Mental Toughness Training
A year of service with AmeriCorps.


By Moira Moody | In a small office on the third floor of a run-down building near Broad and Girard in North Philadelphia, I sat with the education director to judge my high school students’ final presentations. One by one, I asked each of them the same question. After failing the school year, this summer session was their last chance. They knew they had something to prove.

What changed for you in summer school?

During the year, I was pregnant and missed days. When my baby was born, she got really sick and I took her into the hospital and they thought it was meningitis. I have to put her first, you know? I lost so much time that I couldn’t keep up with the work. But in summer school, I came every day so I can graduate.

What changed for you in summer school?

I went to jail during the year and I missed so much school that I couldn’t pass my classes when I got back. In summer school, I didn’t have to think about that anymore. I started over.

What changed for you in summer school?

At the end of the year, I just didn’t have time to get my work together. In summer school, there was more help if I asked for it, and just more time.

I had finished my AmeriCorps year of service at YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School in June of 2007. In July, my students asked me why I was still there after all of the other AmeriCorps members had moved on. I was looking for a job, I said. I hadn’t figured it out yet. I just needed more time.

They understood. My kids were high school drop-outs. The ones enrolled in summer school were particularly tough cases. They were the kids who couldn’t make it through the regular program, and were being given one last, very definite chance.

Those of us in summer school, we accepted it.

Well, maybe I was a little more surprised to be there. I mean, for one thing, let me put it straight: I hadn’t failed. My road to summer school started senior year at Penn, when I admitted to myself that I didn’t know what the next step was after my diploma. I had friends entering the Peace Corps, but I was too connected to the city. I scanned the AmeriCorps database of service opportunities, which ranged from working in schools, to working with immigrants, to disaster relief. I applied to YouthBuild, “an alternative program for out-of-school youth.”

An essay and three interviews later, I was given the opportunity to complete 10 months of service as an AmeriCorps member. More concretely, I was offered 1,700 community service hours, a $12,000 living stipend, and an education award of $4,700 that could be used toward school loans. I made more in my program than many fellow AmeriCorps members, as the state only required a minimum salary of $10,700 in 2006.

Forget the salary; the very name AmeriCorps evokes the Newspeak world of 1984. Non-profits know what the service means, as many of them rely on these volunteers as a labor staple. But few others have a clear picture of the organization. Its programs are so varied that it’s hard to define. I’m sure my AmeriCorps experience doesn’t describe anyone else’s.

The seven AmeriCorps members in my department at YouthBuild made up the shock troops of the school. We landed in North Philadelphia and went right into action. Our orientation was called “Mental Toughness Training.”

Mental Toughness for staff was a couple of feel-good seminars. Mental Toughness for students was more like military boot camp. At the slightest misstep, any student could be dropped.  The program has no problem filling seats; during my year we had 985 applicants competing for 213 spots.

I was 22, they were 18 to 21. They were 98 percent black, I am 100 percent white.

It wasn’t a natural transition; I didn’t “melt right in.” I ran around a lot at the beginning to cover up everything I didn’t know. The whole AmeriCorps department did. We ran pep rallies in the morning, taught a class on service, pinch-hit as substitute teachers, tutored students at lunch, planned weekly service trips, and ran the after-school program. We also distributed uniforms, monitored attendance, planned most school-wide events, and called students at home.

Somewhere in the middle of this, the kids started calling back. I started finding  time to laugh.

The only catch was that I couldn’t tell when my colleagues were laughing or crying. The job was draining in ways I couldn’t attach to hours worked. After the initial glow of high attendance in the fall, our student attendance hovered at 75 percent, dropping into the 60s on cold days, rainy days, and days before holidays. We were often in emergency mode, trying to prevent individual students from slipping.

The first kid I lost during the regular school year, Tyrell, had a behavioral-support plan. He had undergone therapy during the summer before the school year, but that had been discontinued and by winter break he had lost his way. A big, cute Muslim kid who liked to practice verbal sections of the SAT, he had the sweetest smile. I talked to his mother for half an hour before he was dropped. She didn’t know where he was.

One of the last kids I lost, Ramón, almost slammed the door on my nose as he left the building after being dropped from the program in the final weeks of summer school.

Instead of joining the Class of ’07, he was added to the list of Philadelphia homicides a month later.

Which made me wonder, what was the good of this program to my students? 

Sometimes I lost the answer to that; sometimes the year moved too fast. As we rushed toward the end of the spring semester, the focus became that high school diploma. It became the only important thing, and who knows where it will get any of them?  What does giving them a paper mean when after they receive it, they take it back to the same broken home? We handed out the parchment in June and went drinking afterwards. A third of the staff that started in September 2006 wouldn’t be coming back the next year. None of the AmeriCorps members would.

The students were still there, though, new applicants trickling in daily to get into the program that their cousins, neighbors, and friends said had changed them. Alums came back after graduating with a sense of accomplishment and a drive to plan the next step. Even the students we had failed in fall and spring were there, putting up with summer school, still wearing the long pants and black shirt uniform in 98-degree heat.

One girl decided she was going to be a summer-school all-star. Jessica was a special-education student who had refused services during the year. She didn’t want to be labeled; that’s why she had dropped out in the first place. She wasn’t labeled at YouthBuild, but she couldn’t pass her classes either. In the summer I worked with her every day, and if it was her tears and blood, it was my sweat that went into her final project.

Jessica cried before her culminating presentation. She said she wasn’t used to talking in front of people. She said she didn’t have the words for it. I told her she had done such beautiful work.

A year ago, she wouldn’t have cried, but she wouldn’t have been in the room either. Summer school is where she found her voice, did her homework, and ultimately passed her classes. The program had softened her, opened her, showed her how to ask for help.

She smiled and began.

What was the good of this program to me?

I didn’t know what I wanted when I left college, and a service year didn’t clear everything up. But a year doing something “completely different” gave me confidence doing things I’d never dreamed of doing, and awakened an instinct of giving that I had let lie quiet for too long.

After Jessica presented, the education director grading the presentation with me commented that it was an “odd day.”  I said, yes, it was. It was the last day of summer school. It was my last day.

The students who had begun back in the fall were already “grown,” they said. So was I, I had thought. But we both needed to think a little longer and try a little harder. It’s not every Penn grad that gets a chance to go to summer school. I’d recommend it.

Moira Moody C’06 is a design associate at the Richardson Company. She lives in Philadelphia.


Notes from the Undergrad Seeing the big picture
Alumni Voices What I learned in summer school
Elsewhere Footsore in Cairo
Expert Opinion Preserving playtime

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