PHILADELPHIA >> As her fifth year at Andrew Jackson Elementary School in Philadelphia draws near, principal Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan isn’t holding her breath over district funding. Her after-school Spanish and Mandarin programs are immune to budget woes, thanks to a partnership with University of Pennsylvania. Volunteers from the First Unitarian Church will again provide library support and tutoring to students.
Yes, Andrew Jackson School will be all right, thanks to dedicated staff, engaged parents and a bounty of community partners — 38, to be exact. Kaplan is grateful for them. She writes of her appreciation, and tries to let everyone know when the school is closed.
But, Kaplan said, “Communication…can be difficult when we’re so short-staffed.” So, she and school leaders applied for a grant through the school district, for a volunteer to head all volunteers.
Enter Kelli Mantell of West Grove. She will work full-time at Jackson Elementary for one year through the AmeriCorps VISTA program.
Kaplan will count on Mantell to establish forums for individuals from community organizations to communicate with the school and with each other, and to allow parents access to information about the ways community partners contribute to their children’s education.
Kaplan envisions an online network and multi-language newsletter, to start.
“She’s got her work cut out for her,” said Kaplan of Mantell. “I’m a high-energy principal, and I need someone with vision and initiative.”
Fostering community relationships is something Mantell, at the ripe age of 23, knows a thing or two about. As of last month, she is an alumna of AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), a 10-month program in which she and a team of 12 volunteers served communities in California, Oregon and Alaska.
Mantell spent 40-plus hours a week building houses for migrant farmers in California’s Coachella Valley, making stream bank improvements in the Greater Portland Area, caring for trees at two national parks in the Sierra Nevada, and building a paintball field for at-risk youth on an island in Alaska.
“I wanted to…learn how individuals connect with communities, and (then) transfer what I learned…to my own community,” Mantell said.
And Mantell did learn, a lot.
NCCC teams are sponsored by an organization from the community in which they come to work. The teams work with that organization—a non-profit, faith-based, or government entity—and muster support for the project from other organizations and individuals in the host community, to bolster the project’s long-term health.
It involved a lot research, cold-calling, and scheduling meetings, said Mantell.
Mantell also volunteered to represent her team to the media, and spread word about the team’s presence via press releases and social media.
Mantell earned a B.F.A. in fine art in April 2013 from the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design in Lancaster, where she honed her skills in painting, mixed media, collage, and embroidery. She thoroughly enjoyed her coursework and plans to pursue a career in the arts.
But, Mantell said, studying fine arts felt “like a self-indulgent thing to do—focusing on myself, and enjoying the cathartic response I experienced through my creative work.”
Following graduation, Mantell looked to spend time serving others’ needs. She considered joining the Peace Corps, but found she did not have an applicable degree. She learned about AmeriCorps NCCC during her research about the Peace Corps, and decided to go for it.
In addition to gaining community outreach experience, Mantell learned a lot about environmental stewardship. The most challenging aspects of her service proved to be living with the rest of her team and working outside.
“The Pacific Northwest is a rainforest,” said Mantell. “We worked outside (pulling up English ivy and planting trees) in the pouring rain eight hours a day—we just put on our raingear.”
When her work was labor-intensive and physically exhausting, Mantell longed for home. But, she and all but two of her team members stuck it out.
“It’s a really difficult program, but it’s really valuable for young people who are trying to figure out what to do with their lives,” said Mantell.
Upon completing her AmeriCorps VISTA commitment, Mantell will earn her second Segal Education Award, which she will use to make payments on her school loans while she develops sources of income.
“Philly has really great art organizations,” said Mantell. She looks forward to networking with people in the city in the course of her VISTA work.