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Success Stories

Every experience tells a story. PennSERVE and PA AmeriCorps members and volunteers represent the best of Pennsylvania, tirelessly serving people and communities across the commonwealth. Read more about AndreaNavon, and Keisha below. 

Andrea's Story

Navon Smith
Andrea Barajas (2020-2021)
Animation Artist and Civic Engagement Project Leader

City Year Philadelphia Senior AmeriCorps member, Andrea Barajas is an animation artist who loves to work on team projects and support communities in the Philly area. She also loves to talk about serving as an AmeriCorps member, first at the Welsh School, and now as a Civic Engagement project leader where she is developing her skills in design and project management.

Andrea came to City Year Philadelphia in 2020 with a BA degree in Animation and a Certificate in Leadership which she earned in St Louis, Missouri. She sought out City Year because she wanted to mentor students in the Latinx community, and foster a sense of belonging and trust in the classroom. City Year gave her the opportunity to do this and more. During her first year as an AmeriCorps member, Andrea worked virtually with students and teachers during the pandemic and learned valuable skills, such as problem-solving, empathy, and teamwork. She was also exposed to City Years' Civic Engagement Team and its mission while participating in her first MLK Service Day. On that day, she made up her mind to pursue a second year with City Year.

Andrea is currently serving as a Civic Engagement project leader and working as a design coordinator. In this role, she uses her passion for design to assist the team with layouts and art concepts that communicate vital messaging to extremal partners and the public. A highlight of the year for Andrea was being asked to be the keynote speaker at the City Year Women's Leadership Breakfast in November 2021.

Interview with Andrea

PennSERVE recently had a chance to catch up with Andrea and learn more about her current role and her career aspirations.

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What was it like being an AmeriCorps keynote speaker at the Annual Women's Leadership Breakfast, and what was your message?

​Being a keynote speaker at the Annual Women’s Leadership Breakfast was an amazing experience. I usually work “behind the scenes” so this was a new opportunity to use my voice and share my story. I felt empowered and was grateful to be a role model for younger people in the Latinx community. Even though it was virtual, I was able to connect and network with women leaders who joined the event. From an operations point of view, I learned how large events are organized.

The focus of my talk was on the importance of creating trusting and positive connections with the students we serve, and the importance of having diverse role models in the classroom. If students identify with the speaker, this could influence them to think they too can achieve their goals.

What excites you the most about serving on the Civic Engagement team, and what new skills are you learning?

​The most exciting part of my service with the Civic Engagement team is the opportunity to totally immerse myself in a project through the hands-on activities and the collaborations. For MLK Day, we were tasked with creating a mural on a school wall and I loved seeing all the volunteers from different career backgrounds come together for a common purpose. Connecting with the volunteers and listening to their life stories was and is a highlight for me. The program encourages us to network, build relationships and create authentic conversations.

I've also learned how to adapt to new situations, especially in a pandemic when a lot of event planning has gone virtual. Being part of this team has led me to self-growth. I've learned to become more patient, establish clearer communications, work on deadlines and be a better team player.

You have a great profile on LinkedIn and you like to share interesting animation news and trends. Is working in the animation sector a career goal or are you interested in getting on a corporate leadership track?

​I say, why not pursue both? Before joining City Year, I was looking for a job in production management with an animation or gaming studio. Life, of course, took its own path and I flew from Illinois to Philly to take up a role as a student success coach. I’m now in my second year as a Civic Engagement design project coordinator, responsible for designing and leading projects. Although the bulk of my work is design centered (creating murals or painting canvases) I’m learning important management skills, too, while gaining entry-level work experience. My career goal is to continue to build my design skills while also expanding my leadership skills and using both in the animation sector.

If you were recruiting for AmeriCorps, what would be the key selling points you’d use?

​I would use inclusive and positive language, and stress the type of skills the individual will gain by doing a year of service to recruit people. The Civic Engagement team spoke about what I would learn from the role and highlighted various leadership, design and networking opportunities.

It’s important to know that an organization wants you to succeed and grow, and that is exactly what AmeriCorps has done with me. Also, transparency is extremely important when communicating about the role and its responsibilities, and the challenges that you could face. It’s important to acknowledge that there are staff willing to help and mentor you if you reach out. I am really enjoying this opportunity.

About City Year: City Year is a member of the AmeriCorps national service network and supported by PennSERVE, AmeriCorps, local school districts and private philanthropy. City Year partners with public schools in 29 communities across the U.S. City Year Philadelphia has 200 AmeriCorps members supporting more than 10,000 students in schools throughout the city.

