A Journey: How AmeriCorps Worked for Rhonda Ulmer

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!

“There are some careers that hope to get you to where you are and then ones that get you where you want to be.”

Planting Seeds

Rhonda clearly remembers when everything started.  Born and raised in Florida, she first heard about AmeriCorps and started the application process to become a member from her home state.

However, after her son fell ill, Rhonda didn’t finish her application.  She instead moved to Maryland so that he could receive medical treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

New Beginnings

After her move, Rhonda received a letter from her children’s school stating that the school was failing.  She was instructed that as a parent, under the No Child Left Behind Act, she had the option to transfer her children to another school.  She thought to herself “That sounds crazy! There has to be something we can do as parents and teachers to solve this problem.”  Rhonda made an appointment with the school’s principal in order to find an answer that very question: what can we do?  The principal was working on a few initiatives with teachers including the creation of a new curriculum that better addressed test performance.  During the meeting the principal emphasized one key component: parent involvement.  The principal then asked Rhonda if she would be interested in taking on a leadership role in a parent involvement initiative.

During this time, Rhonda had enrolled her daughter in a local Head Start program.  Shortly after, Rhonda was approached by staff in the program.  She was such an active and engaged parent that they offered her a position; as an AmeriCorps member through Volunteer Maryland!  Rhonda had been working at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport for Southwest Airlines.  While she was happy with her job, she wanted to go back to school and finish her education.  She looked at her options, and made her choice.

Her family called her crazy for giving up her corporate job and free flight benefits to go serve as an AmeriCorps member.  At the time, Head Start didn’t have a volunteer program.  Rhonda worked to set up a family mentoring program where she recruited volunteers to work with families and assist parents with things like career networking.  What stuck out to Rhonda about Head Start’s mission was the program’s dedication to their title: giving children a head start in life while incorporating a family component.  Head Start not only worked to help children but also to assist whole families in their process.

 “My experience completely changed my whole career from corporate to service. It helped me find my true passion: parent and family education.”

Rhonda says that being an AmeriCorps member with three children was very challenging but rewarding.  Years later, her family–the same family that called her crazy–says that it was the best decision she could have ever made.  She now tells her children that no matter what, they have to serve at least one year when they finish high school or college.

After her AmeriCorps years with Volunteer Maryland, Rhonda continued her work improving parent and family education initiatives.  She found that addressing the issue of parent involvement was a complicated process.  Many times, parents wanted to support their children in school but had no idea how.  Reasons for lack of involvement from parents ranged from language and cultural barriers to parents not feeling academically equipped because they didn’t graduate from high school.  Rhonda was elected PTA president and applied for her first small grant.  The grant stipulated that program participants attend parent leadership classes where parents were taught how to partner with their children’s schools.  She successfully ran the resulting Van Bokkelen’s Family Network whose goal was to help families meet basic needs, so that parents in turn could focus on the academic needs of their children.  The Network used the school as a hub to provide the community with support and resources.

Her children’s school was on the government take over list.  After implementing her ideas, the school began to turn around.  Five years later, the school is a top performer based on state test scores.  Rhonda wanted to duplicate the process for other schools.  Inspired by the success of giving parents tools and resources, Rhonda started University for Parents, a nonprofit committed to supporting parents through family education.

Rhonda recalls that the training and experiences that she had as both a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator and Regional Coordinator provided a very strong foundation and paved the way for her to make a difference in the lives of others.

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

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