AmeriCorps Volunteers: Chicago’s Unsung Community Champions

With three academic degrees, fluency in five languages and a slew of certificates under her belt, Gabriela Juárez Domínguez has the skills to succeed in several careers. However, the Rogers Park resident is dedicating a year of her life to improving the lives of others in the Chicago region, serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer for the United Way of Metro Chicago.

“I’m excited and really like my work,” said Gabriela, who supports social emotional learning, technology and art programs for children and teens in Little Village, a neighborhood located in southwest Chicago. “We work to improve the conditions of people.”

Having returned to the United States after 12 years in Spain, Gabriela saw AmeriCorps, a national service program operating across the country, as an opportunity to reignite her career and “update” her toolkit of skills needed to serve in the city’s non-profit sector. With nearly half her commitment fulfilled, Gabriela is making great strides toward fulfilling these goals.

Gabriela, Bianca and several United Way AmeriCorps members at this year’s Ignite event.

Ten United Way of Metro Chicago AmeriCorps members, ranging from 18-years-old to 50-years-old and at all levels of professional experience, serve in eight neighborhoods, supporting a range of programs and services that help connect residents to much-needed resources. “We want to raise up leaders already in the community to find solutions to problems,” said Bianca Cotton, United Way of Metro Chicago’s AmeriCorps program manager. “They have the training, capacity and connections to do so.”

Some, like Gabriela, are embedded in specific United Way funded community agencies, like Latinos Progresando and OPEN Center for the Arts, while others support individuals working to create a network of grassroots organizations within their communities. These “change agents” also connect with local leaders to advance their efforts and host events, like peace walks and studies to assess neighborhood safety. “They are the boots on the ground day to day, interacting with who we raise money for — teachers, students, parents,” Bianca said. “They get to see the real impact. They’re in it.”

Though they have their hands full supporting existing programs, the AmeriCorps members have an entrepreneurial spirit, too. Gabriela and others in her cohort are going above and beyond to meet unaddressed needs in their communities. For example, she’s creating and directing an art and healing program called “ActiveArte.” Another member is designing a program in South Chicago to help veterans navigate a range of health and social service systems.

In addition to their volunteer work, the AmeriCorps members receive specialized training in life and workforce development, like conflict resolution, entrepreneurship and professional etiquette. These trainings are intended to prepare the volunteers for their careers after their service. Gabriela is ahead of the game, as she’s already secured a job with OPEN Center for the Arts.

AmeriCorps members taking a break and sharing a laugh during training.

“I’ve learned leadership skills and my self-confidence is better. The workshops have made me understand the importance of networking,” Gabriela said of the training programs. “The compassion training helped me understand the community I’m working in and to be more empathetic to the community members.”

The United Way of Metro Chicago’s AmeriCorps program began in 2016 and has hosted nearly two dozen volunteers since its initiation. Applications are now open for the next cohort of AmeriCorps members who will begin their tenure in October. Bianca is searching for open-minded, service-oriented individuals who seize opportunities, want to learn and are team players. Visit our careers page for more information. 

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If you’d like to help support the work of these devoted volunteers in Chicago’s neighborhoods, donate to United Way of Metro Chicago today. Your dollars will not only benefit residents in need but help shape the future careers of hardworking AmeriCorps volunteers, like Gabriela!

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