“We like to think of our AmeriCorps positions as service positions. What we’re doing is a service, not a job,” said Austin Shepherd, a Special Olympics Michigan (SOMI) AmeriCorps Member. “It’s not ‘I went to work today’ it’s ‘I went to serve today’,” he explained about what he calls ‘The Service Mindset,’ a common personality trait amongst his AmeriCorps colleagues.
AmeriCorps is a federal agency that elevates service and volunteerism to address community needs. More than 200,000 members at 40,000 service locations tackle our nation’s most pressing challenges each year. Host organizations - such as SOMI - have their own unique programs to address specific community needs. The SOMI AmeriCorps program focuses on promoting health and fitness in schools and communities through programs such as SOMIFit, Young Athletes, and Developmental Sports.
“For somebody to be healthy the whole person has to be well,” Shepherd expressed, stressing that health and fitness is not only about the physical body. “That includes physical, mental, social, and spiritual health.”
It was an introduction to Unified Sports that inspired Shepherd to become more involved with SOMI. “I already had some experience with the organization,” he said, referring to his time participating as a Unified partner and assistant basketball coach at his high school in Ann Arbor. “It was an easy lay-up to decide.” When asked if he was a big basketball guy, he quickly followed with a “Go Blue!”
Despite a positive previous experience with Special Olympics Unified Sports – which brings together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team – insecurity clouded Shepherd’s start with AmeriCorps. “I was worried that I might make a lot of mistakes. I’m visually impaired and my athletes might suffer because of it. Once I started, I realized ‘Wow, I can actually do this’.”
Shepherd’s insecurity was quickly replaced with a drive to do more, seeing his lasting impact on SOMI athletes. “A lot of times they’ll say they can’t do it, but after they try, they say ‘I can do this’.” A parallel of his own experience when he started with AmeriCorps, Shepherd saw a change in his athletes. “Watching that progress from being scared or unsure to embracing their abilities makes it all worth it.”
Outside of his AmeriCorps work, Shepherd is a jack-of-all-trades. In his free time, he serves as a Sports Announcer for Western Michigan University Soccer, an unofficial AmeriCorps spokesperson, works at an organization for the visually impaired, is an avid jazz musician, a University of Michigan superfan, and goalball player.
For those interested in joining SOMI as an AmeriCorps member, Shepherd says, “If you have the service mindset and are willing to come in and make some time to help our athletes thrive, this is the right opportunity for you.”
Apply for the SOMI AmeriCorps program here.