s CCE AmeriCorps members are recent Gonzaga graduates.

AmeriCorps Members/Alumni at Gonzaga

  • Gabbi Fuller (Sociology/Criminology, 2019)
  • Kathy Au (Philosophy, 2019)
  • Andrea Davis (Communications, 2018)
  • Austin Johnson (Sociology/Criminology 2018)
  • April Lopez (Business Administration, 2019)

They all know it has to end at some point, but the events of this year were unforeseen due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the work is being honored and closure of a different kind is happening. GU found creative ways to continue some efforts – including food security efforts and outreach to youth – to soften the blow for neighborhood kids, graduating seniors, departing AmeriCorps members, and the community.

"This year, Campus Kids had 12 senior student leaders, all of whom are heartbroken about the abrupt ending to their Gonzaga experience,” said Abigail Martin, a youth program manager. “These are great students and community members, and they care so tremendously for this community. We're currently working on a letter-writing campaign, reaching out to mentors to get our kids some mail. … They signed up for it and are eager for anything to stay connected and live out their commitment.”

The letters can provide encouragement and hope for everyone during a time that can be socially isolating for many.

“Closure is always an important part of the Youth Programs and Initiatives process,” said Brandi Praytor-Marsters, a CCE youth program manager. “We are guided by the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring – evidence-based standards in the mentoring field that ensure mentoring relationships are safe, effective, and high quality. Of the six elements, the sixth is closure. … For our youth, it is important that they understand why they won't see the positive adult they've connected with this school year and that we look for ways to demonstrate healthy closure.”

One of the departing AmeriCorps members is Austin Johnson, who has seen some youth all the way through from the latter years of grade school to the early years of high school. He returned for a second year of AmeriCorps at GU just to extend his time with kids in the community.

“The work is incredibly rewarding,” says Johnson. “Getting to see the youth that I work with everyday continue to thrive in certain areas and watch them continue to grow as young people is what I live for. My happiest and proudest moments are always tied to those that I work with and getting to see others happy and thriving is what brings me joy. … There are so many things that I will cherish about my experiences at Gonzaga but at the heart of all of them are the people I have gotten to meet and learn from and get to know as individuals. I will cherish all of the moments I have gotten to spend out in the community, meeting incredible kiddos, families and community partners.”

April Lopez, Gonzaga alumna and Americorps member, assists at food distribution.

April Lopez, an alumna who will be coming back for a second AmeriCorps year at GU, has been working in the Campus Kitchens program that helps to meet the food security needs of Gonzaga’s nearby neighborhoods. Most recently, she has been reassigned to assist with Second Harvest’s increased emergency community outreach efforts as part of its COVID-19 response.

“It already felt great coming together with others through the unifying power of food. I was able to see how cooking a meal and sharing it with others created a community I wish I had known as a student,” said Lopez. “I think what I’ll cherish the most about my experience at Gonzaga is the connections I’ve made. From the beginning to this point in time, I’ve never felt alone in my service. … It’s these connections that have continuously motivated me to build connections with the communities we work with."