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By: Shayla Thiel Stern

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How Minnesota Reading Corps Changed a Single Mom’s Life

Jenny doing reading interventions with a little girl
This 2017 photo from MinnPost shows Jenny while serving as a tutor in Reading Corps. Photo by Erin Hinrichs, MinnPost.

Jenny Nyberg knew she needed to make a change in her life in order to move forward – and she found that change in joining AmeriCorps as a Minnesota Reading Corps tutor.

As a manager for group homes, the single mother of two often worked overnight shifts – sometimes at the last minute – and she felt burned out and worried about spending time away from her children. She had befriended another parent from her children’s school – a woman who was also serving as a Reading Corps PreK school tutor, and who encouraged Jenny to apply for a Reading Corps position.

“I latched on to this idea that I could my make my hours match my children’s, and I could see them at dinner time and drive them to their sports,” she said, but because of the modest AmeriCorps living stipend, the decision seemed financially untenable.

Jenny said she will never forget explaining her situation to a county case worker when she applied for aid – “basically begging for them to let me do Reading Corps” – and fortunately, the case worker knew of a rule that exempted AmeriCorps stipends as traditional income. Because of the little-known exemption, she was able to continue to serve and still qualify for government assistance and food benefits. Plus, she also could receive the AmeriCorps education award to fund her college education in the future. Jenny set a four-year plan in place to gain financial stability and build her credit.

“I learned to budget. I was able to raise my credit score over a hundred points throughout those four years, which is no small feat when, when your taxable income ends up being like $16,000 some of those years,” she said. “It was really hard, but I felt so empowered in being able to be involved in my kids’ education.”

Recruiting and Offering Empowerment

After serving four years in Reading Corps, Jenny was hired by Reading & Math, Inc., the organization that administers Reading Corps and Math Corps, to be a full-time Recruiter for the Twin Cities East Metro area. She also volunteered at her kids’ school PTA for a time and serves as a Commissioner on her county Parks & Recreation Board. Plus, she is a part-time student at Century College.

She often draws upon her personal experiences when she appeals to other parents to consider serving as a tutor.

“I just keep thinking about how I can’t be the only parent who would benefit from like a stable schedule and a steady experience and the opportunity to connect with my children over academics,” Jenny said. “As someone who doesn’t have a degree, it was really empowering for me to feel like I’m able to help my kids with homework. And now I’m able to be a resource for other parents and families who could really support their kids in this way, too.”

Jenny said that AmeriCorps service leveraged her and her sons out of poverty, and she hopes that in her work as recruiter, she can do the same for other people.

“I can be that light bulb for folks that don’t see working in education as something accessible to them or something that they could do, because they don’t already have professional experience with it – I can say if you’re willing to do training, follow the process, we’ll give you everything you need to be successful, and you’ll be able to know that you’re making a difference — and it can help you get out of the situation you’re in if that’s what you’re wanting,” she said.

She added, “I really love the idea of, of having tutors that look reflective of the schools they’re serving. I would love for all of our tutors to be parents or members of those communities. I just think that’s good for students and everyone.”

Reading Corps Shifted Patterns at Home, Too

Jenny said joining Reading Corps brought on positive changes within her own family, too. Her older son, who is now in middle school, was struggling as a third grade reader, and she became his Reading Corps tutor that year. He learned to love to read, and later that year read the Hunger Games and Percy Jackson series.

“It really shifted our patterns at home — like I would get ready in the morning and he would talk to me about what he was reading. And he would ask me like, “Mom, what are you reading? What’s the greatest struggle of the main character in that book?” she said. “And then my youngest would see that and he’d want that.”

Her younger son also became a strong reader because reading was such an important priority to them as a family, she said. They all still talk about books, and they strive to read together as a family as often as possible before bedtime. Although reading was a skill and value that was important to her before her service, it took joining Reading Corps for it to become a family passion.

“I had all those values before, but I didn’t have the ability to implement them or the skillset, necessarily,” she said. “Reading Corps was a big deal for us. It changed my life.”

You can learn more about how to become an AmeriCorps member in Minnesota Reading Corps here.

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