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Strengthening Communities through KEYS Service Corps

Kimmy Ferry

AmeriCorps is the only federal agency for community service and volunteerism. Often touted as the domestic version of the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps provides people and resources to assist communities in various areas of need. To learn more about AmeriCorps and particularly, the KEYS branch of service, North Hills Monthly spoke with Allegheny County Recruiter Kimmy Ferry.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the mission of AmeriCorps?

Kimmy Ferry (Ferry): AmeriCorps members help meet our nation’s most pressing challenges in the areas of Disaster Services, Economic Opportunity, Environmental Stewardship, Healthy Futures, Veterans and Military families, and Education. Each program has a different focus, based on the specific needs of the community that they are serving.

NHM: Is one of these the KEYS Service Corps?

Ferry: Yes, the KEYS Service Corps is an education-focused program whose mission is to empower youth to achieve positive outcomes through mentoring, academic engagement, and community engagement. Each year, about 130 AmeriCorps members in Allegheny County join KEYS for up to 10 ½ months during the year or 11 weeks during the summer.

KEYS Service Corps members serve youth at sites in Allegheny County such as schools, community-based organizations, libraries, and local government. At these sites, members tutor and mentor youth and implement community engagement activities. They assist youth with classwork, life skills activities, and career or job exploration activities. They may design afterschool programming or assist with existing programming. Members lead youth in designing and implementing service projects and may recruit or coordinate volunteers. At many sites, members provide the individual and small group attention that schools are unable to provide.

Each year KEYS assembles a group of members who strive to bring life to the AmeriCorps Pledge: “I will bring Americans together to strengthen our communities.”

NHM: Who does KEYS serve?

Ferry: KEYS members serve K-12 youth at schools, community-based organizations, libraries, and local government. Our members are often partnered with the youth who have the strongest need for a positive adult influence or who need academic assistance. KEYS members also serve communities through member-planned and youth-assisted service projects. Past projects include community clean ups, clothing, food and book drives, urban gardening and farming, letters to service members, household weatherization, blanket making, creating service clubs at schools, and creating recycling programs.

NHM: Where in Pittsburgh do they serve?

Ferry: Each member is assigned to a particular site. All sites are nonprofits, schools, community-based organizations, libraries, or local government. KEYS selects 30-40 sites to host members through an application process which begins in January. New sites that would like to apply to host members can go to KEYS’ website and click on “Apply to Host a Member.”

NHM: Who makes up KEYS’ staff?

Photo courtesy AmeriCorps

Ferry: We have a mix of members from all different walks of life. Some members are right out of high school, others are grandparents. They are all people who want to make their communities a better place. Some KEYS members have had positive influences in their life and want to give back to the next generation so they can benefit in the same positive way. Other members want to become the change they wish to see in the world and provide positive influences. And yet others want to get involved in education or the nonprofit sector but are not sure in what capacity. A term with KEYS helps members determine how they might fit into the education or nonprofit world while giving back to the community.

Members dedicate themselves to serving for a term. Full-time members serve 1,700 hours over 10 ½ months. Winter Corps members serve 900 hours over six months, and summer members serve 450 hours over 11 weeks. Members may receive pay, health insurance, paid training and other benefits including educational awards.

And of course, there are the nontangible benefits. These can include taking a different path/sampling a career in the education or nonprofit fields; learning tutoring, mentoring, and community engagement; temporary service (there is no deep commitment) serving in a school year, summer, or winter corps; and even continuing with AmeriCorps—members can do another term of service here or in a different state. Four terms of service are the max.

NHM: Do KEYS members ever get permanent jobs as a result of their service?

Ferry: After KEYS, one quarter of our members are hired by their sites. Of the other three quarters, one quarter does another AmeriCorps’ term, one quarter continues their education, and one quarter get permanent jobs, often through the network they’ve developed during their term of service.

Members also find themselves making a diverse group of friends and becoming something bigger than themselves—there are over 1 million AmeriCorps’ member alumni.

NHM: Let’s talk specifically about KEYS in Allegheny County.

Ferry: Since 1995, we have brought 2,964 members on board in Allegheny County. Our primary objectives of tutoring and mentoring youth have resulted in more than 36,000 youth receiving services with 70 percent showing improvement in academic engagement and life skills. Our members have implemented thousands of service projects in over 40 communities from simple blanket/sock/towel/coat drives to complex mural installations in school entryways or conversions of vacant lots into community gardens. Members have recruited and coordinated more than 19,000 adult and youth volunteers who contributed more than 186,000 volunteer hours for these projects.

Members themselves have received $7.25 million in Education Awards, which they have used to attend college or trade school. KEYS’ alums can be found leading programming and departments at nonprofits and governmental agencies across the country from local schools to foundations to the U.S. State Department to the Corporation for National Service itself. Many of our alums have gone on to become supervisors of AmeriCorps members.

NHM: You also host an MLK Day event, correct?

Ferry: Yes, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a “Day On, Not a Day Off” for AmeriCorps programs across the county. This year, KEYS members will be serving at the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Re-Use. Past KEYS MLK Day projects have included community clean-ups, removing a tire dump in Braddock, assisting with cleaning and painting at nonprofits, weatherization projects, creating blankets for the Linus Project, providing assistance at the Food Bank and the Diaper Bank, and implementing KEYS’ 24 Hours of Service in which members helped with meals at a homeless shelter and assisted with projects at the YMCA, Mt. Ararat, and Dress for Success. Additionally, throughout the year, our members plan and execute their own service projects and involve their youth as volunteers. These take place at a variety of locations at different points in the year.

NHM: How does one get involved?

Ferry: Check out our website, or email We are always looking for AmeriCorps members. We are looking for people who care about their community and who want to give back.

Joining AmeriCorps is a great option for people who want to try a different career path or who are looking for that next step—whether right after high school, after college, a gap year during college, a career change opportunity, or a retirement bucket list item. There will always be kids who need extra support. We are looking for those people who want to provide that support.

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