WESLACO — When Millie Elliot first considered serving as an AmeriCorps member, her enthusiasm was lukewarm. But as she learned more about what AmeriCorps had in mind for South Texas, she could hardly control her emotions.
“I got teary-eyed during my interview,” says the 25-year-old college senior, wife and mother of two. “I was just so emotional, and I wanted the position so badly, I just couldn’t help it. But luckily, I was hired on anyway.”
Because the hours were flexible and there was no after-hours work to interfere with her busy life, Elliot had been working as a restaurant cashier to help defray her college expenses. But then she heard about AmeriCorps.
“What first intrigued me about the South Texas AmeriCorps Initiative was that it was going to focus on environmental issues, some targeting colonias. Since I’m a biology major (at the University of Texas-Brownsville), that interested me. But then I realized that AmeriCorps members would be teaching and training low-income residents, and that really got to me because I hope to teach at the secondary level after I graduate. So I just had to have this position.”
The environmental work done by the South Texas AmeriCorps Initiative, under the sponsorship of the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, involves 30 members working in a dozen counties: Cameron, Hidalgo, Kleberg, Maverick, Nueces, Starr, Uvalde, Victoria, Webb, Willacy, Wilson and Zapata.
After signing a one-year contract in January, Elliot became one of thousands of Americans now serving their communities through AmeriCorps, part of President Clinton’s National Service Program created in 1993.
Elliot also was enticed by the benefits of working in AmeriCorps. For working 1,700 hours within a 12-month period, AmeriCorps agrees to pay full-time members a $638 per month living allowance plus a $4,600 stipend paid directly toward college tuition or loans at the conclusion of the commitment. In Elliot’s case, the stipend will pay off a good portion of debt on two college loans.
“I know it took my mother a long time to pay off her college loans, so this will take a big load off my mind,” she said.
Elliot, her four co-workers, and her supervisor, Colleen Catlett, work out of the Extension Service’s Cameron County office and have spent many hours evaluating just where their efforts should be directed.
“We’ve already started teaching cholera prevention to young kids between the ages of 3 and 10,” Elliot said. “And they really absorb the material and are very interested in it. We went to one day-care center where the children may have been too young and they practically crawled all over us, but we’re learning. Most of the kids who are a little older, though, are very attentive, and they retain a lot of the information we provide.”
Since work began in January, the Cameron County AmeriCorps members have made more than 2,000 contacts, most of them involving providing information to colonias residents.
In May and June, AmeriCorps members in Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr counties will conduct a survey of 250 randomly selected colonias residents to assess their perceptions of environmental problems.
Catlett said the members this summer also will work with young adults who may find themselves unsupervised with little to do in the colonias.
“There are just so many outlying colonias and neighborhoods in smaller towns that could use the information and assistance we can offer,” she said. “The social agencies tend to work the larger colonias in the larger cities, so we’ll go out to the many smaller towns that could use the information we have to offer.”
Adults, Elliot and Catlett said, also can benefit from their information on water quality and pesticide regulations. Proper storing of drinking water, proper handling of household solvents and chemicals, and pesticide safety are some of the topics they present.
“People need to know about certain household chemicals that shouldn’t be mixed, about how to store and use water safely. And for farm workers, about how not to mix in the washing machine the family’s clothes with those that have been exposed to insecticides,” Elliot said.
“There’s so much to do out in these areas,” said Catlett, “that we could use another 25 just like Millie…immediately.”