Volunteer makes a difference in church, community



SPARTANBURG — Diane Nutbrown does not talk much about her faith. She is too busy living it.

This college graduate blew in from Pittsburgh two years ago because she wanted to make a difference. So after earning her bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Allegheny College, Nutbrown joined AmeriCorps. “It’s like a Peace Corps in the United States,” she said.

She signed up for the VISTA part of AmeriCorps, and they sent her to Spartanburg on Aug. 25, 2000, to organize an after-school computer literacy program at the Boys & Girls Club. Her mission: Bring computer access to underserved youths in the community.

This high-energy, computer wizard was not a stranger in town for long. She found friends in faith by joining St. Paul’s and its Women’s Club. She also found a home with the Adult Catholics Today group, and she became instrumental in cranking up the Young Adult Catholics group with Katie Dereng.

“Diane is wonderful,” Dereng said. “She doesn’t talk too much, but she is very active in the church. She has got me more involved.”

Dereng recently formed Young Adult Catholics, a social, service and spiritual group geared for adults ages 18 to 35. She says Nutbrown has helped inspire her to act on her faith with the group. Last year, they pitched in on the Christmas in April project, a community-wide event that relies on volunteers to help beautify a particularly run-down section of the city.

The Young Adult Catholics did their part. They made a difference. Nutbrown, meanwhile, has made a huge difference at the Boys & Girls Club. Her computer literacy program is in full swing, and students at Park Hills Elementary School and Whitlock Junior High School have benefited from this high-tech blessing.

She has been instrumental in acquiring computers, printers and other equipment, with the help of a Bureau of Justice Assistance grant. She has set up a virtual reality system, and a couple of her programs have won national awards.

Her Virtual Reality Haunted House program won the Boys & Girls Club National Technology Activity award for the arts, and her TEENSupreme TV project won the Boys & Girls Club National Technology Activity award for health and life skills.

Nutbrown did all this as a virtual volunteer. AmeriCorps has provided her with a “poverty-level allowance” with which she is just able to meet expenses.

The pay, however, means nothing. “You have to feel that what you are doing is worthwhile,” Nutbrown said. Her work at the Boys & Girls Club is worthwhile.

So much so, that she has reined in her other goals to make it work.

Nutbrown wanted to attend graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was accepted into their five-year Inorganic Chemistry doctorate program, but she deferred.

Without her leadership, she learned that the computer technology system she had worked so hard to set up in Spartanburg might be turned off. Nutbrown did not want that to happen, so she agreed to stay on another nine months to help train her successor.

“She put her own life on hold to make the program succeed,” said Anita Giesel, who is with the St. Paul’s Women’s Club. Giesel called that kind of dedication “quite commendable,” especially because “she’s hardly making ends meet.”

The awards, however, did open up other doors for Nutbrown. Her work will be featured in DC Teach It, a national education and technology magazine geared for teachers.

She also has been asked to develop a 3-D show for a science and technology conference in Columbia, where she just might be able to work side-by-side with Mr. Wizard. ETV plans to broadcast that event.

Through it all, Nutbrown remains humble and looks forward. She wants to be a teacher after graduate school, and lessons learned in Spartanburg have been invaluable.

“You try so hard, and you always have to have your energy up and be creative (for the students),” she said. “You try to do new things, and eventually you see a positive result.”

Nutbrown’s AmeriCorps adventure in the Upstate has been positive. She has touched so many lives and made them better. Now she is looking forward again.

In May, she will leave Spartanburg for Wisconsin, graduate school and another grand adventure. “I’m excited,” she said, adding that she feels like she first did when she joined AmeriCorps.

The spirit to venture forth into the world is strong in Diane Nutbrown. She has the faith to know that if she works hard and tries her best, God will see her through and bring her home.

“Ultimately, I want to go back to Pittsburgh,” she said. Then the circle will be completed.