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AmeriCorps volunteers lend a hand in Pittsburgh

| Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, 12:33 a.m.
AmeriCorps volunteer Heather Daly from Olive, New York cleans a tree planter along Liberty Avenue Friday September 28, 2012 downtown as a part of a kick-off for about 160 AmeriCorps volunteers who will be in Pittsburgh over the next year working at various senior centers, schools and neighborhoods. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
AmeriCorps volunteers Christian Freeberg from Lawrenceville (left) and Andrew Gidley from Beaver Falls (right) clean a traffic pole along Liberty Avenue Friday September 28, 2012 downtown as a part of a kick-off for about 160 AmeriCorps volunteers who will be in Pittsburgh over the next year working at various senior centers, schools and neighborhoods. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Sierra Baril was working a dead-end job, answering calls for a credit card company in Erie, before she signed up for AmeriCorps and headed to Pittsburgh.

On Friday, she and about 160 other volunteers pledged to mentor youths, clean neighborhoods and fill community positions. Baril, of Squirrel Hill, said she hopes to find a permanent job in the city when her AmeriCorps tour ends.

“I wanted to live in Pittsburgh, to find a job that I enjoyed doing, and took a chance,” said Baril, 25. “It's hard work, but I enjoy it.”

AmeriCorps enlists more than 80,000 people nationwide each year through more than 15,000 schools, nonprofits, public agencies and community and faith-based organizations. They work for a stipend — about $12,000 annually, plus health care benefits and a $5,550 grant they can apply toward college tuition or college loans.

Salena Smith, 20, of Homewood, who joined AmeriCorps this summer, said it's a hard budget to live on — she works a part-time job on weekends — but the work is rewarding.

“I love giving back; that's my main reason for joining,” she said.

The national volunteer rate dropped from about 26.8 percent of all U.S. residents in 2009 to 26.3 percent in 2010, the most recent year for data, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service in Washington, which oversees federal community services programs, including AmeriCorps. But the number of volunteer hours remained the same.

About 62.8 million Americans in 2010 volunteered 8.1 billion hours worth $176 billion.

Samantha Warfield, spokeswoman for the Corporation for National and Community Service, said people born between 1965 and 1981, known as Generation Xers, donated 2.3 billion hours, an increase of about 110 million hours from 2009.

National response to events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina and the volunteer efforts they triggered are partially responsible, she said.

“This is also the first generation to have service learning as part of their educational experience,” she said. “They're making decisions based on a short lifetime of exposure to volunteering and service.”

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who created a community service program called ServePGH in 2010, said it has enlisted 2,800 volunteers serving 29,902 hours worth about $623,755. Foundations donated about $1.2 million in cash and gift cards for ServePGH programs.

“It's very important when you consider what they give without receiving anything in return,” Ravenstahl said.

Christina Burke, volunteer coordinator for the United Way of Allegheny County, said about 1,735 people served the organization's volunteer programs last year. The United Way's free tax preparation campaign resulted in $10.6 million in income tax returns for about 6,393 low- and moderate-income workers.

Burke spent two years with AmeriCorps working with poor people in the city. She said it was a life-changing experience.

“It was the first time I learned that there are systemic issues causing poverty that I as an individual could impact,” she said. “It just gives you a breadth of experience that you wouldn't get if you hadn't served.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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