The Story of how a Former AmeriCorps Member Became a Pink Bunny
Submitted by Hannah Traverse on Mon, 12/10/2012 - 16:25
Kayje Booker, a former member of the Washington Service Corps, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2005 for her commitment to service. Read below to find out what she's been up to since accepting her award, or find out more about Kayje and her Corps experience by reading her bio from our 2005 National Conference.
Kayje Booker, one of The Corps Network’s 2005 Corpsmembers of the Year, is now a bunny. A Pink Bunny, that is. Kayje works for the organization Forward Montana, leading the Pink Bunny Army – a statewide organization of voter registration volunteers who dress in pink t-shirts and bunny ears in an effort to engage youth in the political process.
“At Forward Montana we believe very strongly in costume-based democracy,” said Kayje. “The Pink Bunnies register people to vote, specifically focusing on young people. For a lot of them it’s their first time registering to vote and the thought has been that your first time participating in democracy should be fun and special. Instead of just having a random person come up to you with a clipboard and tell you that you should register to vote, this is a more exciting way to do it.”
Kayje is proud to report that the Pink Bunnies managed to register over 11,400 Montana voters for the 2012 election. She says her army of floppy-eared volunteers is now well recognized: people in Montana seem to know to seek out the Bunnies if they need to register to vote.
Though she started her position with Forward Montana fairly recently, Kayje is hardly a stranger to getting youth more involved in their communities. Her first efforts to promote civic engagement were part of her experience as an AmeriCorps member with Washington Service Corps. Kayje joined the Corps in 2002. She had recently graduated from college and spent a few months working a series of odd jobs in Montana. AmeriCorps seemed like it would provide more meaningful work than a job at a pizza place or a coffee shop. What really pushed Kayje to join, however, was a phone call with a project coordinator from Washington Service Corps.
“She heard I hadn’t decided what I was going to do yet. She had me get on the phone and we talked. She basically sold me on it. She told me about how I would be creating a new program and she got me really excited about the potential of what we could do,” said Kayje.
That new project was an afterschool program for the Westway neighborhood of Federal Way Washington. Kayje and another Corpsmember ended up building the program entirely from scratch; a particularly impressive feat when you consider all the components the program needed to include. It had to serve children in kindergarten through sixth grade, and it needed to have some kind of civic engagement component. It was a tall order, but, with the help of dedicated community members, Kayje and her AmeriCorps partner were able to make the afterschool program such a success that it still operates today. They managed to get computers and internet donated. They collected a small library. They even organized a block party that attracted large crowds and involved a bicycle giveaway for Westway children. Kayje says that the bike raffle was one of the most memorable experiences of her time in AmeriCorps.
“There was this little girl who was so sweet who came from a pretty rough home and she had seen the bicycles all week and she was so excited about them,” said Kayje. “We had a raffle for the bicycles and what she didn’t know was that we held one in reserve – the one she had been eyeing all week. So instead of raffling that one off we presented it to her at the end and she was just so excited and couldn’t believe her luck. That was a really wonderful moment of seeing how something so simple could give somebody so much joy.”
Creating a civic engagement project that could be interesting and manageable for kindergarteners as well as sixth graders wasn’t easy, but Kayje and her partner eventually found success in getting the afterschool program involved in building a community garden and cleaning up litter. After completing her term in Westway, Kayje became a Team Leader with Washington Service Corps and helped AmeriCorps programs across Washington institute similar civic engagement projects. The next year, from 2004 – 2005, Kayje was an AmeriCorps VISTA with Washington Service Corps.
“The biggest thing I did as a VISTA was trying to figure out housing for AmeriCorps members,” said Kayje. “We were getting a lot of feedback in Washington Service Corps that finding a place to live was actually one of the biggest hurdles for people who wanted to do AmeriCorps. So I found this guy who had this huge house and we created an AmeriCorps house in Seattle. I did a bunch of surveying of members to figure out exactly what the issues were and I created some resources. We started a kind of Craigslist website so [AmeriCorps members] could find roommates. I also put together a list of all the factors they might want to consider when choosing a place to live.”
After her term as a VISTA, Kayje went straight to graduate school at University of California, Berkeley. She earned her master’s degree in Range Management and a PhD in Environmental Science and Policy Management. She spent a few months as a freelance consultant for an international development organization, but she eventually found her way back to working in civic engagement and youth outreach at Forward Montana.
“I would like to continue working with the organization I’m working with now. I’d like to continue to get people engaged and involved in the political process,” said Kayje. “I’d like to at some point have maybe more of an energy or environmental focus within that, but I am very happy with where I am now and I’d like to continue to work in this aspect of helping other people make a difference.”
To young people thinking about joining a service and conservation corps, Kayje says:
“It’s one of the most intense experiences that you’ll ever have in terms of highs and lows, but it’s all worth it in the end…One big thing I think AmeriCorps did for me was show me how you can live on very little and still have a full life. When I did it we were making $800 a month…I think it [was] a very valuable experience that everybody should have at some point to give them empathy for people that are in that situation and to show them that you don’t need a lot of money to have a good life.”