"Thank you. No one has ever told me that before."
Hearing a third-grade student say those words after I told him he was smart is something that will always stick with me.
At the time, I was serving as an AmeriCorps Member for City Year Chicago, an education non-profit dedicated to helping at-risk students by putting young adults into classrooms serving as tutors and mentors.
During my years of service a clear realization dawned on me: City Year is not only an outstanding organizationit is a very necessary one.
From an early age, growing up in church, I felt that service was my destiny. However, it wasn't easy to find programs that were inclusive or aligned with my personal morals and values. But at City Year I found my home. In fact, I have never felt so welcomed by an organization.
And after my life-changing experiences as an AmeriCorps member, I joined City Year as a staff member, first as a recruiter and now a fundraiser. These past nine years have brought some of the most rewarding moments of my life.
This organization not only embraces diversity and inclusiveness, but it really puts it into practice. The AmeriCorps members serving in Chicago Public Schools come from all walks of life. Many of the students we serve don't get the opportunity to go outside of their communities and so having in-class mentors from varying backgrounds enlightens our kids to the diversity of the world.
One of several initiatives that embraces City Year's commitment to diversity is SLAM ( the Society of Latino and African-American Men ). Its mission is to strengthen African-American and Latino male AmeriCorps members by providing professional development and mentoring, creating a bonded brotherhood to overcome the rough climate for men of color in this country. Why? In the words of our Executive Director Rebeca Nieves Huffman, "They got to see us to be us!"
In addition to diversity and inclusiveness, City Year is also a champion of social justice. Our AmeriCorps members play a small but vital role in breaking the cycle of poverty that plagues low-income communities by guiding students on-track to graduate from high school and then attend college.
By harnessing the power of young people we show our students and their communities that they are not forgotten.
I am the person I am today because of this organization. My experiences have allowed me to be a light in my community, while also receiving the opportunity to advance in my career, travel the country and engage with elected officials on Capitol Hill.
Unfortunately, City Year is a program that would suffer major funding cuts under the budget blueprint proposed by the White House, leaving a lot of students on track to drop out.
This should especially raise concern for the LGBTQ community because the dropout rate for LGBTQ youth is three times the national average. Our children need City Year.
The budget blueprint proposes to cut AmeriCorps funding entirely. So there would be no funds for City Year locations across the nations or other programs such as Teach for America and Playworks. This would be very unfortunate since AmeriCorps is certainly one government initiative that's actually working to make a difference.
When that 3rd grade student told me that no one had ever called him smart, it deeply troubled me. It made me realize that some of our youth are very discouraged and don't always receive the love and support a child needs to flourish. It made me realize how essential City Year is for our community and our country.
There's nothing more valuable than the energy and idealism of young people. When you have young people who actually believe they can change the world, they tend to do it. AmeriCorps helps make that possible, and it is my sincerest hope we continue to implement these programs that are inclusive and essential for a healthy and thriving community.
Fidel Williams Jr. is a City Year Chicago alumnus, and is its development operations manager. See CityYear.org .