Service: A path to a connected community

Alumni story
Sherry Kotara 2014 2015 Waynesville, MO
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Sherry K.

Life as a military spouse comes with a unique set of challenges- of which is the feeling career aspirations will remain unfulfilled. Receiving orders to move was initially devastating. I had to leave my clerical job for a job-deprived rural community in the mid-west. I started my job search long before I arrived, but it wasn’t long until I realized I was only one of hundreds scrambling for any job available. To fill what I thought would only be two years in this new community, I set out to finish my bachelors degree.

During most of this time, I stayed rather unattached from the local community. I served with my spouse’s unit Family Readiness Group- organized events, helped with nonprofit and military affiliated fundraisers, and gathered resources to advocate for other spouses to expand their education. Still, I felt unfulfilled. I missed my home state dearly and was convinced this place would never feel like home. At the time, I didn’t see the struggle to find my place in the world as a shared experience. I saw it as an exclusively military spouse experience which kept me isolated.

Then in August 2013, after nearly a year and a half, a devastating flash flood swept through the area. We saw nearly ten inches of rainfall in a matter of hours with no signs of slowing. In a state of emergency and mandatory evacuations, the unexpected event caused people to be stranded in their homes or cars with rescue missions all over the county, not to mention the horrible damage to property.

The response of the community, both local and military, was inspiring. Military units gathered vehicles to pull people from unsafe roadways, strangers helped people reach higher ground, search parties were organized to find missing family members, donations poured in, and volunteers for every need were secured. Not knowing where to start, I gathered cleaning supplies and clothes and headed to the temporary Red Cross station. I expected to be one of few when I arrived but people were everywhere- some needing help but many there to volunteer. I have never experienced such an out pour of giving, especially giving of time. It was amazing. People, local and military, were coming together to serve the community, the shared community.

That day, I helped sort supplies and helped the needy get the things they most direly needed. It was there I heard people organizing cleanups around the town to help citizens and businesses recover while we waited for the rain to stop. Over the following week, I helped a local and longstanding automotive company recover salvageable inventory and muck out offices. I met some local people and learned what they valued most about their home. They shared their love of their small town even in the wake of disaster, so much of what they said sounded like home.

It was in this moment I realized, I didn’t feel at home here because I hadn’t invested in the community. Instead, I had merely expected to receive without service. I was a part of the problem, not the solution, and I realized I had the power to create change.

Soon, I was looking for ways to contribute to the community more continuously. It wasn’t long until I discovered the AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program. In my area, we “fight poverty with passion,” specifically targeting ways to alleviate poverty through education programs and end the cycle of poverty. Eagerly, I committed to a full-time, 12-month term to serve as a VISTA, dedicating my new education and perspective to serving community needs as a whole. Half-way through my term I assumed team leader responsiblities mentoring other VISTA members in their community projects and working to build sustainability.

I have been privileged to serve my new community in many capacities since my start with VISTA but none are as satisfying as my work with the Snack in a Pack program. Building on the work of a previous volunteer, the hunger relief program serves youth in our school district- both military and local alike- with supplemental food packs on weekends who experience food scarcity. Hunger, surprisingly, is a real, tangible issue even in our society.

By building and strengthening community partnerships, I spearheaded the increase of funding resources- a necessary venture as our program saw a 13% increase in need within 6 months. My efforts, with the support of many volunteers and community partners, led to our ability to send meal packs home for over 315 students during both thanksgiving and winter extended breaks- the most the program has ever served.

In recognition for my VISTA service, I was selected to participate as part of a 2014-2015 leadership academy-  a selective community-based leadership program with the Chamber of Commerce designed to identify, educate, and develop leaders. I was also elected Class President and influenced a class service project supporting Snack in a Pack. I designed the service project to build awareness for the issue of hunger in our area, in the presence of some of the community’s most committed members while inspiring career-minded individuals to give of their time in service.

Everyone has a valuable currency, its really a matter of finding the appropriate way to spend that currency. If you are unsure of what you have to offer the world, start with your time. Time is an invaluable commodity when offered to others and is always accepted- worldwide (with no pesky exchange fees).

Since beginning my service journey, I learned community service is not just giving of your time but rather an investment in our future. Impacting change does not, as they say, just happen with time but rather occurs when people come together to put change into action. The inspiration from my new community led me to service, and I only hope I can be that catalyst for others.

Decade: 2010s