2000s

  • Alumni story
    Sarah Kinderknecht 2007 2008 Anchorage, AK

    In my mid 20's, I arrived in Anchorage, Alaska in January as an AmeriCorps VISTA. It was cold and dark and needless to say, I hadn't a clue what I had gotten myself into. My assignment was with the Municipality of Anchorage, Parks and Recreation Department to develop and implement a pilot program called Youth Employment in Parks (YEP). I spent the first several months of my service forging community partnerships, developing the program schedule, and securing volunteers and donors to help implement the summer youth employment program.

    Around the time when "break-up" season began (when the snow and ice melt), I moved to the implementation phase of my service which included interviewing youth and crew leaders to participate in the program. That summer we hired 20 diverse teens to work in Anchorage parks, learn environmental stewardship and civic engagement skills, and participate in healthy recreation activities. Throughout the 10 week program, youth worked and learned alongside experts in the community while improving waterways, building trails, clearing invasive species, and planting trees. It was a busy summer as I coordinated the programming logistics, managed the PR, and developed the evaluation tools. After our end of summer celebration, my role shifted to evaluating the program impact, identifying ways to improve the program, and securing support for the program to continue.

    When my year of service ended, I became a Municipal employee and served as the Grants Administrator for the Anchorage Park Foundation. Through my VISTA service, I learned many skills and a clearer understanding of my career interests. Ultimately this led me to pursue a Masters in Public Administration degree and return to the Corporation for National and Community Service, not as a VISTA but as a State Program Specialist who now helps develop VISTA projects. And I'm pleased to say that the Youth Employment in Parks program is still going strong in Anchorage.

  • Alumni story
    Rachel Johnson 2005 2006 Indianapolis

    Viewfinder: How did you first learn about VISTA?

    Rachel: I was unemployed living in DC and couldn't find a job so I moved back home to Indianapolis. The only opportunities that fit my interests were VISTA positions. I applied for several positions. With my interests in education and kids, College Mentors for Kids was a good fit.

    VF: What was your focus at College for Mentors for Kids?

    Rachel: I was originally hired to do development work – grant writing and fundraising – but the organization realized they had a great need for communications and marketing so I switched my focus as soon as I returned from PSO.

    VF: What types of projects did you accomplish as a VISTA?

    Rachel: The organization never had anyone to focus on PR, marketing, and communications beyond volunteers. I went in and built a structure for them. I secured a donation from a firm that happened to be in our building and specialized in communications for nonprofits. They created a three-year communications plan.

    We tried to work out a long-term plan for how we could make the communications position sustainable, as there were only four staff total.

    I also conducted a series of general communications training for staff – how to write press releases, how to talk to the media, what are the basic design principles, and how to work with printers.

    VF: That's great that you focused on creating a sustainable communications plan. What did it look like?

    Rachel: Since I was in the first year of the organization's VISTA project, I did a lot of planning. I worked with college students and the chapters to improve their communications planning, volunteer recruitment, and media coverage. I started an enewsletter that they still publish. I also forged a partnership with a local printer that provided us with a regular discount and printed our annual report for free. I set-up a lot of pro bono services and in-kind gifts.

    VF: How do you become interested in nutrition and food security?

    Rachel: I came back to DC to get my Master's degree in Public Communication at American University. After I graduated, the State Office Director of VISTA in Indiana told me that the Corporation for National and Community Service was hiring. I didn't really want to go into government service, but it ended up working well for me.

    I learned about my current position as a Program Analyst in the Office of Strategic Initiatives, Partnerships & Outreach at the USDA Food & Nutrition Service through my work as a VISTA Outreach Specialist while at the Corporation.

    I like what I'm doing because it is cause-oriented work. I like knowing that the work that I'm doing is helping to feed kids, that I'm doing good…and helping to pay off my school loans.

    VF: What are you doing now at the USDA?

    Rachel: A little bit of everything. I support all the USDA programs with outreach and partnerships. The programs come to us and we support them by conducting webinars, developing outreach materials like brochures and web content. We basically have a client relationship with the 15 different programs.

    VF: Can you give us some examples of the programs that you work with?

    Rachel: Sure. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is the biggest program – it's formally the food stamp program but Congress renamed it to help with the stigma. The program is growing and the Recovery Act changed the eligibility requirements so now more people can benefit from the program.

    In November of 2009, 32.8 million people received SNAP, and it's increasing by hundreds of thousands each month.

    Since the Farm Bill Act changed the name from food stamps to SNAP, all of the materials need to be updated. We are also tailoring materials to reach seniors and the Hispanic population.

    I'm also doing some work with WIC (Women, Infants, and Children). We're revising a brochure geared towards the parents of preschoolers and toddlers because many don't realize their children are eligible through the age of five.

    The Summer Food Service Program is going to be important this summer given the economic downturn – it has also garnered the support of Vice President Biden. We are trying to recruit more sponsor organizations to set-up feeding sites that can operate in low-income neighborhoods while school is out

    There's also the National Hunger Clearinghouse, (1-866-3 HUNGRY), which is a resource that VISTAs involved with food issues can use. It's a listing of local resources for food pantries and banks and is the federal government's only same day food assistance referral program..

    VF: How do you see VISTAs helping with these food security issues?

    Rachel: It depends on their situation and the VISTAs' sponsors. Catholic Charities does a lot of SNAP outreach. These programs are meant to be short-term help while people get back on their feet. They are also gateway programs for job training and other social services.

    VF: Tell us how your son got involved with VISTA.

