AmeriCorps seeks Island volunteers

Federal program offers service across the country

A senior official from AmeriCorps visited the Island to call for volunteers. —Eunki Seonwoo

A senior official from AmeriCorps, a federal volunteer service, visited the Vineyard Wednesday seeking volunteers to join construction, education, and development projects in under-served communities across the country. 

Sonali Nijhawan, director of state and national programs for AmeriCorps, told students at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School that they would not regret taking time after high school to serve in areas of need. 

“My service experience changed my life,” she said. “It gave me perspective. It gave me purpose, and it opened so many new opportunities to me.”

After studying psychology and elementary education at Marquette University, she signed up to be an AmeriCorps member in Chicago 17 years ago. 

“I actually had moments where I wasn’t sure if I was going to graduate high school, I didn’t know where I was going to go to college, and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she said. “But what I did know is that I really felt inspired and connected when I got to do projects with my classmates that were volunteer oriented.”

She said AmeriCorps had service sites in cities and towns across the country, and let volunteers work in a variety of fields, including construction and building trades, disaster relief and public health initiatives. Volunteers can opt to serve for hours a week to full years.

The school administrator, Nell Coogan, encouraged students to keep an open mind. 

“It’s okay to not know exactly what you want to do when you graduate from here,” she said. “I want people to have like these ideas, these open thoughts to different programs and different things, they can do.”

The panel also included MVRHS teacher and football coach Zeke Vought, who volunteered in Boston; EMT and Fire captain Kara Shemeth, who volunteered in Denver: Oak Bluffs linguistics teacher Gina Patti, who volunteered on St. Kitts island; Parker Septic & Drain owner Matt Parker, who served in southern states. 

Vought said he wanted an alternative to college when he graduated high school. He applied to CitiYear in Boston, a volunteer service gap year program where he worked on clean up and waste management. 

“I don’t think that there’s any higher reward in your life that you’ll find when you’ve helped somebody else,” he said. 

He urged the students to follow his example, saying, “In my opinion, I think everybody should do a year of service.”

“I cannot agree more,” Shemeth said. She said her experience at an AmeriCorps site in Denver, where she worked to reduce and fight wildfires in the West, changed her life. 

Following her AmeriCorps experience, she worked as an EMT and captain at the Edgartown fire department for over 20 years. “[My current job] is something I might not have considered if I hadn’t done AmeriCorps,” she said.  

“This island is amazing and we have a lot more diversity now […] but it’s still a small bubble,” she added. “You gotta get out and see the world, and this is a great way to do it.”

Parker said he worked on disaster cleanup in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, taught at a preschool in South Carolina, and helped build an 86-foot suspension bridge in Arkansas. 

“I did all sorts of crazy stuff when I was in AmeriCorps, and it really has built who I am today. I can go into any situation and just kind of figure it out,” he said. 

Unlike the other panelists, Patti served in the Peace Corps, an international volunteer service organization run by the federal government. She taught at a school on St. Kitts island in the Caribbean, and now works as a reading teacher at the Oak Bluffs School. 

“It was the most tremendous, awesome experience I’ve ever had,” she said of her Peace Corps tour.  “And I will serve again when I retire.”

For more information on Americorps and their mission, visit


  1. I applaud the work of Americorp but I think they are assuming that all people on Martha’s Vineyard are rich. When In fact we have many people who live below the poverty line, many elders who need help, autistic and disabled kids who need help, learning disabled kids and adults who need help.

    In other words, students at the high school don’t need to leave the island to find organizations and individuals that need their help. One can have a volunteer experience right here on Martha’s Vineyard!

    • What Island organizations provide the frame work of AmeriCore?
      The concept of AmeriCore is to get young Americans to experience America, not just their home communities.
      Have you identified where AmeriCore can be of benefit to the Island?
      Have you reached out to them?

  2. The AmeriCorps experiences described at this event by MVRHS grads is inspiring! In addition to how this changed their lives, each made important contributions for the communities where they served, and they earned a living allowance plus an education award to use for post secondary learning. More info about serving as an AmeriCoros member is at

  3. Kristin, an islander who serves as an AmeriCorps is paid a living allowance and receives an education scholarship that helps pay for post secondary learning. Hopefully there will some day be opportunities to do this at island organizations. But for high school graduates whether serving on the island or somewhere else in the country this is an opportunity to earn income and a scholarship.
    Albert, in the recent visit reported by the MVTimes, there also was a meeting with island nonprofits about how they could host an AmeriCorps member, with a grant from AmeriCorps. Will be great if any decide to do that.

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