COMCorps celebrates 25 years of serving children and others in southeast Ohio

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — After traveling up and down the winding roads northeast from the city of Athens, visitors arrive at a white, open-door barn surrounded by spring fields of green on Wagoner Road.

On this particular Monday, three busloads of elementary school children from Amesville spill out and wait, rather impatiently, for the events ahead. Volunteers move quickly around the grounds to prepare their stations for the kids’ day of activity. 

One of the Rural Action leaders begins to explain their schedule for the opening day of School Day at the Chesterhill Produce Auction, or CPA, as the students split into groups. At one station, a woman with glasses and a ponytail giddily whispers directions to the other volunteers about what ingredients need to be chopped in advance of their first group approaching.

“I just love the kids and I’m so excited to see them at the CPA this week,” Alexis Walter said. “I’ve been able to meet a lot of the kids. … I get to actually see the difference that we’re making within the year.”

Walter and the other volunteers will replicate the day’s activities many more times for children around southeast Ohio who make a field trip to the farm. It’s all made possible by volunteers like Walter, who have dedicated their year to lending a helping hand. 

Walter is a part of COMCorps, a volunteer organization that recruits individuals to serve at organizations in and around Athens County. COMCorps began as a tool for educating children on immunizations, as part of AmeriCorps, while being housed in the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. Throughout the years, the program evolved to fit the demands of the communities it was serving. Today, COMCorps serves 17 sites with its 23 members. 

This year’s participants are following in the footsteps of 25 years of volunteers in southeast Ohio. Despite the adversity each member may face in their individual roles, these volunteers are vital resources to organizations across the region. In addition, their service with COMCorps helped define their life paths.

“We really are looking to address social determinants of health in our region with a trauma informed lens,” said Kari Boyle, grant and outreach manager for COMCorps. “So not only do we have members within school districts, we have members placed at nonprofits, social service agencies, health care agencies, government agencies, and we can cover a much broader focus.”

On top of that, COMCorps members take turns teaching two educational courses at surrounding schools. Sprouts is a garden education program for first graders, and Live Healthy Kids teaches nutrition and cooking as well as physical activity programming to second graders. For Walter, the Live Healthy Kids coordinator, this program is her bread and butter.

Rural Action’s School Day volunteers, including Thomas Faber and Alexis Walter, wash bowls after School Day at the Chesterhill Produce Auction.
Rural Action’s School Day volunteers, including Thomas Faber (bottom left) and Alexis Walter (bottom right), wash bowls after School Day at the Chesterhill Produce Auction. [Photo provided by Alexis Walter]

Alexis Walter

Under the barn, Walter hurriedly chops strawberries for a salad she’ll teach the students how to make themselves. As the children plop onto the floor in front of her, she talks them through what each ingredient is and how to be safe while cutting them. Walter smiles as the kids shoot up their hands when she asks for helpers.

“I never pictured myself as someone that would want to be in an elementary school, but I just love the kids,” Walter said.

In her role, Walter hosts nutrition events at the Athens Community Center and local libraries to teach people of all ages, especially children, about eating healthy. This is alongside her main job of teaching the Live Healthy Kids course. 

Live Healthy Kids was developed by a former COMCorps member and has become a key part of the program today. Now, every member helps teach the 22 weeks of courses for 23 second-grade classrooms. The class goes over everything from knife safety to processed foods to food-borne illness. 

“Imagine trying to recruit, every year, 23 people that you want to trust and do the whole background check. That’s a lot of people to go through every year. … I really don’t know what I would do without COMCorps,” Bailey Borland, former COMCorps member and Live Healthy Kids program manager, said. “I really just got lucky with (Alexis). … I just really liked her energy and how passionate she was to do the job.”

Following her graduation from OU last year, Walter decided to stay in COMCorps for a second year. As her term wraps up, she’s looking for a job working with children and looking into getting her master’s degree in social work. 

In the meantime, Walter will continue making salads and playing Simon Says at the Chesterhill Produce Auction: Simon says the kids will hop like rabbits and turn their heads like owls. A loud whooping sound from a megaphone encourages the students to move to their next station. Walter tells them goodbye and prepares for her next group of children.

