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District 518 AmeriCorps members benefit local youths

Vilai Khanya (back, left) is the AmeriCorps Promise Fellow with Worthington School District 518 until late July. She is shown here with eighth-graders in the Odyssey program, which she leads at Worthington Middle School. District 518 has had numerous AmeriCorps Promise Fellows and AmeriCorps Vista participants in the past 20 years. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON — While the 2013-14 school year may be winding down, District 518 AmeriCorps Promise Fellow Vilai Khanya still has a couple of months to go before her year-long fellowship is complete.

Born in California and raised in Kansas, Khanya is the latest in a string of AmeriCorps members to work in the Worthington school district. She began her role last August and works primarily with Community Education and the Nobles County Integration Collaborative. Much of her time is spent at the Worthington Middle School, working with students in integrated math and reading programs, as well as Odyssey, a service learning program for eighth-graders.

Khanya was recruited for the role through a family connection in Soom Chandaswang, a Nobles County Integration Collaborative employee. While growing up in Kansas, Khanya had participated in service learning groups in school that were led by the local university.

Being an AmeriCorps member meant she could draw from that experience, moving from mentee to mentor.

“I really liked it,” she said of her work in District 518. “I wasn’t the student who was outgoing in high school, so when I got the opportunity to do this I was really afraid.

“It definitely gave me more opportunity to speak to the public and to larger audiences,” she added.

“Worthington has benefitted from AmeriCorps for many years,” said District 518 Community Education Director Sharon Johnson. This fall marks the 20th anniversary of the nationwide program and, over the years, the local school district has employed numerous AmeriCorps Promise Fellow and AmeriCorps Vista participants.

At least 17 current ISD 518 employees were AmeriCorps members prior to their career in education.

“The partnership with the Americorps program has benefitted us by having some of those young adults come into our community, work a year or two and then stay here to be professionals in our community,” Johnson said.

Khanya plans to stay around Worthington after her fellowship ends as well. After taking some courses at Minnesota West Community and Technical College this past year, she will begin online classes this summer through the University of Phoenix. Her planned major is psychology.

As Khanya’s year as an AmeriCorps Promise Fellow winds down, the search has already begun for the next AmeriCorps participants.

Johnson said the district was awarded two AmeriCorps positions for the next year. One will be an AmeriCorps Vista member to work with early childhood and school readiness programs; the other is a Promise Fellow to again work at Worthington Middle School on student academic success, leadership and civic engagement.

Johnson said the application process is under way, and the hope is that one position will start in July and the other in August.

“We’re mainly looking for people who are passionate about helping young people be successful,” Johnson said. “We’re looking for people who have talents and skills to share — people interested in being a role model or mentor to students.”

The qualifications for being an AmeriCorps member include that they be age 18 or older, have a valid driver’s license and have education or experience that would be valuable to the position. The role does not require a four-year post-secondary degree.

“We want people who are interested in education or youth development,” Johnson said, adding that it would be beneficial if the individuals also have computer skills and public speaking ability.

AmeriCorps members receive a living allowance and professional development training during their service period. At the end of their contract, they receive an education award that may either be applied to previous college debt or future college education.

“That’s the incentive most people are interested in,” Johnson said.

District 518 has applied for an AmeriCorps worker nearly every year of the program’s 20-year history in Minnesota. Applications are ranked based on a district’s poverty level, academic achievement gap and other factors.

In Minnesota, the program is partnered with the Minnesota Alliance With Youth, which places the AmeriCorps Promise Fellows, and the Minnesota Literacy Council, which places the AmeriCorps Vista members.

“By making the commitment to have Americorps members here, our site is dedicated to mentoring those individuals — to help them develop skills that we need, but that also are necessary for them to develop their futures,” Johnson added. “One of the things we’re looking for is to fulfill the five promises to America’s youth — provide caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, effective education and opportunities to serve.”

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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