Any pointers??

Forum posting
No votes yet


I am about to start my service and training in the next couple of weeks in Berlin, New Hampshire. I just wanted to reach out to see if anyone had any pointers on how to get started, things that they wish they knew before they started, or comments in general. Thank you!!


I am writing letters to the VISTA coming after me as my year progresses. It helps me to write them in the moment, so I can really capture the situations and emotions I am experiencing. Here is a bit of what I wrote for the first few weeks:


Slow down, take a breath, and learn your surroundings before you get to work. Read the previous VISTA's files. Read your supervisors files. Just read everyone’s files if you have access. Visit the website and learn everything you can about the history of your organization, even if you think you already know everything. Make a point to meet with everyone you can at your site, even if you don't work directly with them. Ask them what they do, and how it relates to your VAD. 

Soak it all in, and take frequent breaks so you do not go screen crazy. If your supervisor allows, take a walk, answer a couple personal emails, or get your personal VISTA affairs in order. I frequently walk outside to the herb garden to relax and pull weeds. It helps me clear my mind and focus more when I get back to my current task. There are also plenty of amazing books at my location to read. I am reading The Herb Basket by Hazel Evans with Gloria Nicol right now. Most locations will give a 15 minute break or two. I try to never take longer than that in a day.

After you read up about the history of your site and what the previous VISTA did last year, read your VAD. Read it at least once a week. Read it once a day if possible. Everybody has a different perspective of what you are supposed to be doing this year, so constantly revisiting the framework will help you get a grip on the task at hand.

When you feel confident and comfortable, dive right in. I found luck with the first task I had, because it required a lot of data entry. It helped me get in the zone and further inform myself. Working hard here is much easier than the for-profit realm. You know your hard work has positive results for the community rather than a company.

Now, work is the easy part. This stipend, on the other hand, can be a bit rough. Take advantage of your resources. Bike to work if you can. Not only is it good exercise, but it costs time rather than money. If your organization provides lunch, don't be afraid to take advantage. Go for seconds if you can. Apply for SNAP if you find it feasible. Depending on where you live, you can double your SNAP money at farmer’s markets, and you are putting that money right back into the local economy. Dumpster dive. I know it sounds gross, but grocery stores throw away a lot of good food. Most of the food is bagged and clean, or easy to clean. It’s not only food. You will be amazed at how many office supplies you will find in a Staples dumpster. (Check local laws about dumpster diving. Legality differs by location).

The most important aspect of the VISTA journey is learning cheap or free ways to unwind. There are plenty of free music/art/museum events if you live near a city. Take up a craft like painting or sewing. It is relatively cheap and relaxing if you are the creative type. Learn the art of mediation or gardening. You can sometimes get discounts on passes at state parks if you volunteer, so you pay a little less for hiking or camping.

Tell everyone you are a VISTA. Some people give discounts because they appreciate your service and understand you are paid very little. Don't be afraid to let your friends pay for things. I usually fight tooth and nail when someone offers to pay for my food or a coffee. This year, I am a yes woman. It helps you get closer to your friends and spend time with them even though you don't have money to go out as much. Make sure you share your appreciation and never take advantage.

Finally, save as much money as you can. Even if it's saving pocket change in a jar. Pick up every penny you see on the street. It adds up. You will still have to pay taxes at the end of the year, and the Segal Award is taxable income. Don't let that cost sneak up on you.

Thank you for being a VISTA. It is the road less travelled, but this road is worth your while. You will learn and grow as I am learning and growing now. Keep your head and your spirits high. Enjoy your year of service! 

No votes yet

Hi Aarron,

I'm about 10 months into my service. I recommend going through this thread here: It has a lot of information to get you started. 

Know that the first few months are an adjustment period. Even if you think you know how to do something, take your time and perfect your technique. You never know what may be useful down the line. Take the time to immerse yourself in different parts of your organization and learn what they do and what they might be able to help you with if you need it. Never be afraid to reach out for help; get SNAP and other benefits when you can, go to the doctor when you need to, and take care of your social, spiritual, mental, and physical needs to the best of your ability. If you aren't feeling your best, you cannot perform your best. 

Take advantage of any and all free or paid-for training opportunities to expand your knowledge and your resume. Don't forget to network! Lastly, VISTA is not an easy task. It takes a lot of time and patience, but in the end, you'll look back at the difference you made in your community and in your organization and be surprised. 

Best of luck! 


No votes yet

I recommend opening up multiple bank accounts and linking them. I was able to save money during service by doing this and transferring money between accounts. If you make one your primary account, you won't spend as much and you'll have a reserve fund for other things. It doesn't matter how much you put in (I did $25 each pay period) as long as you are consistent and the amount will add up over time.

There will be busy and slow periods during service. During the slow periods, I took classes online for free through the public library which enhanced my skills. You can find webinars online that cover every topic imaginable - I participated in many offered by the US Census Bureau.  I had the opportunity to apply what I learned on some of the projects I initiated and was involved with.

Get to know the staff at your site and look for ways in which you can be of assistance. Your VAD is a guide not a comprehensive list of responsibilities. Be flexible and patient as you try to figure out your role. Keep a record of all the projects and activities you are assigned or assist with. This will come in handy when you have to report on what you did each quarter. Figure out which organizations or trade associations are key to the work that you are undertaking and sign up for their emails. I learned a lot from the weekly updates and newsletters that I received from different gropups.

No votes yet

Take notes! 

When I first got to my site I was very anxious about how the year was going to go.  I took notes every day for the first month and every Friday afternoon I would spend an hour reviewing my notes from the week. This has really helped me with my time management. We all know life in a non-profit is far from routine, there are fundraisers, special events, board meetings, etc. However, this practice helped me develop as much of a groove as possible. I have been able to schedule my days and find time for myself between tasks which has done wonders for my stress levels.

This is also the reason I am able to maintain a part-time job outside of my service. Outside, part-time employment is also something I highly reccomend. I know this may sound overwhelming, but let me explain. There is a lot going on during your settling in time and the adjustment requires concentrated effort. Once I settled in, I noticed a good amount of free time which was great; I used it to unwind from the day, read a book, journal a bit and just relax. However, once I started getting really into my projects I found myself using this time at home thinking about my VAD and VISTA and what I am going to do after and where I want to apply to graduate school and....well you get the point, I was heading down a road of obsession. I decided to try and socialize more but everything costs money, money I did not have. I decided to check out the possibility of working a part-time job to supplement my stipend and use those extra hours. I lucked out and got a job in a restaurant busing tables. I made it abundantly clear VISTA is my first priority and I will not be overworked. Forunately, my manager was incredibly understanding and worked with me. Now, instead of sitting around and stressing about trivial things, I am making great money. The work is not easy, but this is a major source of socialization for me but instead of spending money doing something, I am making money. I get along with some of my coworkers pretty well and they are pretty much the best friends I have made during my term. Work also gives me a break from thinking about my VAD and projects which has resulted in me coming in every day ready and excited to get back to work in the office. Now, I obviously got lucky with a pleasant environment at my side job, but I never would have thought of adding more to my plate if I didnt use those notes every week to refine my time management. Make sure you are thorough with this decision because burnout is a very real thing. But if you are the kind of person who can manage some extra hours, the additional money alleviates a lot of stress. 

No votes yet