Expecting the Unexpected: How AmeriCorps Worked for Jennifer Bernhard Kerner

As part of our celebration of AmeriCorps Week, we’re highlighting how AmeriCorps worked for VM alumni.  This is just one of many success stories!

“Even though I’m years removed from my time in AmeriCorps, the experience only becomes more powerful in my mind.”

Taking action

Jen started her journey right here in Laurel, Maryland. A Marylander born and raised, Jen always thought she would work within a medical-related field, thus she attended St. Mary’s College of Maryland and majored in Biology.

Growing up, she was always involved in service in one way or another whether it was helping out with church projects or serving dinner at a shelter. While volunteering on a home-building project during college, Jen noticed that one of the helpers who showed her how to lay brick wore a sweatshirt with an interesting logo. It turned out that the logo was the AmeriCorps logo and that person was an AmeriCorps member. Several bricks later, Jen had gotten the full scoop on AmeriCorps and how great it is!

Though she had a job waiting for her, Jen knew that she wanted—and needed—to give back after college.  AmeriCorps seemed like the perfect opportunity to serve.

Following her heart, Jen applied for programs in the Pacific Northwest. She was looking for environmental conservation programs where she would be able to apply her love of the environment to her service. She waited and waited for a response and heard nothing back.

In the meantime, Jen’s mom called and told her about an opportunity she saw in the PennySaver. It was an AmeriCorps program through Volunteer Maryland. Of course Jen’s mother had no idea what Volunteer Maryland was, she just knew she didn’t want her child to leave her for the West Coast. Jen applied to Volunteer Maryland just to appease her mom.

After her interview, Jen fell in love with the people and the mission of Volunteer Maryland and accepted the position, even before she knew where she would serve as an AmeriCorps member!  She decided to forego adventure and stay in her state; after all, Maryland was her home. This was her opportunity to give back specifically to her community.

 “It’s hard not to get mired down, the problems are so big, and so many people need help. It’s great to be able to go out, take action, and see things happen.”

An unexpected revelation

Jen served as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator (VMC) for The Family Tree, a statewide agency. She was their first VMC and her task involved setting up volunteer programs in Prince George’s and Harford Counties. She was responsible for developing these programs and recruiting and training volunteers. She also worked to streamline their materials and stabilize their program structure in these new areas.

Jen says that her service year was an experience that she will never ever forget. As a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, Jen experienced several personal set-backs and frustrations including having her car totaled and an unexpected increase in rent. The AmeriCorps stipend isn’t much to live on, even without any unexpected difficulties. During these difficult times Jen was taken aback by the amount of good that was brought out of people. Clients of The Family Tree suffering from severe family problems, many of them low-income families, would offer her money to help out!  These were people without a dollar to give offering to support someone they know only through their interactions with the organization! Though she couldn’t accept their offers, they gave her something invaluable: inspiration to finish her service.

 “I learned more from my interactions with people than I ever would have in college. AmeriCorps is one of the most rewarding experiences because it is so challenging. You can see the change! The challenges and frustrations are so worth it. The benefits outweigh the challenges even though the challenges are great.”

A necessary evolution

She went into her AmeriCorps experience with a plan to do one year, give back, and move on. This, however, didn’t happen.

Jen found so many jobs for which she was potentially qualified but after completing her AmeriCorps service, no position seemed meaningful enough; no job seemed to live up to the a sense of purpose she felt as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator. It wasn’t until a colleague from Volunteer Maryland suggested an organization named Genesee Valley that she felt she had found the right position. Genesee Valley is an outdoor learning center that provides character and team building programming for youth. Jen was hired first as a facilitator and then as a co-director and stayed with the organization for five years. Here she was, with a Biology degree, going a completely different route from what she originally expected!

AmeriCorps changed Jen’s whole career path for the better. One day, Jen may head back to do science-related work in the health field. For now, there is plenty of work to be done in the nonprofit sector and AmeriCorps world! She is presently continuing to serve communities of Maryland as a Program Officer with the Governor’s Office of Service and Volunteerism.

 “Volunteer Maryland allowed me to realize the power of community service. I was forced into it as a child and participated in college as a fun way to do good. I hadn’t grasped how powerful it was, how with problems so big, one person can make a difference. It’s the structure of Volunteer Maryland, seeing that multiplier model: you get trained, and then go out and train others.” 

 

(Thanks to VM23 Regional Coordinator Corrine Handy for interviewing Jen and writing this story!)

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