James Taylor remembers his mother as the kind of person who was always driven to be of service to others — someone who would help out everyone she possibly could, all the time.
“The whole community knew who our family was,” says James, a recent graduate of Public Allies Chicago’s AmeriCorps program who Sept. 22 was awarded the Tom Harkin Excellence in AmeriCorps Award by the Corporation for Community and National Service (CNCS). “If it was within her means to help someone in the family or the community, she’d do it.”
When James’ mother lost her ability to care for herself and her family because of her struggle with multiple sclerosis, James — still a child — stepped up.
“My mother had done everything for us, but it got to a point where I was the one taking care of her,” he says. “It went from me being her kid, to her being like my child. That’s what I took on.”
James’ mother died when he was 18 years old, and after a difficult period of mourning, he says he has chosen to carry on her mission to serve others.
“I feel like I carry on her spirit.”
Besides embodying this desire and willingness to serve others, James exhibits another trait very clearly, according to those who have gotten to work with him: Perseverance.
“His attitude speaks for itself,” says Kimberly Mercer, a manager at Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS’) Office of Diverse Learner Supports + Services. “He’s always persevering. He overcame incredible personal struggle just to come to work every day, which wasn’t obvious to his coworkers. He’s a remarkable person.”
When James was an Ally, he served his 10-month apprenticeship working for CPS’ Department of Rehabilitation Services. Kimberly was his supervisor. When his apprenticeship ended, she hired James as a full-time employee. It’s easy to understand why.
The department James worked in at CPS has a caseload of about 1,600 students — many who are special education students needing assistance to stay on track to graduate and transition to higher education or the workforce.
“I saw a lot of students falling through the cracks,” said James, remembering his first weeks as an Ally placed at CPS. “We had a lot of files that hadn’t been dealt with, that were sitting there for days, longer. I couldn’t understand how it happened.”
Seeing those stagnant files reminded him of his own harrowing experience at a university in Virginia, where he describes being given the runaround for a few semesters until, frustrated, he dropped out.
“I didn’t want to let that happen to anyone else,” he says.
James took the initiative. Led by a belief that “there has to be a better way,” James got to work developing a new system that CPS could use to keep track of students who were referred to the Rehabilitation Services department. After some trial and error, he had it up and running.
The department embraced James’ innovation, which allowed staff to easily track whether a student was moving forward in getting services or needed attention. James also made it a priority to analyze the data regularly himself and advocate on behalf of students who weren’t moving forward in the system.
“James went above and beyond the call of duty,” says Kimberly. “When we had the opportunity to hire him for a full-time position after his 10-month period of service, it was a no-brainer.”
Through this whole period, James still faced his own personal struggles that few knew about.
When he graduated from high school, James attempted to enlist in the military, but it was then that a physical examination revealed that he, like his mother, had multiple sclerosis.
When James dropped out of university, he made his way to Chicago to work as a computer service technician through Job Corps. But after that year was over, he had a hard time finding a new job. Soon, he didn’t have enough money to pay rent and was homeless.
James arrived at the Breakthrough Urban Ministries shelter for the homeless. There, he enrolled in the Peace Corner Youth Center’s career development program, and was referred to Public Allies. James applied, was accepted, and was matched to complete his service with Chicago Public Schools.
Even though CPS hired him full-time after his 10-month apprenticeship, James encountered a major setback after only a few months into the job. Because of severe budget cuts to education in the state of Illinois, nearly half of the CPS’ Department of Rehabilitation Services was laid off. James, one of the recent hires, was among the seven employees who were let go.
Nonetheless, Kimberly says her department continues to use the system he created to ensure that student files don’t fall through the cracks. “It was difficult to absorb the body of work he was doing,” she says. “We miss him a ton.”
James has been unemployed since January, and was surprised when he learned he would be traveling to Washington, DC this month to accept CNCS’ Harkin Award.
“I’m still shocked about it,” James says. “I’m a person that’s not used to winning. I’ve always been about helping other people, giving them my all. But it’s truly a blessing, and a wake-up call that there’s more work to be done.
“This whole thing is a journey,” says James, still taken aback by the recognition and the attention he’s starting to receive. “A huge step-by-step journey.”