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Success Stories and “Why I Serve” Videos

Clarissa Ornelas: Santa Barbara County AmeriCorps Partnership

Clarissa was born and raised in Santa Maria, California, where she dedicated many years to working hard and raising her five children. As a single mother, Clarissa always had to work hard to give her children the best life she could. Being a life-long community member in Santa Maria, Clarissa feels blessed to have the opportunity to continue the work she has been doing for the office and to continue giving back to the community that she holds so close to her heart.

For the past three and a half years, Clarissa served as an AmeriCorps member in the Northern Santa Barbara County United Way’s SBC AmeriCorps program, serving in the Public Defender’s Office to work with the most vulnerable populations in the community. As a member of the Community Defender Division (CDD), Clarissa and the other advocates brought a holistic approach to public defense by providing client-centered services. As a first-time AmeriCorps member in the Public Defender’s Office, Clarissa was able to permanently house over 85 individuals and families and transitionally house over 200 individuals in the past three years.

Through helping clients, Clarissa was inspired to return to school at Allan Hancock College. For the past three years, she has been studying Human Services, and because of the impact of working with the clients in the Public Defender’s Office, Clarissa was inspired to add another degree in Addiction Studies to her schooling.

Because of Clarissa’s work with AmeriCorps, she had the opportunity to speak as a panelist during the opening plenary at the AmeriCorps State and National Symposium as an outstanding alumnus, where she offered insight and advice to those just beginning their service. In addition, Clarissa was invited to present on the housing programs in Santa Barbara County at the NLADA Annual Conference in November. She is very much looking forward to sharing her experiences and insight on a national level.

This last term, Clarissa became a lead member at her site and mentored other AmeriCorps members on how to advocate for people experiencing homelessness. She has been an invaluable resource to the SBC AmeriCorps program and offered her guidance. After four terms of service, Ms. Ornelas has joined the Public Defender’s Office as a staff member and brings her skill, knowledge, and commitment to serve to her new position.

Serving in the office through AmeriCorps changed Clarissa’s life in such a positive way and she found her true passion in working with justice-involved individuals experiencing homelessness, addiction, and mental health issues. Clarissa strongly believes in the work that the office does, and the CDD Team in particular. She is excited to bring her experience and knowledge that she gained during AmeriCorps to continue providing client-centered services and positively affecting the lives of clients and the community.

Uyn Joo: Access California Services’ AmeriCorps Program

UJ’s family immigrated to the US in the early 80s when there wasn’t much help for the Korean community. Her family faced many challenges, and she was the translator and problem solver for her parents. A first-generation college graduate, UJ became an Adult ESL instructor in LA County. Even though UJ loved being an adult ESL instructor, she saw that her highly educated adult immigrant students really needed much more than English instruction. Many of her students had college degrees in many fields (just like Access clients) and needed career counseling and coaching-which she started doing just to fill a need in an adult school with no career counselor. Journeying with her students with degrees in teaching, medicine, nursing, accounting and, etc., In the process, UJ found another passion in career and resource counseling. Right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, UJ decided it was the right time to make a career change and stepped away from the adult school. In September 2021, she joined AmeriCorps at Access for the unique opportunity to serve and learn as a case manager in employment. UJ’s computer lab is now used as an “ESL Lab” using a Distance Learning program, as well as for any other needs the clients have such as learning to type, access online courses, do job searches, learn about career training programs and much more. After her service year with AmeriCorps, UJ wants to help make career and education services more accessible to immigrants and refugees. She also has a plan to mobilize the Korean-American community fill in needs that cannot be met by social services.

Shellsea Reynoso: iFoster – Transition-Age Youth (TAY) AmeriCorps Program

Shellsea served at iFoster as a TAY AmeriCorps Ambassador for 2 years in their iFoster TAY AmeriCorps service program that was Honored as Best New AmeriCorps program nationwide in 2019. As a TAY Americorps member, she connected foster youth to needed resources and workshops as well as mentored peers. Shellsea chose to serve as a TAY AmeriCorps member because of her own experience in the foster care system. She saw that iFoster was dedicated to guiding and mentoring our foster youth and wanted to be a part of helping former and current foster youth reach their full potential. As an Americorps Ambassador, she learned essential job skills that included communication, leadership, problem-solving as well as hard skills like marketing, digital design, and excel which ultimately helped her earn a position as a Marketing and Digital Communications Coordinator with iFoster. “It is important to serve because foster youth need people who will support them and who better to support and understand them than their own peers with lived experience. iFoster makes sure that youth are heard, and they work to express the concerns and needs of foster youth to social workers, caregivers, and other organizations with the goal of helping current and former foster youth towards a successful independent living by providing them with the resources they need.”

Andy Garcia Cazares: Improve Your Tomorrow (IYT)

Andy grew up in South Los Angeles where he learned first-hand the impact of having someone like a mentor in your corner. Thanks in part to the academic advising and emotional support he received, Andy applied and was accepted to California State University, Sacramento where he pursued a Bachelor’s in Social Work and a Master’s in Education.

During his time at Sacramento State, Andy began mentoring underclassmen– drawing from both his personal experiences growing up as well as the knowledge he gained through his coursework. After graduation, Andy took the opportunity to apply his skills, experience, and passion to an impactful job at the Sacramento Children’s Home where he benefited from mentors within the organization that helped him grow.

Today, Andy serves as a Lead Mentor for the non-profit, Improve Your Tomorrow, where he provides mentorship, youth development, and college advising to young men of color at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento.