Carrying the Torch

Carrying the Torch

Notre Dame AmeriCorps supports the International Rescue Committee's humanitarian work. Credit: Notre Dame Mission Volunteers AmeriCorps, 2023

Education everywhere was in chaos.
If not complete chaos, managed chaos.
Teachers knew it, parents knew it, children knew it.
The pandemic felled businesses one after the other. Government offices scrambled to remain functional. School budgets went up in smoke.
Everyone everywhere fought to hang on.
Landis Soto was among them.
As was Nancy Groszek.

Alicia Pepper (right) is a first-year member at Cincinnati, OH-based, Education Matters.

Landis worked as a Notre Dame AmeriCorps volunteer (Notre Dame AmeriCorps volunteers are often referred to as members) at Corryville Catholic Elementary in a low-income neighborhood deep in the Cincinnati inner-city. Nancy worked as the director for multiple Notre Dame AmeriCorps sites, such as schools, social service and other helping organizations, likewise in Cincinnati.

Both got up very early.

By 6:50 in the morning, Landis was serving breakfast in the school cafeteria for low-income students participating in in-person learning. Then she tutored these same students as well as students learning remotely. Still later she helped prepare recorded lessons for students who sat down in the evenings in front of home computers with parents fortunate enough to have retained their day jobs. And all through it were masks, sanitizing, social distancing, Zoom and the gremlins of new technologies that until now had never been called on to such a degree.

Landis Soto (pictured here with a Corryville Catholic School student) is a former Notre Dame AmeriCorps member.

“This is what our students need,” said Landis at the time, “so this is what we have to do.”

Not far away, Nancy grappled with how to keep volunteers safe but engaged in confronting not only perennial challenges in education and hunger, but also existential challenges wrought by the contagion, and in an environment where the usual conduits of support, such as schools and churches, were brought to their knees and that in some cases had turned off the lights. And yet, for so many of the people served by Notre Dame AmeriCorps, and by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur as well, the pandemic wasn’t an episode so much as a continuation. The dislocation, the trauma, the privations, the lack of control – these were part and parcel of a daily and crisis-driven existence.

Game Changer

Source: Notre Dame Mission Volunteers AmeriCorps Annual Report 2023. Published with permission.

It’s for these people living on the margins that the Sisters, in 1992, initiated Notre Dame Mission Volunteers. At first, the work was limited to the urban cores of Cincinnati and Baltimore and the agricultural economy of Apopka, Florida. The volunteers went where sometimes the Sisters could not. They taught in schools, they tutored, they met emergency needs. Then, just three years after beginning, the program teamed up with the federal AmeriCorps Program.

“It just took off then,” says Nancy. “It exploded.”

From a handful of volunteers, Notre Dame AmeriCorps grew to nearly 350 volunteers, most in their twenties and most, recent college graduates. They came to work in 29 cities and towns from the Midwest to the South to both coasts. Locations became as diverse as Youngstown and Phoenix, Seattle and Tampa Bay. Within each of the cities and towns, site directors, such as Nancy at the time, coordinated recruitment, compliance with AmeriCorps guidelines, housing and other needs of volunteers, and partnerships with area-helping organizations, partnerships that in conjunction with AmeriCorps’ federal dollars help underwrite volunteer stipends and program overhead.

Yet despite the growth and expanding geographic reach, Notre Dame AmeriCorps remained and remains focused on individual efforts, and how one committed individual can, on a person-to person basis, have a substantial and far-reaching impact. In this regard, Notre Dame AmeriCorps closely mirrors the ethos of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur both as a congregation and as individual Sisters. “It reminds me of how important it is for me to follow Jesus through action,” says Landis. “There’s a need to talk about spirit and beliefs, but sometimes it’s more important to walk the walk and to be present to people one person at a time.” For Landis, this meant being in a school cafeteria before the sun came up.

For Nancy, it meant ensuring the safety of volunteers in an upended work environment. “As individuals,” Landis says, “there is always something we can do.”


Volunteers continue the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur's strong educational tradition. (Credit: Notre Dame MIssion Volunteers AmeriCorps, 2023)

Over ninety percent of Notre Dame AmeriCorps Volunteers are involved with education, primarily in kindergarten through 12th-grade education and in adult education. For K through 12, 15,225 students at 68 different locations were taught and/or tutored by Notre Dame AmeriCorps Volunteers during the 2021-22 academic year. Another 758 preschool students received individualized instruction. Because of a nationwide teacher shortage (300,000 teacher openings as estimated by the National Education Association), these volunteers helped fill a void that at the ground level has the capacity to handicap the reading and math skills of students for years to come. In the area of adult education, Notre Dame Mission Volunteers likewise met a need in the areas of job readiness and training, English as a Second Language (ESL), tutoring and GED preparation. At 40 sites around the country, over 3,500 adults participated. Notre Dame Mission Volunteers also provided environmental education at 13 partnering sites, such as Tikkun Farm in Cincinnati and the Ocean Discovery Institute in San Diego; provided nutrition education that included the collection and distribution of food during the pandemic (over 52,000 meals last year); and offered citizenship education to newly arrived immigrants.

“The Sisters stay with this because they are committed to education and to the poor,” says Nancy. “And that’s what we do. That’s what Notre Dame AmeriCorps does.” Into the Future Today, Landis works one-onone with students at Cincinnati-area schools through the Beech Acres Parenting Center, a social services organization dedicated to strengthening children and families. The Notre Dame Mission Volunteers experience, Landis believes, led her here.

“It definitely had an effect,” she says. “Being at a school during the pandemic you had to persevere through all kinds of challenges,” much as the students she sees now must do. “Plus,” Landis says, “I wasn’t looking to work in a school setting, but after working with young minds you see the impact one person can have. As individuals, there is always something we can do. That empowered me.” It’s a sentiment Nancy, both as a site director and later as interim national director, sees often. The Notre Dame Mission Volunteers give to those they serve, but they also receive spiritual enrichment and many times, future direction.

Left to Right: Interim Executive Director Nancy Groszek and Executive Director Ted Miles.

“The draw is the work,” Nancy says. “The work we’ve done and the work we do. Some want to give back. Some want to explore a possible career. But it’s a different generation we’re in. There is a hunger there, a soul-searching there. This is the first time many of them have served people who are disadvantaged. They’re out of their comfort zone, their bubble, and so they walk away with a better sense of themselves and their communities.” In early 2022, after Nancy had retired as the Cincinnati site director, the Sisters called her back as interim national director. “There was a need and I knew the program and could step in,” she says. “I love the Sisters of Notre Dame. My time with them changed my life.”

Big Laurel, Kermit WV, one of 13 environmental education partner sites.

And so, after 11 years already served, Nancy served an additional 14 months in charge of the program nationally. In April of this year, Ted Miles, a former Maryknoll Lay Missioners executive director, was named as national executive director. Looking back, Nancy says she and the Mission Volunteers are a part of the Sisters’ legacy. “We’re passing along the charism and the love of education,” she says, “and the belief that education changes lives. “It’s consistency and persistence that are the most important things. If you’re able to provide encouragement, support, and hope to people, that in the long run will give them the courage to keep doing what they need to do. You’re journeying with them, with each person, to get them to the next step. “You’re teaching not just the academic. You’re teaching for life.

Published in Cross Currents Magazine, Summer 2023, Vol. 19, Issue 2, by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur Ohio Province.