Promising Change: Americorps Fellows Reach Out to Community

Promising Change: Americorps Fellows Reach Out to Community
Heather Morgan helps a student at the Homework Center in the Pomona Public Library.
Lia Mancao and Erica Swenson work at the Cal Poly Pomona Downtown Center.

As a Gender, Ethnic and Multicultural Studies major, Heather Morgan learned about social inequalities in class. When it came time to graduate, Morgan wanted to put her education into action.

Eleven months into her term as an Americorps Promise Fellow, the Cal Poly Pomona alumna says serving in Americorps has been challenging and extremely rewarding. She coordinates the Homework Center at the Pomona Public Library, where about 40 college students volunteer each quarter to help elementary students with their assignments.

“I really get to do what I've always wanted to do — and that's to go and effect change and motivate volunteers to effect change,” says Morgan, who graduated in 2008. “Each Americorps fellow goes through some challenging times, and that's what you sign up for. You can't get these experiences in the classroom.”

Morgan is one of four Americorps Promise Fellows at the Center for Community Service-Learning whose job is to create and oversee community outreach initiatives and recruit volunteers from campus. Erica Swenson and Lia Mancao work at the Cal Poly Pomona Downtown Center, and Bryan Nakawaki recently started an afterschool program at the Boys & Girls Club of Pomona Valley. The fellows also organized the annual Volunteer Fair on May 14, which brought about 50 nonprofits to campus to recruit volunteers.

Nakawaki, a 2008 graduate, says his time at Cal Poly Pomona was so enjoyable that he signed up for Americorps to give back to the community. He started a new language arts program at the Boys & Girls Club that uses storytelling to expand children's creative thinking and public speaking skills. Twice a week, he and volunteers work with about a dozen elementary students to create fiction and nonfiction stories and share them with the group. The narratives sometimes incorporate their favorite superhero, a cartoon character or animals.

While the experience has shown him life's positives and negatives, Nakawaki prefers to think about the highlights. “Everywhere I've gone, people are excited about making change in the community. And people who are interested in making change for good — I don't think you can surround yourself with enough of these people,” he says.

At the Downtown Center, Swenson and Mancao organize a variety of programs and events for children, families and local residents. One Saturday a month, they host Family Fun Day, which brings in about 200 children and their parents. Children learn literacy skills through arts, crafts and storytelling, and they eat nutritious snacks. The event is educational for parents, too, with organizations like the Girl Scouts, Pomona Unified School District, American Heart Association, Boys & Girls Club and the public library offering information and services.

Swenson and Mancao's other activities include: coordinating the Summer Arts Academy, a day camp for youth; overseeing the 13-week Musical Theatre Workshop; mentoring and facilitating the Peer Resources Conference for high school students; organizing volunteers for the Citywide Beautification project; hosting fifth-graders to watch an L.A. Opera production; and developing programs for the Big Read, a monthlong literacy initiative in Pomona centered around “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Swenson, who graduated last year from Biola University, also assists psychology faculty members with the operation of the Friendmobile, a one-stop-shop at the Downtown Center that provides free homework tutoring and counseling services.

One of greatest rewards from her Americorps service, Morgan says, is watching people succeed. She especially enjoys helping kids realize that college is within their reach. A boy who struggled with school until he began working with a bilingual tutor is but one success story.

“He said to me, 'I always thought I was stupid, but now I know I'm not,'” Morgan says. “He just needed the extra help from the volunteers.”

The Americorps Fellows' passion for volunteering and community service doesn't end when their 11-month term comes to a close in July. Morgan and Swenson want to work for a nonprofit. Mancao plans to pursue a master's degree in social work, and Nakawaki will attend graduate school to study English literature.

For more information about the Center for Community Service-Learning, visit