Keystone SMILES Has Reason to Smile

IMG_8497 KNOX, Pa. (EYT) – The Keystone SMILES Community Learning Center will recognize its many service and outreach projects on Tuesday as part of Mayor’s Day of Recognition for National Service, sponsored by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

(Pictured above Keystone SMILES AmeriCorps members Matthew Eppley of Punxsutawney and Jackie Welsh of Barnesville (right) with Joyce Fosdick, SMILES executive director. Eppley also recently completed four years with the Peace Crops in the Ukraine.)

A public reception and short program will be held from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m., with Knox Mayor Frank Agnello offering remarks, at SMILES headquarter at 420 Main Street, in Knox.

The reach of Keystone SMILES (Service Making an Impact on Learning Experiences with Students) is impressive and extends well beyond Clarion County, with members serving in 12 counties, including Erie, Crawford, Mercer, Lawrence, Venango, Butler, Allegheny, Clarion, Jefferson, McKean, Elk, and Clearfield Counties.

“We will recognize the AmeriCorps members serving the Clarion County community,” said Joyce Fosdick, SMILES executive director.  Over 2,004 AmeriCorps members have served through SMILES since 1994 in the 12 counties and 40 placement sites.

A look at some of the statistics SMILES has compiled since its start in 1994 shows:

• 22,814 students mentored to enhance school success

• $6 million earned in education awards

• 63,608 students tutored to increase academic achievement

• 71,399 volunteers engaged in service to Western Pennsylvania neighborhoods

• 345,345 volunteer hours contributed for projects designed to meet community needs

The Center, in addition to AmeriCorps, offers community event support, Crossroads Alternative Education, mentoring and tutoring, preschool, Progressive Agriculture Safety Day, Ross McGinnis Memorial Service Awards, service-learning training and programs, Clarion University Federal Work-Study opportunities, Summer Youth Service Crops, and training.

A luncheon will also be held on Tuesday in Oil City on Colbert Avenue where SMILES is currently refurbishing a house.  Oil City Mayor Barbara F. Crudo will be attending the luncheon and recognize community volunteers and those who are participating in the Youth Build Program.

“The AmeriCorps program got started in the Keystone School District in 1994 when I was a teacher the classroom,” said Fosdick.  “I was coordinating a service-learning program in which we had about 1,000 students that participated in service programs. Service learning is a teaching methodology, and the concept is that you take new skills or acquired skills and you integrate them into helping others. We are all students throughout our lives, and if we don’t learn something every day, then we’ve passed something up.”

“As a result of that program, the school district received a small AmeriCorps service program, and I was released from the classroom and we also started the nonprofit Keystone Smiles Community Learning Center.”

Depending on funding, available positions in AmeriCorps average between 165 and 210.  SMILES is currently accepting applications for summer program.

In the beginning of SMILES grants funded most of the group’s operation, but Fosdick said the group has tried to diversify its funding streams.

“We’ve had people, especially in the Knox area, who have been able to contribute with different projects,” said Fosdick.  “The grant funding for AmeriCorps program is strictly to support the AmeriCorps members and what they need. It’s not a bricks and mortar grant, so if we’re going to be building a stage, for instance for some community, we need to find ways to generate the wood. We have the people that will learn the skills, but we have to figure out how to get the project funded.”

Despite diversity in funding, Fosdick admits she is always worried about funding and continuing her many programs. “Of course I’m worried,” she said. “I have a reoccurring dream where I wake up in the morning and I see the newspaper headline saying Keystone SMILES isn’t smiling anymore, so it is a daily concern. We’ve got some really great relationships and people that we work and so far we’ve been very lucky.”

SMILES owns three buildings on Main Street Knox and view itself as part of the community and has benefited from a close working relationship.  The group first rented a building at 518 Main St. for a few years and then purchased it.  The next building at 420 Main St. was the former site of Alltel and State Representative Fred McIlhattan helped secure that building, empty for several years.  SMILES rented it for a few years and it was then donated to the group.

“We also purchased another building in town used mostly for storage, but we also created a little park and we’re hoping to expand that to make that to make it more useful for the community,” said Fosdick. “It’s used a lot during Horsethief Days and in the summer.”

Fosdick feels the main accomplishment of SMILES is making a difference in people’s lives.

“For instance, we also have an alternative education program called Crossroads,” explained Fosdick. “The dream is that schools do not have to expel or suspend students for any reason. On a smaller level, our alternative education program students come from Clarion and Venango County and need some time to readjust and be successful in the classroom, as well look at some of their other needs. We’ve had over 120 students go through the program and we want them to return to the classroom and be successful. We’re not a large program and serve about 14 to 20 students a year, but we believe we’re making a difference.

“We also focus on school readiness in Knox and Mercer County and over the years we’ve renovated buildings or buildings that were on previous occupied and created preschools. It started as a Department of Public Welfare program, but we later received a grant through the Clarion- Jefferson Headstart program. We serve about 18 children a year and readiness program serves anywhere between 32 and 41 children a year with a certified preschool curriculum.”

The roots of the AmeriCorps are also anchored in making a difference.  Originally developed as a domestic version of the Peace Corps and President George H. Bush’s thousand points of light and enacted under President Bill Clinton in 1994.

“The whole idea is that you choose a season in your life to give back,” said Fosdick. “Education is my life and our network is composed of people who really focus on children and youth and make a difference. I bring it back to my family and when you have people that care for you and care about others I think you can make a difference. When you wake up in the morning it’s a new day.

“AmeriCorps is now the larger of the national service programs and service can be anywhere from three months to a year if you’re accepted. Each nonprofit that has an AmeriCorps program is designed to fit their community needs. When we apply for the program, our focus was location, mentoring, behavior and volunteer generation, and trying to help capacity building for nonprofits.  We start taking applications for full-time position in June or July and the terms starts in August and go through the following August or July. If you’re working in a school district, your time is over July 15.”

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