About 50 feet away, Thomas Faber waves a megaphone through the air, signaling the station switch. As he keeps the time on his watch, Faber runs back and forth to the different stations to help wherever he is needed. Staying on his toes matches his fast-paced energy as he bounces to where he’s needed and stays engaged with whomever he snags a conversation with.

Alexis Walter and another volunteer present food during a Live Healthy Kids workshop. [Photo provided by Alexis Walter]

Thomas Faber

“It’s been a tremendous opportunity in communication both with my team and with individuals in a similar space,” Faber said. “(We are) trying to expand local healthy foods for equitable access to individuals, regardless of socioeconomic class.”

Faber serves as a farm to institution coordinator for Rural Action, so helping with the Chesterhill Produce Auction is a large part of his responsibilities as Rural Action invites hundreds of students to visit the farm. He also helps bring this form of education to schools, setting meetings so fresh produce from the auction can make its way to the cafeteria. 

Rural Action is a nonprofit organization providing for the economy of rural Appalachian communities. It uses a combination of AmeriCorps volunteers and COMCorps members to help keep its operations running. 

Like Walter, Faber was no stranger to Athens. 

“My mom grew up here in Athens and I moved here from Laramie, Wyoming. I had a desire to get out into the community and make a difference,” Faber said. “I’ve always had an affinity for Athens. … It was kind of one of those serendipitous moments where I was looking for a way to interact with people. … I stumbled upon a listing on the AmeriCorp website, and I moved here and was like, yeah, that’s exactly what I want to do.”

Faber began at COMCorps as the wellness coordinator at the Eastern Local School District in Meigs County. He later transitioned into his current role as he wanted to learn more about how nonprofits can function as tools to further missions, both domestically and internationally. 

When Faber began this role, his current supervisor, Alisha Bicknell, was not yet hired. Bicknell started as the farm to institution manager in September, and Faber has been instrumental in helping Bicknell adjust to her new position. 

“I was hired as the first farm to institution manager and Thomas as the first farm to institution COMCorps (member),” Bicknell said. “We have really been able to focus on the work together, and learn together how to best support our local food economy through the work.”

After finishing his time volunteering, Faber plans to enroll in the Honors Tutorial College at Ohio University with a major in political science. 

“I can’t sing the praises of our directors enough,” Faber said. “I think that’s a key point of COMCorps: Garnering potential into something that you didn’t know that you were even capable of because people support you and see that.”

Isla Skinner (left) and Thomas Faber (right) pose at Live Healthy Kids Night at the Athens Community Center.
Isla Skinner (left) and Thomas Faber (right) pose at Live Healthy Kids Night at the Athens Community Center. [Photo provided by Isla Skinner]

Katie Remley

Back in Athens, Katie Remley spends her day preparing for an evening meal at Serenity Grove. She’ll chop and wash vegetables for a dinner side dish, and maybe start a short conversation with whatever resident comes by. Music echoes down the hall from one of the rooms as Remley brings in her compost bag to put food scraps into. 

Serenity Grove is a recovery house for women struggling with substance use disorders. The eight women pay to live in the residence while healing and learning to live independently. Since its doors opened in 2018, Serenity Grove has served 57 women with a small staff of three, one of whom is a COMCorps member.

“COMCorps is a unique opportunity where we have a member in a year of service. It’s absolutely critical and really important to our operations,” said Betsy Anderson, executive director of Serenity Grove. “The social impact of having somebody to chat with, somebody to check in kind of on a one-on-one basis in a different capacity is very beneficial.” 

Remley came to Ohio University from Chillicothe to study pre-med neuroscience in the Honors Tutorial College. After graduating in May 2023, she was looking for a hands-on opportunity before jumping back into the academic world for medical school. 

Serenity Grove encourages a holistic approach to growth and residents take turns cooking during the week. Most of Remley’s time is spent preparing for these household meals and this role has come with a learning curve. 

One resident liked to cook in a Southern style, which involved a lot of fats and butter, Remley said. This upset some of the residents who were trying to reach certain health goals, and Remley needed to approach the chef to change the recipe to be more healthy. The conversation didn’t go over well as the resident was offended Remley would suggest changing a recipe close to her culture. 

