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Labor and Economic Opportunity

Turkish immigrant feels belonging serving with AmeriCorps in Detroit

Ozlem Okutkan

As an immigrant, AmeriCorps member Ozlem Okutkan said helping others gives her a sense of community.

"If you want to feel belonging, the only way is to serve," said Okutkan.

Okutkan was born in Turkey and has lived in the United States for the past ten years. She received her bachelor's degree in international politics and has worked at several global logistics companies as an export-import specialist. However, it is serving with AmeriCorps that Okutkan believes helps her to feel at home.

When the pandemic hit Detroit-Okutkan's hometown community-she immediately saw the impact it was having on the city.

 "The city was like a ghost town," Okutkan said. "That's why I started to search for volunteer activities to support the Detroit community."

This is how Okutkan discovered the AmeriCorps Urban Safety Program in Detroit where she is a part of the Water Filtration Project in Highland Park. There are concerns about water filtration in the area, which can become dangerous if residents are exposed to high amounts of lead. To combat this, Okutkan goes door-to-door to bring information on how to access proper water filtration to the neighborhood. Okutkan has loved the opportunity to grow closer to her community.

"While you serve, you realize the real problems of the society and these little steps bring you feelings of responsibility, and you become involved in the community," Okutkan said.

It is a passion shared among many, including Kendall Casey. Casey explained that her time serving with AmeriCorps was "one of the most memorable experiences she has ever had," and jumped on the chance to rejoin the program as a staff member earlier this year.

Casey served with AmeriCorps Urban Safety (AMUS) from 2011-2012 and returned this year as a staff member. She is leading the AMUS project on water filtration in Highland Park. While this project is still at its beginning stages, Kendall and her team are excited to hit the ground running within the next few weeks. 

AmeriCorps members will distribute filters to reduce lead in water at households that exceed safe levels. The households at the top of the list are those who have pregnant women or children residing, as they are the most at risk to high lead content in water. AMUS is working with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), which has already delivered 17,000 filters statewide. A large issue within Highland Park is the lack of access to water filters, which is why AMUS plans to go door to door and bring the sign-up sheets to them.

Kendall explained that there is often not enough information available to Highland Park residents on the true effects of water with a high lead content, driving AmeriCorps to want to bring the information to their doorstep. They will also survey residents on their usage of water filtration options available to them to learn about the percentage of people who are actively using water filtration systems.

The people behind this service all share a deep passion for service and improving their local community.

AmeriCorps member Dephanie Beal also wanted to improve her community and understand the problems people are facing. She hopes through her work, "people will see that there are people out there who want to help them and care about their safety." After her AmeriCorps service term, Dephanie plans to finish school and receive her degree in early childhood development. 

If you would like to learn more about AMUS's water filtration project:

To learn more about the service AmeriCorps programs in Michigan and the positive impact they make, visit Michigan's AmeriCorps website.