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Service Corps: Toughest gig you'll ever love

Kat Vellos holds her head high and she sleeps easy at night.

Vellos, 28, may be one of the most selfless people in Federal Way. Two years ago, she quit her $34,000-a-year career as an art director and graphic designer, packed up her things and moved from sunny Florida to drizzly Federal Way.

Her goal: To make a difference for children in a community she'd never heard of before. Her pay: A monthly stipend of $900, before taxes.

"This isn't the kind of gig that people get into for the money. They get into it for the heart," Vellos said.

Vellos survived on the meager wages with tight budgeting and food stamps. She rented a room for $300 a month in one of several houses provided for Service Corps members.

"It is tough. You do have a car payment and rent and bills, but you just survive," she said.

Several community members have supported the Service Corps by allowing rooms in their homes to be rented for a small amount, said Monda Holsinger, AmeriCorps program director.

"It's such a blessing because the community has really embraced our program and supported it," Holsinger said.

Vellos had always been active in community service. Back in St. Augustine, Fla., she spent her hours after work volunteering with various groups. But it wasn't enough.

"I was thinking, 'I wonder if there's a way to make this my job,'" she said.

She researched AmeriCorps programs up and down the West Coast before settling on the Washington Service Corps program in Federal Way. The program here, in partnership with the AmeriCorps, offered an opportunity to both tutor children and provide community service. Vellos was one of 50 members this year.

"We get to be outside and we get to do a service project for the community that's kind of a departure from just tutoring all the time," Vellos said.

Some of her hours were spent teaching elementary students to read and working with AVID students at Decatur High School. Other hours were spent pulling weeds and clearing blackberry bushes at local parks. She helped create a public mural and organized a Dreamwalk fundraiser for the homeless.

Service Corps members also staff two after-school community centers at Westway and Camelot Square to offer homework help, snacks and a safe place for children to hang out.

"The program here in Federal Way had exactly what I wanted," Vellos said. "One of my passions is serving the community and making good use of the talents and skills and passions that I have."

Vellos's two-year term with the Service Corps concluded on Friday. Her next move will be to a full-time position with the Seattle nonprofit Power of Hope. There, Vellos will work with teenagers after school and during week-long camps to build creativity and leadership skills.

Youth empowerment through the arts, she calls it.

In addition to her monthly stipend, Vellos earned $4,725 annually for education credits. She will put the money toward her student loans. Members can also use the money toward future education.

But the few who choose to sacrifice in order to serve their communities do it for more than the money. It fulfills their inherent sense of altruism.

"I know that it is an uncommon thing in our culture to just wake up and say 'Today, I'm going to serve and not just serve myself,'" Vellos said. "I know it's going to shape the way I walk through the rest of my life because of this."

Vellos glows when she talks about her experience with the Service Corps — the children she's helped teach to read and the high-school kids she's helped stay motivated in school.

Something as simple as providing an open, understanding ear can change a student's life, she said.

"Maybe nobody has actually sat and listened to them talk about what's important in their life in weeks or months," she said.

Watching the expression of joy on a child's face after helping them learn to read is an honor, Vellos said.

"They feel so proud of themselves and that's so rewarding to play a part in that," she said.

"It's more rewarding than anything else I've ever done in my life. You know that when you go to bed at night, the world's a little bit better place than when you woke up that morning," she said. "That feeling is priceless."

Contact Margo Horner: mhorner@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

Get involved

The Service Corps is seeking volunteers and members who are U.S. citizens and at least 17 years old. There is no upper age limit. For more information, visit www.americorps.org or call Monda Holsinger at (253) 945-2282. Holsinger is also seeking people who are willing to rent rooms to Service Corps members for a low monthly rent.

Facts:

The Washington Service Corps was created by the state legislature in 1983 to renew an ethic of service among individuals and to strengthen communities. Service Corps members help non-profits, public agencies and faith-based organizations.

Members are given a range of opportunities for service including mentoring and tutoring, building affordable housing and engaging in community projects.

The Washington Service Corps is the oldest publicly funded statewide service program in the country. It is administered by the state Employment Security Department and is largely funded through the federal AmeriCorps program.

AmeriCorps is similar to a localized Peace Corps.

The Washington Service Corps is one of the largest in the country with almost 800 members statewide.

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