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Navon Smith

Navon Smith (2020-2021)
Land Surveyor Apprentice, recent PowerCorpsPHL Operations Fellow

Navon is a poet at heart and budding public speaker who found AmeriCorps at key moments in his life. He was looking for his next step forward and knew that when fate gives you an opportunity, you grab the chance. Navon started his AmeriCorps service work with City Year Philadelphia, and then heard about PowerCorpsPHL, a City of Philadelphia workforce development AmeriCorps program that addresses environmental sustainability and youth violence prevention. He applied to the program and was soon in the field maintaining community greenspaces, planting trees, clearing trails and other team-building activities. With new skills and confidence, Navon transitioned into a career training track as an Operations Fellow and was selected to work in Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) —an area that offers long-term career growth.

As a fellow, Navon had the opportunity to put his speaking skills to use and was invited to talk about his AmeriCorps experience at Senator Casey's Civilian Climate Corps Roundtable in September. The group discussed how the City of Philadelphia could address the climate crisis with well-paying, quality conservation jobs.

Throughout his fellowship, Navon's peers and managers singled him out for his exemplary work supporting teammates with their projects, and career goals. "It was his advocacy for the members that really seemed to keep him motivated," shared Mike Herrmann, Program Manager, PowerCorpsPHL. "He helped several members find the tools they needed to complete their term successfully."  

As a result, Navon received the Impact Award in his cohort for his outstanding contributions to the culture of PowerCorpsPHL. "Navon embodied the spirit of service," echoed Gentris Jointe, Fellowship Manager. "The enrichment workshop Navon facilitated on the Harlem Renaissance not only communicated his passion for Black arts and culture, but inspired his peers to think about the impact they want to make on their communities."

After completing his AmeriCorps service with PowerCorps PHL, Navon secured an engineering aide trainee position at Rodriguez Consulting and then moved into a classroom-based land surveyor apprentice program. He wants to pursue this career path and is now waiting to see if he will be accepted into an intensive land surveyor apprentice program with the Philadelphia Water Department.

Interview with Navon

PennSERVE recently had a chance to catch up with Navon to talk about his AmeriCorps journey and his current role.

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What is your motivation to show every day and give it your all – in your work, with your peers?

I come from a very large family – I'm the second oldest of 11 siblings and I was always doing things for my family and other people in the neighborhood. I went to college in the Poconos and one day this woman named Marie came to our class to talk about civic engagement and community service. She had an aura about her – an energy, and I wanted to know more. I ended up working with her for a few months and she became a role model. The experience was so rewarding; the work gave me a sense of purpose and belonging, and I got paid too. When I started with PowerCorps, I embraced their mission, and I truly believe in all they do so it was easy to pour 110% of myself into my work and into helping my peers.

What excites you about the field of land surveying and is this something you hope to do as a career?

Great question! When I first heard about land surveying, my instructor at Rodriguez Consulting told me a story about a former employee. This man was a land surveyor. He learned everything there was to learn about surveying and he went back to his native country in attempts to salvage his father's land, which had been taken from them. This story alone inspired me, motivated me, and got me thinking about what kind of differences I could make doing this work. The fun equipment I'd get to use is just a bonus. I really want to go out in the field and work on projects. I'm also going to brush up on my trigonometry too.

How has your time serving with PowerCorps influenced your thinking around issues of climate change and the role young people can play in environmental stewardship?

Serving with PowerCorps not only made me a better man, but a better person. The skills and the knowledge they share with you in this program is beyond anything I could have expected. Because of programs like PowerCorps, the City of Philadelphia not only functions but thrives. PowerCorps showed me that I don't have to make grand gestures in order to play my role in fighting this climate crisis, but can contribute by doing small things with great care and passion. We can all make a difference.

We've heard that you’re a budding poet. What do you write about in your poems, and what discoveries have you made about yourself when writing?

I am! I try to keep it broad but my pen usually has other ideas. I find that my most memorable poems have come from writing about African Diaspora, nature, community, and love. It starts on the page but my passion is performing them as spoken word poetry. I think it creates a deeper understanding. Our stories are significantly different yet significantly the same, and my goal is to try to get my audience to feel it all.

What advice would you offer next year’s AmeriCorps members?

