(Crystal A. Proxmire, 7/10/2011)
Sixteen years ago when President Bill Clinton signed off on the creation of a nationally-organized service program called AmeriCorps, AIDS United was one of the first on board. They have established teams in several cities, including AIDS Fund Detroit (now AIDS United). Just ending its fourteenth year, the Detroit team is one of the longest-running in the country.
Terry Ryan of Michigan AIDS Coalition has organized the year-long service programs for the past six teams. At the July 6, 2011 end of service awards ceremony he was full of gratitude and pride as he said goodbye to a group of young activists that he watched work hard and mature over the past year.
“Every team takes on a collaborative personality,” Ryan said. “This team of all the teams I remember has required the least training and direction. They banded together from the beginning and I admire their long term vision.”
Working with area organizations like Michigan AIDS Coalition (MAC), Community Health Alternatives, Detroit Health Department, Transgender Michigan, Alternatives for Girls and Detroit Latinos, the seven team members created a remarkable list of accomplishments. These included giving hundreds of HIV tests, working at needle exchange programs, education about AIDS prevention, and helping with social media outreach. The group went to Chicago to help at an animal rescue, to a school in Detroit to transform a run-down storage space into a freshly-painted multipurpose room, and to a food bank to sort donations, among many other projects that benefited the community around them.
One project that particularly impressed Ryan was the 650-can sculpture of Faygo Red Pop containers in the shape of a person-sized AIDS ribbon. The sculpture was a conversation piece at Motor City Pride, and is now a reminder of AIDS awareness for those who visit Alternatives for Girls.
But the ribbon itself was not nearly as impressive as the way Team 14 pulled together to handle the various obstacles and changes that came their way. Originally their intent was to create a sculpture out of old car parts, and to place it permanently at the Heidelberg Project in Detroit. However, the plan came with a $50,000 price tag that they ultimately were unable to raise.
“We put so much time into the idea that we didn’t want to give it up completely,” said team member Heather O’Neil. She said that they wanted to stick with a motor-city theme, and that Faygo seemed like a good fit that was more in their budget. But even after the change of theme, there were problems. “It fell apart a couple of times. Finally we used a mix of wire, glue and clear tape and we finally got it right. But it took a lot of trial and error.”
In addition to learning team-building and problem-solving skills, the youth were able to connect with others, and themselves, in completely new ways.
Emma Krasicky was able to transition this year, finding the work with Transgender Michigan a supportive place to live her first year comfortably recognized as Emma. Serving as the first office manager for Transition Michigan, Krasicky was essential in helping the group establish their first brick-and-mortar location at the Community Pride Building in Ferndale.
“This has been the best year of my life so far,” she said. “I started my AmeriCorp year just after a month of beginning my physical transition. There were a lot of physical challenges and I’ve never volunteered in a group like this before. Rachel Crandall [founder of Transgender Michigan] was my therapist and when she told me about this I was like ‘um…okay.’ But it has really changed my life.”
Michael Wallace was able to share his passion for online social media with his host organization AIDS United. He built the group’s following on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and Juno. Wallace even captured the attention of Channel 7 Action News who read one of his “tweets” and invited members of the AmeriCorp team for an on-air interview. Wallace will be returning next year as Team Coordinator for Team 15.
As Sarah Detloff finished her final day as Team Coordinator for Team 14, she wondered what the future will bring. “It will be strange not doing AmeriCorp next year since I’ve been doing it for two years now…I’ll miss everyone so much.”
Another member, Chardae Rowe, has been offered a paid staff position at her host organization, Alternatives for Girls. She is now at least the 26th person to be hired from their AmeriCorps positions in the 14 years of the program.
Ryan says he looks forward to running the AmeriCorp program again next year though his office at MAC. “In 26 years of fighting HIV, this is the most rewarding thing I do,” he said. “This group has renewed and re-validated for me why I am doing this.”