Called to Service: Jen FitzGerald

Jen FitzGerald sitting on her deck with a cup of coffee and a stack of magazines
Jen FitzGerald spent 10 months working with AmeriCorps close to home in western Pennsylvania.

For some people, “service” has a special meaning. That’s because they stepped up to offer their time and talents to organizations such as the Peace Corps abroad and AmeriCorps in the U.S. Such service involved setting aside their own agendas and careers and turning their lives over for the good of others for a year or two.

Each of these people joined for slightly different reasons, but all of them report that they were profoundly affected by the experience. What’s clear in talking with them is that the time spent in service to a greater good ended up changing the course of their lives as well.

Jen FitzGerald of Parkway Drive didn’t go far from her hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania, when she joined AmeriCorps just out of college in 1997. She applied for a position in the Indiana County Department of Human Services, which is part of the Pennsylvania Mountain Service Corps, a 13-county region in western Pennsylvania.

“I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, and I had a degree in philosophy, which didn’t qualify me for much,” she said. “A family friend encouraged me to apply because you get an educational stipend plus real-world experience.”

From October 1997 through August 1998, FitzGerald worked on a number of projects that included developing a water safety program for kids and presenting it at elementary schools; helping women gain independence from welfare by connecting them with resources; writing a newsletter for fellow Americorps participants; and picking up debris after a nearby town was hit by a tornado.

She found that it gave her a new perspective on her hometown. “I saw things in a different way and developed a new understanding of services and needs that were all around me but that I hadn’t been aware of. I also learned to roll up my sleeves and jump in and do whatever needs to be done when faced with a problem.”

After her time in AmeriCorps, she became a legal assistant to public defenders in Oregon. “I used many of the same skills: listening, helping to connect, solving problems. I wouldn’t have been able to get that job or be successful in it if I hadn’t done AmeriCorps.”

Afterwards she attended law school, and today is associate general counsel for MSA Safety in Cranberry Township. She and her husband, Patrick, moved to Mt. Lebanon in 2010 and are the parents of four boys who attend Washington Elementary School, Mellon Middle School and the high school.

“AmeriCorps gave me a lot of different challenges and opportunities for growth,” she reflected. “Although I didn’t enjoy all of them equally, I was able to develop skills—like public speaking, listening with empathy, and de-escalating emotions—that have served me well in my career.”

Photos by John Altdorfer