AmeriCorps Member Involvement at Iowa Legal Aid
Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid
AmeriCorps is sometimes referred to as “domestic Peace Corps.” It is a national program that first began to operate in 1994. AmeriCorps provides a way for its members to better their communities through a year of service. Members serve in not-for-profits, schools, public agencies and community and faith-based groups. Over 80,000 members now serve this country through the AmeriCorps program each year, and more than 900,000 Americans have served since the program started. They have contributed 1.2 billion hours of national service. While serving, AmeriCorps members learn valuable work skills, can receive a stipend, and earn money for education. One of the goals of the AmeriCorps program is that all members will increase their civic engagement.
What AmeriCorps Members Are Doing at Iowa Legal Aid:
Iowa Legal Aid has had an AmeriCorps project since 2005 with members serving low-income residents of all 99 Iowa counties. The Project usually enrolls 12 – 15 members each year, with at least one member serving in each of the 10 regional offices. Members are involved in various projects, including client services, translation and interpretation, and community legal education, and volunteer recruitment and management.
Members provide a variety of client support services. These services include helping with new client intake screening, both in the office and off-site. They also help the attorneys with document preparation and research, and can help individual clients with applications for benefits, including Iowa’s Rent Reimbursement program.
Some AmeriCorps members are bilingual and help interpret and translate between Iowa Legal Aid clients and staff. Bilingual AmeriCorps members complete intakes for applicants with limited English proficiency, and interpret for attorneys making community legal education presentations. Members translate client letters, as well as articles on the Iowa Legal Aid website, and client satisfaction surveys.
AmeriCorps members also make presentations focused on improving financial literacy. Members reach out to community organizations such as transitional housing programs, parenting networks, English as Second Language classes, senior centers, and other organizations that help meet the needs of low-income Iowans. Organizations interested in a presentation help select the topic and site. Topics include taxes, housing, healthcare, advance directives, debt, and unemployment. The goal of these presentations is to teach low-income Iowans about their legal rights and responsibilities, so that they become more financially secure.
All of Iowa Legal Aid’s AmeriCorps members assist with volunteer management. These volunteers include lawyers, paralegals, interpreters, tax professionals, law students, college students, retired people, and other community members. Volunteers allow Iowa Legal to help more low-income Iowans than it otherwise could. During the 2014-15 Project, these volunteers donated over 3,800 hours in a wide variety of tasks. Depending on their qualifications, the volunteers represented clients, assisted with self-help divorce clinics, served as receptionists, performed research, or interpreted/translated.
One example of an important volunteer management project is self-help divorce clinics. Members contact qualifying clients about the clinics to see if they are interested, and set up appointments. The members also recruit volunteers, including lawyers, law students, and paralegals. These volunteers help low-income Iowans understand, complete, and file divorce papers in court, so they can process their divorces on their own.
Representing Iowa Legal Aid in Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service Activities:
Every year, AmeriCorps members are involved with various activities for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. This year, members helped organize an event with the Broadway Neighborhood Center in Iowa City, teamed up with the University of Northern Iowa to prepare meals for the Northeast Iowa Food Bank, and recruited students from the University of Nebraska-Omaha to help with the destruction of old files in the Southwest Iowa Regional Office of Iowa Legal Aid.