Kate Brown served two AmeriCorps terms with Reading Partners in Charleston. Afterward, she was hired to work full-time for the organization. Provided

About 500 AmeriCorps members will provide services in South Carolina over the next year, thanks to $3.2 million in federal funding awarded to the S.C. Commission on National and Community Service.

That includes 16 who, through host organization Trident United Way, will teach financial literacy in low-income schools and nonprofit organizations.

But many people don’t even know what AmeriCorps is, said Carson Carroll, director of the state commission.

“We talk about AmeriCorps as if it’s our nation’s best kept secret, and we really don’t want it to be a secret at all,” she said.

AmeriCorps is a network of national service programs that help improve lives and foster civic engagement. Members commit to work on community needs, such as increasing academic achievement, mentoring youth, fighting poverty, sustaining national parks and preparing for disasters.

“A lot of people think that AmeriCorps is only for young people just out of college, but we are lucky that our AmeriCorps population is actually quite diverse,” Carroll said. “They really span a variety of life stages. A lot of people use AmeriCorps to make a career change or take a year to try something out.”

The local group, which underwent training last week and was sworn in on Friday, includes people from 19 to 65, said Joselyn Johnson, AmeriCorps program manager for Trident United Way. Among them are several college students and a retired FBI agent.

“Variety works best because they begin to learn from one another,” she said. “Everyone has different experiences, different natural biases, that allows us to serve the customers better because we understand the different walks of life.”

Johnson herself is a graduate of the program.

“I stumbled upon this opportunity and knew that I wanted to be in nonprofit,” she said, her AmeriCorps experience led to the job offer from Trident United Way.

The local group members will spend the next year teaching others about financial literacy and helping them get the services they need. Their mission is to “break the cycle of poverty,” Johnson said.

“We help parents with basic needs and getting out of a financial crisis and on the road to financial stability,” she said.

Other local members will be working with educational partners Reading Partners, Teach for America and the Palmetto Conservation Foundation, which is building the Palmetto Trail. 

Because the workers are on stipends, they also benefit personally from the training, Johnson said. They are paid up to $13,760 annually for 35 hours of work per week, and at the end of their service, members are eligible to receive up to an additional $5,920 as an educational award that can go toward their classes, student loans or be transferred to their child or grandchild for the same purpose.

“We teach them the basics of budgeting because they’re living on a stipend, and their stipend is pretty much at or below minimum wage,” Johnson said. “We find that the best way to train them to help the community is by training them and giving them the tools to be financially stable themselves.”

Participation in the program is a commitment to serve the community, Johnson said.

“In return, you are gaining that marketable skill and experience that you’ll need to get into the field,” she said. “A lot of the times, to apply for a job, you need experience, but to get experience, you need a job. This helps them get that.”

Of five members who completed the program in August, three have already found jobs. “Their employers said they stood out because of their AmeriCorps service,” Johnson said. 

The $3.2 million pledged to South Carolina, which will be matched by about $1 million from statewide organizations, will support 17 AmeriCorps programs and nearly 500 members. It’s the largest amount the program has received, Carroll said.

It includes an additional $885,347 from three grants earned through the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency for volunteering and service programs, said Commission Chair Missy Santorum.

Since AmeriCorps’ inception in 1994, more than 1 million men and women have served, providing more than 1.4 billion hours of service and earning more than $3.3 billion in education scholarships.

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Reach Brenda Rindge at 843-937-5713. Follow her on Twitter @brindge.