Life is Sweet - ISU AmeriCorps volunteer makes a difference at Ryves Youth Center

By: ISU Communications and Marketing Staff, ISU Communications and Marketing Staff
May 14, 2009

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. - One person can have an impact on the lives of others. Just ask a group of girls at Ryves Youth Center at Etling Hall.

Samantha Arrasmith, a senior philosophy major and creative writing minor at Indiana State University, volunteers at the center through AmeriCorps Sycamore Service Corps, working with a special group of at-risk girls called the Sweeties. The Cayuga student fills a variety of roles - big sister, role model and camp counselor.

"Many of these girls come from single parent families who live in poverty," said Jim Edwards, executive director of Ryves Youth Center. "Often times our girls grow up with no direction and feel that they are trapped in the culture in which they live."

In 2005, Indiana State student Crystal Thomas Brown started the Sweeties at Ryves, a program for girls between the ages of 9 and 16 while serving at the center through the Sycamore Service Corps. Since then, Indiana State AmeriCorps members have continued the program.

"The Sweeties program motivates our girls and provides opportunities that they would not be able to participate in," Edwards added.

Arrasmith, who has worked with the group for two years, says she uses her own childhood to plan events for the Sweeties.

"I think about what I liked to do growing up," she said. "But I also like to think and dream up other educational and fun activities for them."

She also gets them out in the community to showcase their talent and interest in performing. While working with the Sweeties, she utilized her theater background to organize a dance team that includes several of the teenage boys who come to Ryves.

Edwards was surprised by the popularity of the dance team among the boys.

"If you had told me that I could get teenage boys to participate in a dance team I would have to argue with you," he said. "It amazes me to see boys who love to play basketball eager to join in with the dance team. Samantha is definitely the driving force that has made this change."

The senior Sweeties, ages 12-16, performed in Indiana State's Homecoming Parade and hosted a Valentine's Day Dance, where they also performed.

"Our girls have improved their self esteem while participating in numerous activities which are both educational as well as entertaining," Edwards said.

Last May, Arrasmith and fellow AmeriCorps volunteer Lindsey Zehren organized a prom for the girls.

"The Sweeties helped plan it," she said. "I brought in prom books and they selected the theme and decorations."

Prom dresses were donated for the girls, who were able to get their hair done by a stylist. Arrasmith took care of applying makeup for the special occasion.

"It was a really awesome experience," Arrasmith concluded. "And it meant so much to the girls."

The two volunteers planned a summer camp for the Sweeties.

"Things that normal children take for granted, these girls haven't had the opportunity to experience," Arrasmith added.

During the week-long adventure, the Sweeties experienced a mix of education and fun activities, ranging from making friendship bracelets and playing putt-putt to going to the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice and C.A.N.D.L.E.S. museum.

"It was a nice mix of activities," Arrasmith said. "I learned as much as they did at White Violet and C.A.N.D.L.E.S."

With the help of an $800 grant from an organization and under the watchful eye of Arrasmith, the Sweeties refurbished the lounge at Ryves.

With a little paint, elbow grease and some new decor, the girls took a dark, mis-matched room and made it into a welcoming living room.

"It's a bright, happy room now," Arrasmith said. "It's a nice place to hang out."

Utilizing her love for poetry and creative writing, she organized a poetry contest.

"I read to them a couple of days and then we went into the Sweeties' room, put on some music and the girls began to write," Arrasmith said.

She brought in a friend and one of her professors at Indiana State, Mark Lewendowski, to judge the submitted works and celebrated the end of the activity with a reception, where three prizes were awarded.

"It was a great experience," she concluded. "Some of the poems were really great. I have some real talented Sweeties."

The poetry-writing activity enabled Arrasmith to gain valuable experience for the future.

"I want to continue my education," she said. "I'd like to teach creative writing at the college level. Anytime you are leading a group of students that is going to help me be a better teacher."

While being able to gain experience as a teacher, she's opened doors for her students.

"Samantha shows our children that studying the fine arts is a good thing," Edwards said. "Our children have shown an interest in writing, dancing, poetry, and much more. This is all because of her encouragement."

Together with fellow AmeriCorps volunteer, Kasey Black, Arrasmith has a summer tour planned for the girls to check out local colleges.

"We want them to think about going to college," Arrasmith said, adding the two students would like to showcase the diverse areas of study and activities that can be found at higher education institutions close to home.

"Their interest in college might be higher if they were allowed to explore more," she explained.

Arrasmith obviously enjoys her time at Ryves. She's all smiles when you ask her about the experience.

"Every day, there's something great that happens," she said. "You can do something you enjoy and make a difference. I can't say enough good things about the AmeriCorps program and what it has meant to me."

According to Edwards, the Sweeties truly love spending time with the Indiana State student and are grateful for her commitment to them.

"When I asked a few of our girls about Samantha they have used such words as 'playful, caring, loving, marvelous, fantastic, exciting, and amazing,'" Edwards said. "They say that she always makes things fun and that they always learn a lot. For many of our children, Samantha is the big sister that they never had."

Members of AmeriCorps work with non-profit organizations who work with children, youth, adults and elderly people in the community.

There are 61 members of Sycamore Service Corps, who work at 25 non-profits in a five-county region in Indiana. While Indiana State students making up a large majority of the membership, the program is open to residents of the Wabash Valley.

AmeriCorps members must be U.S. Citizens or lawful permanent residents of the U.S. and at least 18 years of age. Volunteers accepted into the AmeriCorps Program become members. In addition to the satisfaction of giving back to their community, most members receive a living allowance in exchange for their services and free professional development training. Members also receive an education award upon completion of service, ranging from $1,000-$2,300.

Debbie Miller, director of Sycamore Service Corps, sees first-hand the importance of AmeriCorp's living allowance and education award.

"It's a nice benefit for our members, especially the college students," she said. "It's not a lot of money, but it frees them up to serve the community without having to juggle a part-time job. Both benefits together enable students to stay in school while indulging in their passion for volunteerism."

Edwards said AmeriCorps volunteers working at Ryves make all the difference in the world to the programs they offer to at-risk youth in Terre Haute.

"Sycamore Service Corps has made a great impact in both our long term and daily operations," he said. "We can rely on our AmeriCorps volunteers to work directly with our children and be committed to make a change. Without the Sycamore Service Corps programs such as the Sweeties would not exist. This means the difference between providing programming and providing quality programming."

For more information on Sycamore Service Corps or to download the application, go to http://www.indstate.edu/publicservice/americorps . For more information, call Debbie Miller at (812) 237-7900.

-30-

Contact: Debbie Miller, Center for Public Service and Community Engagement, (812) 237-7900

Writer: Paula Meyer, ISU Communications & Marketing, (812) 237-3783 or paula.meyer@indstate.edu