While Juliana Ko was serving as an AmeriCorps member with Teach for America on the outskirts of a Navajo Nation Reservation, she tragically lost one of her students to suicide and knew that she had to do something for her adopted community.
Ko served as a math teacher for two years at Thoreau Middle School in rural New Mexico and came face-to-face with the challenges of teaching at an under-resourced school in a low-income community. During her second year of teaching, a young male students battling issues with alcohol, drugs, and domestic disputes at home took his own life.
Like many of the students in Thoreau, that child had no place to go after school to avoid trouble and stresses at home. This tragedy, unfortunately, was not a unique occurrence among youth, as 15 suicides were reported on the eastern Navajo Nation Reservation between 2009 and 2010.
"I was devastated," Ko said. "Angry. Mad at the world. But the idea of giving the kids a reliable place outside school, where they can go, kept coming back to me. I decided I could not leave without giving this my all."
The teacher wanted to help her students look at their future with excitement rather than fear and initiated a "Rebuilding Thoreau" math project to help them cope. Using basic mathematics and geometry, students designed plans for their ideal community, which included amenities such as parks and recreation centers that the rural reservation community of Thoreau lacked.
Through these projects, Ko realized that her students needed a place to go after school where they could get help with their homework and focus on their educational and career goals.
After completing her two-year service commitment, Ko founded the Thoreau Community Center with support of local leaders and community members in a renovated vacant 2,700 square foot co-op building located behind the Thoreau post office.
With Ko serving as its executive director, the center's mission is to inspire hope, joy, and progress within Thoreau and the surrounding areas by providing resources and special programs focused on health and well-being, education, and recreation. Now the community's students have a place to go when the school day ends.
Through this supportive environment, the center encourages youth and adults to engage in positive activities to uplift the community. The Thoreau center now hosts fitness, dance, and cooking classes; tutors to help students with their homework; a small computer lab; and weekly movie nights. It also provides support for adult community members, offering programs focused on job placement and volunteer involvement.
Ko has made impact as an AmeriCorps member both inside and outside the classroom, and the Thoreau Community Center serves as an icon of the national service movement while improving the lives of many at-risk students and community members.
Juliana Ko is a 2011 recipient of the Service Impact Award. These awards, distributed each year by the Corporation for National and Community Service recognize the outstanding impact made by everyday citizens who serve their communities.