My advice is to be intentional with everything that you're doing. Go beyond the task and look to understand "why" the work you're doing is important, and "how" it is really impacting the community - then never forget it. Immersing yourself day in and out in service work could lead to burnout. I find in those moments, remembering who I am serving and why I am serving pushes me past each obstacle I come across.

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About PowerCorpsPHL: PowerCorpsPHL provides career-connected education and paid work experiences in collaboration with PennSERVE, AmeriCorps and the City of Philadelphia, powered by Education Works. Working closely with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, the Philadelphia Water Department, and partners in the public and private sector, PowerCorpsPHL builds opportunities for young people to create promising futures by tackling pressing environmental challenges and developing the skills required to secure meaningful work.

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Keisha's Story

Keisha West
Keisha West (2015-2016)


Introduced to AmeriCorps through her daughter, Keisha, a mother of five and grandmother of two at the time, decided to embark on her own AmeriCorps experience to find a new beginning.

In 2015, Keisha was looking for more than her busy warehouse packing job was offering. During the summer months, she would see her daughter, Daija come home from her AmeriCorps program with KEYS (Knowledge to Empower Youth to Success) Service Corps full of excitement talking about what she was learning, and how she was helping children in the community. This sparked Keisha's curiosity and interest. She was ready to explore some new avenues that would offer her professional growth.

"My daughter reminded me over and over that there were no other moms there," explained Keisha. "Yes, I knew that most members were younger but I didn't see an age limit on the application either." Although Keisha felt hesitant in the beginning, she was determined to develop new skills and secure a new work opportunity. She went ahead and applied for a full year program. After a successful interview, Keisha joined the AmeriCorps class of 2015-2016 and joyfully began tutoring children in three kindergarten classrooms at Urban Pathways Charter School. According to her supervisor, Keisha became an empathetic team member who loved to help the children with their ABC's and numbers. The experience turned out to be mutually beneficial: Her impact on the students was immeasurable and she found the work transformative both personally and professionally.

A year of service can prepare AmeriCorps members for a wide range of possible career paths. During the summer of 2016, Keisha had the additional opportunity to serve at the Braddock Carnegie Library (BCL). It turned out to be a great fit. When her term was completed, the BCL hired her as the new Children's Library Assistant, a position she held for six years. Today, Keisha is a patient care technician at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center - UPMC.

Interview with Keisha

PennSERVE recently checked in with Keisha to see what her life is like now.

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What was your experience like as an older AmeriCorps member? What made it meaningful and worthwhile?

I loved working with people of all ages, especially the college kids. Age was put aside and there was nothing but respect. This spirit of inclusion, diversity – working in a multigenerational team was so rewarding and I learned a lot. The KEYS program did it right – they created fun team-building experiences so we could get to know each other. On one group training challenge called C.O.P.E. (Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience) we went ziplining. I'm not great with heights, and it was really challenging, but everyone was so encouraging. Once I stepped off, it was exhilarating and the experience taught me to try new things. It's important to get out of your comfort zone – at any age and work as a team.

For the past six years you’ve worked as the Braddock Carnegie Library children’s librarian assistant. How did your time serving as a Corps member prepare you for your current roles?

While I was at the library, I figured out what I really wanted to do and that was to help people. I was looking for another opportunity to grow and that led me to my current position in patient care at UP Medical Center. I work with the elderly, Alzheimer's and dementia patients. I am attached to my patients now. I really care about them and the work that I did with AmeriCorps and the library definitely helped me to build relationships with people of all ages, and to ask for help if I need it. I'm hopeful about my future here.

Your daughter, Daija, started out as a teen participant with the KEYS Braddock Youth Project, then served as an AmeriCorps member in Summer 2015. What was her KEYS AmeriCorps experience like?

Daija was involved in KEYS as a teen and it was a great experience for her at an important age. She had structure in her day and was surrounded by positive adult role models who wanted her to grow. She was exposed to different point of views and learned to work with people from diverse backgrounds. Today she has a nice job with CVS and works in the packing and fulfillment area.

What advice would you give to someone older who is interested in joining AmeriCorps but hesitant?

There is no age limit on the application so I encourage older adults who are looking for another chapter in their lives to check it out. I always tell people who are looking for job training and a little income -- and who want to help their communities -- about AmeriCorps. The program got me back on my feet and gave me a new direction. The culture is inclusive, respectful and supportive so I say go for it.

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About KEYS (Knowledge to Empower Youth to Success) Service Corps: KEYS programs serve at-risk youth in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County by providing safe places with structured activities, assisting with homework and classwork, and implementing service projects.

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