While I was in college, the idea of VISTA service was always in the back of my mind, but I never followed through. Instead, as I prepared to graduate, I sent out over 100 resumes. I didn’t get one interview! Finally, I decided to give VISTA a shot. That decision changed my life.
In August 1977, VISTA offered me a position with the Atlanta Youth Development Center for male adjudicated delinquent youth. The boys at the development center were there for transgressions ranging from shoplifting to assault. Most came from broken homes. The Center housed children as young as eight and even had lock down units for those who had committed more serious offenses. I accepted their offer.
All new VISTAs placed in the state attended a training session on an island off Georgia’s coast. I vividly remember one activity called Mutts and Lipps. While I didn’t understand how to do it, somehow I loved it! Years later, I realized why. It was experiential education, a teaching style based on reflection and critical analysis of experiences. The activity stimulated and challenged me to look at myself and learn from my experience. The roots of my love for training began at that moment. The experience I got through the youth development center was going to help it grow.
The Center was there to provide structure, limits and love for the kids. Along with another VISTA, Tom Seely, my mission was to create a volunteer program to provide positive role models for the boys. We brainstormed, learned about the needs of volunteers and how to train and recruit volunteers. We were determined to find people who would serve as positive role models for these troubled youth. We sought adults who had a passion for children and would help build their self esteem. Tom and I went into the community to enlist volunteers, male and female, from all over Atlanta.
Over the course of the year, we created a volunteer department with a strong training program and a dedicated core of volunteers who spent time with the youth. We created a manual that explained the Center’s rules and guidelines and provided tips for working with children. We also implemented training sessions for skills such as effective listening. The volunteers spent time with the kids, provided a positive role model, gave them individualized attention and took part in activities with them like reading, playing games, helping with homework, and sports.
It was not easy and sometimes the frustration of reality reared its ugly head. We were unsure if there would really be a long term impact on the kids. We wondered if we were really making a difference in their lives. Would they return to the same negative influences at home? Would they return to their deviant behavior? But with determination, perseverance, and dedication, we supported each other and a strong, vibrant volunteer program was in place by the end of our year. We had developed personal relationships with many of the kids by visiting the units and engaging in activities with them. For the volunteers, making a difference could be as simple as having a child smile or say thank you! The consistent visits and relationships with positive adult role models at least mattered while the kids were at the Atlanta youth Development Center. Making a difference came in small ways and we learned to appreciate these small changes.
The VISTAs also supported and relied on each other because money was always tight. In order to have a social life, we even volunteered for fun. The beautiful FOX Theatre in Atlanta always needed help, so a group of VISTAs volunteered as ushers on a regular basis. We were rewarded with a year of free cultural experiences ranging from The Rolling Stones to ballet and opera. We missed our families, and sometimes doubted ourselves, but underlying all that was our work as VISTAs, our commitment to making a difference. We were all patriotic. Serving our country was important to us. So we worked to make it a better place. If we could change just one life it would help make our country, and the world, stronger.
As if that weren’t enough, midway through my VISTA appointment at the development center, I started volunteering as an advisor for the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, a Jewish group for teens grades 9-12, but at the opposite end of the spectrum from the youth development center. While the Center had mostly black kids from broken homes, the youth from the B’nai B’rith organization were Jewish teens from healthier, supportive environments. Imagine my surprise when I discovered very little difference between the groups. I learned that no matter where you are, adolescents experience the same trials growing up such as self identity, sexuality issues, and apprehension about the future. This allowed me to implement a lot of the strategies I learned through the youth development center with the Jewish youth organization.
My strategies impressed the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization so much that they asked me to teach leadership training at the International Leadership Training Conference—a prestigious training for the top 200 B’nai B’rith Youth Organization leaders from around the world—upon completion of my one year VISTA assignment. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. My VISTA experience seamlessly translated into the skills I taught the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization leaders. It prepared me to take what I learned and teach it to others with real world examples. At the end of the conference, they offered me a job with the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization in Michigan where I spent two years until my position was eliminated.
The organization then provided a scholarship for me to obtain a Masters of Social Work from the University of Michigan (focusing on community organization). Two years later I relocated to Allentown, Pa., where I spent the next 14 years with the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, the last eight years as Assistant Director of the Jewish Community Center.
My VISTA training set me on my path to teach and train others. My VISTA experience set me on my career path and enabled me to gain invaluable insights about myself, groups, and working with communities. I hold my VISTA experience so dear that I still keep a rock that was part of an activity as a reminder of it. VISTA touches the heart and soul of those who serve and I will never forget the impact that one year had on my entire life and the lives of the youth we served.