Little more than a mile square, the small central Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville is deeply troubled by poverty and crime. Over 40% of its residents live at or below the poverty level and it is the Brooklyn neighborhood most impacted by gang activity.

Amidst this bleak landscape, JCCA’s Brooklyn Democracy Academy (BDA), a transfer school, offers a beacon of hope for students who have failed out of conventional high schools, or who lack the credits required to graduate, and need individualized instruction, personal counseling, and support to motivate them to complete high school and pursue further vocational and college education.

Powered by the AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program, the Citi Foundation, and the Points of Light Foundation, ServiceWorks is a nationwide initiative that deploys 225 AmeriCorps members to engage young adults from low- to moderate-income backgrounds in community service activities. Using volunteer service as a pathway to success, ServiceWorks helps its participants connect with their home communities while they develop skills that prepare them for employment and/or higher education.

ServiceWorks carries BDA’s important work one step further by utilizing needed community service projects as a vehicle for youth development and fostering life skills. Brenda Sapp is one of ServiceWorks’ dedicated volunteers at BDA.

Brenda Sapp was a Family Advocate Counselor with JCCA when she was asked to participate as a volunteer in the ServiceWorks program at BDA. “I’m originally from Brownsville myself, so I have an idea of the struggles these kids go through every day. I was excited to work with them in this program,” she says. The ServiceWorks program engages students to participate in various service events and activities in their community, many of which they create and organize themselves. Brenda works closely with BDA’s advocate counselors in following the program’s curriculum and student participants receive certificates when its requirements are completed.

According to Noemi Cruz, BDA Assistant Program Director, “The curriculum teaches our students how to build a service project from the ground up. It gives them a platform to discuss issues they feel are impacting their communities and encourages them to become active agents of change. Each event usually involves 15 to 35 young people; this year they have collaborated with food and clothing programs for seniors and displaced families/homeless, enriched community holiday parties with treats and games, shown their presence at walks to raise money for breast cancer, and are planning an assembly that will highlight their perspective on violence, police brutality, and other current events.”

Volunteers attend a Pre-Service Orientation which provides them with foundational knowledge and resources to get them off to a good start. BDA Advocate Counselors then impart to volunteers both their educational expertise and knowledge of the Brownsville community and BDA students. Volunteers are trained to help develop local youth service programs and resources for college admissions or job searches, integrate efforts with local workforce development and leadership development programs, and provide ongoing support to BDA participants. The goal is to engage students in civic engagement activities that they plan and implement, applying the project management skills learned through the ServiceWorks curriculum, and positively impacting their communities while improving their own leadership capacity and self-efficacy.

“It took a while for the kids to get to know and trust me, but now they’re comfortable with me and we work well together,” Brenda says. “This program has really changed the kids who participate. It opens their eyes as to how they can effect change in their community, helps them meet and communicate with people, and teaches them how to give back to their family and friends. They see that they’re really making a difference.”

She continues, “After working with these kids now for a year, I can really see the change in them—their faces speak a thousand words and show that they’re more open and engaged. Working with them has also opened my eyes and touched my heart. I’ve listened to their stories and know their struggles, and it’s so wonderful that despite their tough lives, they really want to give back to their community. It actually empowers them and gives them confidence that they can also change their own lives.”

Jerry Childs, Manager of the Brownsville Recreation Center, where BDA students recently organized an Easter Basket project for the community, says, “It’s so important that the children in our neighborhood participate in these events and learn about giving back to someone else. The baskets were prepared with great thought and attention by the BDA students, and the community children loved talking with them. Interacting with young people who are older, but closer to them in age than adults, gives these young children a different perspective on their lives—it really makes a difference.”

Noemi adds, “I’m always amazed at what our young people can accomplish when they are just given the opportunity to contribute and are given a place at the table. Service Works has helped highlight student voices, something we always try to ensure at BDA.”