A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Gena Bigler: Kentuckians' generosity hard to measure but easy to see in AmeriCorps' faces

When staying with my grandparents in Hyden, it was common to come home to find some random gift on the front porch. Sometimes it was fresh vegetables someone was sharing from the garden, or morel mushrooms someone had foraged.

My grandparents modeled that same generosity, sharing meals with neighbors, leaving vegetables on other people’s porches or sending a plate down the way to the friend who was homebound.

Simple kindness and generosity are difficult to measure. However, you can measure the 9,400 Kentuckians that chose to give a year to public service through AmeriCorps since 1994.

Since its creation in 1994, Kentuckians have given 14 million hours of public service. They have fed the hungry, housed the homeless, tutored children, and among other things, helped their neighbors recover from devastating natural disasters. The work AmeriCorps members do varies greatly. They serve in nonprofits organizations across the state, serving the needs present in that community.

Twenty years ago, my husband and I both served in AmeriCorps. We completed our applications and were selected by two nonprofit groups in Lexington. My husband, Clay, served with Volunteers of America, helping homeless families navigate transitional housing. He was part handyman, part counselor and worked much more than the hours required by AmeriCorps. One of the random extra hours he spent working was spent planting seeds he provided with the neighborhoods kids where he worked. The kids enjoyed it so much, he bought more seeds and they planted them together until they ran out of space to plant.

God’s Pantry was my agency, and I am still thankful for the amazing people I knew there. I helped educate about low-cost nutrition across God’s Pantry’s vast service area. Many, many hours were spent driving across Kentucky with my supervisor. Thankfully, she was good company and conversation made the miles fly by. The many similarities of the population we served were a contrast to the diverse community settings. From tiny rural towns with vast farmland, to inner cities with no green space to speak off, the people and the stories they shared carried the same themes.

The lessons learned as an AmeriCorps member really cannot be understated. Beyond the concrete bullet points that can be added to a resume, there are intangibles that can be hard to articulate. The new perspectives gained from serving others stays with you a lifetime. I have written about AmeriCorps and V.I.S.T.A. (Volunteers in Service to America) and received a beautiful note in response from a reader who had served in the early years of V.I.S.T.A. He had spent 1971-72 in Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky and spoke fondly of his time in public service. Over 40 years later, he was still enthusiastic about his service experience. I have no doubt I will be, too.

The enthusiasm present at AmeriCorps’ recent 20-year celebration and rally was infectious. As the new members were sworn in, my eyes filled with tears, just as they had 20 years before when I took the oath. Looking out at the (mostly) young members, I wondered what they will take with them when their year is over. I wonder how they will look back on the year of service. I believe a good many of them will celebrate their 20th anniversary of service, as I and my husband did this year at the rally.

One of the speakers at the 20th AmeriCorps swearing and rally, Colmon Elridge, said “Service is not determined by your means or your zip code, but by your capacity to love.” Kentuckians have a boundless capacity to love. The generosity of Kentuckians may be hard to measure, but it is easy to see in the many faces of the AmeriCorps members just starting their year of giving back and getting things done.


Gena Bigler is passionate about public service and credits her time serving nonprofits in AmeriCorps and Volunteers in Service to America (V.I.S.T.A.) with teaching her extreme budgeting and bargain shopping. Gena is now CFO of McNay Settlement Group and serves on the board of the Lactation Improvement Network of Kentucky (L.I.N.K.). Gena would be happy to hear from you at lgbigler@gmail.com.


Click here to read more columns from Gena Bigler.

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