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Sarah Zanolli, City Year AmeriCorps Alumna makes a career out of community service

By Sarah Zanolli, City Year New York, '07

Ten years later, it still remains true that City Year was the hardest year of my life, but I wouldn't trade my service year for anything. It changed my life for the better. As I began the search for where my career would take me post-City Year, I just kept thinking: What project can I take on next that fills as much of my soul or creates as much community as this?

A year serving as a full-time AmeriCorps member is challenging in ways you can’t imagine until you’re there: working closely with people who are different than you in every way, taking on the challenges of underserved and under resourced communities and processing your role in mitigating those circumstances.

A year of service raises your consciousness of inequality, heightens your compassion for others, and opens your eyes to opportunities to help at every turn.

It’s incredibly rewarding: the smile of a student when a lesson finally clicks, a thank-you from a partner teacher, an acknowledgement from a school administrator that you’ve made their school a better place.

My service with City Year and AmeriCorps allowed me to explore what aspects of my career are most important to me. I learned two things about myself and my career aspirations:

First, I want to work somewhere that helps other people meet their fundamental needs.

Second, my career must involve working in a group of diverse and welcoming peers. Who you do the job with is almost as important as the job itself.

#AmeriCorpsWorks in New Orleans where AmeriCorps members are rebuilding houses for the community

After serving with City Year, and graduating from college, I launched what I previously thought to be my “dream career” as a professional figure skater. I quickly realized I was feeling unfulfilled. Because I had learned in school about the service needs in Louisiana, I soon found myself jumping at every excuse to visit New Orleans: a volunteer trip with the New York City Parks Department, visits to friends, and the City Year Alumni Service Weekend (ASW)*. The annual ASW trip became one of my strongest ties to the city, service becoming one of its most attractive qualities alongside the food, music and revelry. These visits always felt like an exercise in balance, to me. To socialize selfishly, to give selflessly. To experience joy through culture, to experience joy through building community.

In 2014, I followed my heart and moved to New Orleans, and it felt only natural to do so through service, securing an AmeriCorps position as a Site Supervisor with SBP, a nonprofit still rebuilding homes damaged in Hurricane Katrina almost ten years earlier. We received a six-week course in how to rebuild the interior of a house from drywall to finish and began leading groups of volunteers from all over the country in rebuilding homes. I stayed for two AmeriCorps terms and a few bonus months on staff with our Baton Rouge affiliate after their city's 2016 flooding. And while there were many things I missed about my “old life” in New York, my new life was filled with purpose and joy: the waves of volunteers who had made their own sacrifices to get there energized and uplifted me.

Here’s the secret: in serving others, you’re also serving yourself. Creating better opportunities for some means building a better world for all. What you give, you get back tenfold, in joy, in thank-yous, in meals shared and in the swelling of your heart.

I’ve met many amazing, idealistic people over the last few years. If we band together, we can magnify the effect that AmeriCorps programs have on communities by parlaying those skills into a broader context. When we figure out how to do that, maybe everyone can experience the compassion, joy, and community that I feel in New Orleans every day.

Sarah Zinolli, City Year AmeriCorps Alumna, painting ceilings in a house she is helping to rebuild in New Orleans, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina

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