“I learned that people like to know the reason when they’re being asked to do something. … I didn’t convey that well,” Remley said. “I don’t think I’m better than you. I don’t want her to think that my ideas trump her ideas. It’s coordination of trying to meet everyone’s needs and then not offending anyone in the process.”

Following her time with COMCorps, Remley plans to continue studying neuroscience at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. She believes her time volunteering in southeast Ohio will give her a leg up in her future studies. 

“We are guests in this area unless you’re from here, but as students, we are guests. I took that to heart and I spent a lot of time thinking about all of it,” Remley said. “I think that’s my specific reason for being passionate about serving southeast Ohio.”

Isla Skinner and Katie Remley stand together at Night to Shine.
Isla Skinner (middle) and Katie Remley (right) stand together at Night to Shine. [Photo provided by Isla Skinner]

Isla Skinner

Similar to Remley, Isla Skinner has also considered a medical school path, but she is keeping her options open as she approaches the end of her second year with COMCorps. Skinner is the health education member at the Athens City County Health Department, following her values in addressing the social determinants of health. 

“I knew I needed to take time before (determining) if I was gonna go back to graduate school,” Skinner said. “I have learned more than I even anticipated, but then also, genuinely given myself to something that’s bigger than me.”

Years before earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Wyoming in psychology, Skinner contacted the COMCorps program to learn more. Eventually, she was accepted to the program, moved to Athens and quickly fit into the health department.

“Isla had all kinds of experience in a resume that reflected her passions and her interests,” said Ruth Dudding, director of community health and engagement at the Athens City County Health Department. “She just asked really good questions and was really eager to have an experience in public health.”

Early on, Skinner helped contribute to one the health department’s emerging programs, Friendship Bench. Friendship Bench is a way for local residents to receive free and confidential support through talking with a trained listener on designated benches. Skinner came up with an evaluation system for users that involved emoticons to represent satisfaction rather than numbers. Skinner’s site supervisors said she’s been an impressive part of developing the program. 

The relationships built through COMCorps go beyond the sites in which they serve as the members keep the network of organizations looped into what each other are up to as well.  

“Even though they’re supporting us, sometimes our COMCorps members really do connect us to other organizations, groups of people in the community,” Dudding said. “We get to make these really interesting, these great relationships with COMCorps members and then they go on with their COMCorps experience to do amazing things, and sometimes those amazing things are right here in our community.”

With all the positives for the members and community, it could be easy to miss one of the hardest parts of being in COMCorps: living below the poverty line.

According to Boyle, in the 2023-2024 year, COMCorps members are paid a living allowance or stipend of $19,300 that is evenly distributed over the year in payments twice a month. They also receive a Segal Education Award of $6,895 upon completing their term. This means members rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to stay afloat. Some even work second jobs alongside their 40-hour service week.

Thomas Faber and Isla Skinner build a bench at the MLK Day of Service with the Athens County Health Department.
Thomas Faber (left) and Isla Skinner (back middle) build a bench at the MLK Day of Service with the Athens County Health Department. [Photo provided by Isla Skinner]
For members, a low wage is just part of being a volunteer and not a determinant at the end of the day.

“That’s something I knew coming into it. I think a lot of us are in a transition year or … they just want something meaningful,” Remley said. “I think most of us here care about what we’re doing and we’re not necessarily here to make a bunch of money.”

Boyle works to find new grants to increase the living allowance for the members or add onto the educational grant. For the 2024-2025 year, the Segal Education Award is rising to $7,395. In the meantime, the participants use this way of living to help gain perspective on the southeast Ohio region. 

“It’s also something that allows us to understand the communities that we’re serving,” Faber said. “It’s a wage that reflects the area in which we serve, in a lot of ways, and that ability to understand where some of the folks that we serve are coming from.”

This fall, the three-year grant cycle will restart and Boyle will have to sit down with COMCorps members and its partners to determine where the program needs to adjust so it can fit the needs of its sites. 

“I’m really excited to be working with our members, site partners and those in the community to identify what those needs are to make sure that we’re still addressing what the community needs, and that we’re staying on target to that mission,” Boyle said. “I’m looking forward to being a part of that and making sure we can adjust and grow so we can be around for more years to come.”