Jessica Brandhorst
Jessica Brandhorst
April 30, 2014

When Jessica Brandhorst told friends and family in Glidden that she was going to Denver, Colo., to volunteer with AmeriCorps, she was greeted with blank stares.

"I became aware that people didn't know what it was, I think because there are no programs in the (Carroll) area that have AmeriCorps members," she said.

AmeriCorps promotes national and community service, offering stipends for individuals for volunteer with nonprofit organizations, schools, public agencies and community- and faith-based groups. Since it was established in 1994, more than 800,000 members have worked more than 1 billion service hours.

Jessica is a 2008 graduate of Glidden-Ralston High School and daughter of David and Marsha Johnson. She moved to Denver with her new husband, Waterloo native Trevor Brandhorst, in September to begin a one-year term with the Denver Public Schools AmeriCorps Urban Education Service Corps, working to engage families and increase attendance and retention in the inner-city district.

One of the initiatives led by the service corps, in collaboration with local organizations such as Family and Community Engagement, Mile High United Way and the Denver Public Schools Foundation, is the Power Lunch Program - employees from area companies are recruited to go into the school once a week during their lunch hour and read with a third-grade student for 45 minutes. In addition to promoting literacy skills, the program aims to help students develop positive mentor relationships - the students often read with the same adult every week. Only in its second year, the Power Lunch Program reaches 12 classrooms in 10 schools - and administrators have already seen results in the form of increased reading comprehension, Jessica said.

Though the 23-person AmeriCorps team is involved in the classrooms for the Power Lunch Program, the majority of its work deals with handling data to improve attendance, engagement and test scores. The combination makes the program a good fit for both Jessica and her business degree, and Trevor and his interest in teaching.

The couple met during their freshman year at the University of Iowa, where both lived in a service community, volunteering with local organizations ranging from Habitat for Humanity and the Ronald McDonald House Charities to homeless shelters and museums. Both knew they wanted to pursue some sort of service work before settling into their careers. They married last June and moved to Denver three months later.

Each receives a monthly stipend to offset the costs of housing and food, Trevor explained. Each also qualifies for a $5,500 education award at the end of their service - 1,700 hours or a full calendar year - applicable to future schooling or toward loans. The stipend can be received twice - and the Brandhorsts plan to extend their service term another year, through August 2015.

"It's a great way to develop professionally," said Trevor. "It gets you ready for the next step if you're not sure, and lets you take time to find out what you're passionate about."

The school system is drastically different from Glidden-Ralston, Jessica said. More than 70 percent of the students are minorities - Hispanic, African-American and Vietnamese - and poverty affects more than 90 percent of the students, with 96 percent of children qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches.

This poverty compounds the challenges faced by students falling behind in literacy skills - making the power lunch reading effort all the more vital, said Jessica.

"When we poke our head into the classroom, they get so excited about reading. They get that one-on-one attention," she said. "It happens on an almost daily basis, but each time, it's no less inspirational."

The couple will also be able to bring this diverse perspective with them when they return to the Carroll area immediately following the conclusion of their time with the AmeriCorps program. Trevor plans to finish his history degree through the Buena Vista University office at the Des Moines Area Community College campus before teaching somewhere in Iowa. Jessica may work with her father as a New York Life insurance agent in Carroll.

In the meantime, on May 17 and 18 the Brandhorsts, with other members of their AmeriCorps team, will participate in the Colfax Marathon - a two-day, five-person relay race - with the goal of raising $800 to support their program.

The marathon will enable the couple to incorporate their efforts to be healthier into the larger goals of the program while setting a positive fitness example for the children they work with.

Both encourage other graduates to research the AmeriCorps program.

"It has been awesome to be able to volunteer," Jessica said. "We've learned so many things and met so many awesome people."