Boulder, Colorado (June 26, 2019) - Growing up in the mountains of Tennessee, Ellen Rigell fell in love with nature. After studying Biology at Colorado College, she was soon training young students, witnessing their relationship with science and nature unfold. With an awakened passion for education, she applied to be a Notre Dame Mission Volunteer AmeriCorps (NDMVA) member, an 11-month position, with the "I Have A Dream Foundation" of Boulder County (IHDF).
"While corralling ten-year-olds in a classroom poses a stark juxtaposition to quietly observing an owl nest through binoculars, applying to IHDF felt like the natural next step in my career," she recalled.
Rigell was accepted and placed with the Carbon Valley (CV) Class in Frederick, Colorado at Thunder Valley K-8 school to work with 40+ kids (called Dreamer Scholars) from low-income areas in IHDF's comprehensive program. She has since renewed her service for a second year.
In her job, no day is the same: she moves from supporting classroom teachers during the school day, to
designing and implementing academic and socio-emotional curriculum, to coordinating with families and community partners. All the while, she is a constant and supportive presence for the students.
"I've seen the CV Dreamer Scholars grow from doe-eyed fourth graders to angsty preteens, while I've grown from looking like a deer-in-headlights on a daily basis to being a confident educator, mentor, and advocate," she said.
She admitted it hasn't always been easy. A big challenge is wanting to always do more in a limited amount time. She's had to learn to re-frame what success looks like.
"Maybe I won't witness a student start reading grade-level books, but I will see them start to shift their mindset around failure and try something new. One step at a time!" she explained.
Overall, Rigell views her service as invaluable: "
While I'll be leaving with a toolbox full of trainings and certifications, I've experienced how invaluable the soft skills of communication and collaboration are to opening up opportunities for the Dreamer Scholars. I've learned how these opportunities can truly create more equity in the educational system, and ultimately achieve IHDF's mission," she said.
Rigell with Dreamer Scholars from the Carbon Valley Dreamer Scholar Cohort at the finish line of the Bolder Boulder.
IHDF is recruiting for its next class of 40 Notre Dame AmeriCorps and still has a few spots left. Service members come from all different parts of the country and backgrounds.
They serve in classrooms and IHDF program sites throughout Boulder County. They work directly with children and families from low-income communities, providing tutoring, mentoring, and enrichment support. Members also help sustain IHDF programs, assisting with outreach events and volunteer recruitment.
"Part of the magic of the work that 'I Have A Dream' is doing is through building relationships that foster educational and personal growth. The Notre Dame AmeriCorps Members are doing just that - serving in the community with students and families to build confidence. These meaningful connections allow for growth not only for the students, but also for the Notre Dame AmeriCorps Members themselves, " IHDF Director of Notre Dame AmeriCorps Elyana Funk explained.
In exchange for 11 months of full-time service, AmeriCorps members earn a small living allowance and receive a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award to help pay for graduate school or repay student loans.
When asked if she'd recommend the program to others, Rigell gave an enthusiastic yes and added, "Committing a year to service has connected me with a community that I wouldn't otherwise have, both with the other AmeriCorps and within Frederick. I have really felt a partnership between the organization, families, and the school that supports the specific needs of each student."
As far as what's next for Rigell, she said, "I'd love to combine my experience in ecological research with the skills I've developed through AmeriCorps, ideally combining a community's sense of place and grassroots power to create change."