For some local residents, “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.
Lila McNulty, Newburn Drive, waited until her children were in college before joining AmeriCorps in 2020. “The time was right,” she related. “I had always wanted to do something to connect with the community, and schools were very short of helpers during COVID.”
Formerly a technical trainer, McNulty had the choice of serving with several organizations in the Pittsburgh area. The big two were KEYS Service Corps, which partners with schools, and Literacy Pittsburgh, which helps adults learn to read. She chose KEYS because she had always wanted to work in a school.
She was assigned to a Title I middle school in McKees Rocks run by Propel, a network of charter schools. Title I schools receive federal funding to help economically disadvantaged students. McNulty’s assignment was 42 ½ hours per week at federal minimum wage. She was also eligible for an educational stipend of $6,000.
She was in the school from Monday to Thursday, working as a classroom aide. Students were on a hybrid schedule. “I was supposed to help the kids at home stay connected to what was happening in the classroom,” McNulty said. “These kids don’t have great resources at home, and it was so hard for them to not be in school during the pandemic. In school they got food, laptops, support, materials. It was very challenging for them when they first came back, too.”
She also ran the after-school tutoring program, which was entirely online. “For some this was the only socialization they had. They just wanted to talk to each other.”
Because she didn’t have enough hours at the school, she also worked at the Free Store on the North Side on Saturdays, handing out personal care items like razors and shampoo. “AmeriCorps encourages you to do a service project that involves creating opportunities for corporations to give money and goods,” she said. “What was needed at the beginning of the pandemic was toilet paper, so I solicited donations of that.”
McNulty said she got to know “some really excellent people who are working so hard. I had to get to know the community where the kids came from, which is basically Sto-Rox. I had to create a map of assets in Stowe Township and McKees Rocks, and talk to the mayor about what their lives are like, what happens when they go home from school. I wanted to learn about the community, and I did.”
She feels the pay is a drawback, especially for young people. “Unfortunately 42 hours a week on minimum wage is not sustainable for most people. I was lucky because my husband was very supportive, but I couldn’t have afforded to do this any earlier in my life.” AmeriCorps participants over the age of 55 may use the educational stipend for children’s or grandchildren’s educational expenses.
McNulty used hers to go to Point Park University and become a teacher. She did her student teaching at the same school where she had been an AmeriCorps aide.
“The best thing about my experience was that I met some amazing people, including kids who deserve everything because they’ve navigated tremendous setbacks, but are still excited to learn. It was all personally satisfying, and I learned some cool things about myself—like I’m not afraid to walk up to people and ask them to donate toilet paper!”