    Rachel: My son, Chris, saw me at my lowest point. There were times when he had to take care of me emotionally. But last year I was recognized as being the “Outstanding VISTA” for the state of Indiana. He was so proud of me. That award was the pinnacle that mom was going to be okay. Because of my work at Bosma, it confirmed there are other people like his mom. He saw how VISTA had transformed me, which inspired him to get involved as well.

    All of the outreach materials are free. VISTAs can download the brochures and print them out or order them free of cost. They can hand out these materials when they think someone could use the programs – when they need food immediately. SNAP Outreach (order free materials, outreach toolkits, etc.).

    With the Summer Food Program, if an organization has a kitchen on site, is already feeding kids, or partners with organizations that do, they can apply to become a sponsor of the food program. Eighteen million children are eligible for this program, but only three million take advantage of it. So we could really use help in getting the word out

    VF: What did you get out of serving as a VISTA?

    Rachel: I definitely got a sense of accomplishment.

    I worked with the college students that had chapters that were struggling. But we saw an impact that they were improving and mentoring more kids – the programs really turned around. I got just as much out of it as they did.

    And I couldn't have been doing these tasks just a couple of years out of college – being a VISTA definitely jump started my career in communications.

    And I made lots of friends! I'm still in touch with my roommate at PSO. Indiana has a very strong network of VISTAs. We were creative in our free time with no money. Many of us volunteered as ushers for a theatre so we could attend the performances.

    VF: What advice do you have for current VISTAs?

    Rachel: You can't fix it all but you can do a lot. Use the resources that VISTA has for you like VISTACampus.org, in-service trainings, and call other VISTAs.

    As a VISTA, no matter what your project is, it's not an easy thing. You work hard for very little but hopefully most people can see some sort of impact that you're making.

    Try to keep things in perspective. It helps to get out of the office and be with the people you're serving.

    What you can do to help the community you're living and serving in is also affecting you. The more you put in, the more your community gets and the more you get as well.

  • Alumni story
    Andrea Wiggins 2001 2002 Ann Arbor

    When I entered VISTA just after finishing a math degree, I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. Through a series of twists and turns, VISTA service led to continued employment in nonprofit management, followed by graduate school, and then more graduate school.

    I'm now a PhD Candidate at Syracuse University studying virtual organizing and systems for large-scale civic participation. My VISTA experience as a volunteer coordinator for a literacy agency provided valuable background for my dissertation research on citizen science, a form of research collaboration involving the public in real-world scientific research.

    Although it hardly made sense at the time, all of the unique job experiences I've accumulated since starting out in VISTA have added up to a great foundation for a long and fulfilling academic career for which learning and service go hand-in-hand.

  • Alumni story
    Christy Zuccarini 2003 2004 Hugo

    Viewfinder: You have the best story I've heard about how you discovered VISTA.

    Christy: When I graduated from college, I started working a full-time job in retail so that I could pay off my student loans. At the time, my mother, who is a librarian, was required to read romance novels in an effort to familiarize herself with the genre. She came across Fire and Rain by Kathleen Eagle, which is based on the author's experiences as a VISTA in 1971 at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. My mom thought that doing VISTA might interest me and so she pressured me to read the book, which I did reluctantly but ended up loving. So yeah, that's where I got the idea to become a VISTA – from a romance novel! I did some online research, found the AmeriCorps website, and submitted several applications to sites out West and/or on Indian Reservations.

    VF: What was it like serving with GEAR UP in Hugo, OK?

    Christy: Hugo is situated in Choctaw County, where many of the residents are of Native American descent from the Choctaw Nation. GEAR UP was a The Hugo Housing Authority actually donated my apartment to me during my term of service - this is one of my neighors playing guitar with her son. federally-funded program based out of Southeastern Oklahoma State University that encouraged children to pursue college. The program had sites in middle schools throughout Southeast Oklahoma. I worked at the Hugo Junior High, with a cohort group of 7th and 8th grade students who were pre-tested to determine where they were falling behind academically. My job was to recruit community volunteers to serve as one-on-one tutors to the kids who needed additional help with reading, writing, and math.

    VF: How did you help these kids?

    Christy: Most of the volunteers I recruited were from the local high school. I paired them with students and they worked together on a variety of classroom assignments. I taught some of the children myself, who were targeted by the school to participate in the program because they had behavioral problems on top of struggling to keep up in class.

    GEAR UP had implemented some rigorous guidelines for how the tutoring should take place, but it became clear after a few months that these kids weren't responding. I had very little to no experience with teaching, so I improvised as best I could and tried to integrate their academic needs into more creative assignments. I bought each student their own journal and they wrote every day. We also read together, watched classic films (To Sir with Love was one of their favorites) and made artwork.

    VF: Did the schools support the program?

    Christy: Not in Hugo. We were met with a lot of resistance. The teachers were supportive, but there was a definite gap between the kids and the administration, who expressed frustration with the program because they thought it was a waste of time. In fact, the principal asked why we didn't just give him the money in "a WalMart sack" so he could do what he wanted with it. The classroom I was given was referred to by school staff as "the crow's nest" because it was situated above the gym at the far end of the school and had absolutely no visibility.

    VF:How did you handle the resistance from the schools and the administration?

    Christy: I just did the best I could. My very first student, Sammy, was very smart but failing almost every subject. He had troubles at home and had run away several times, which made it difficult for him to focus in school. He told me that all he wanted was to pass the eighth grade, so we worked hard every day to catch him up. The principal warned me that I was wasting my time. He said, "That kid is a bad apple who's taking advantage or you. He'll never pass." It made me so angry.

    Sammy and I continued to work diligently. Sometimes he brought his guitar to play in my classroom. By the end of the semester he had caught up and passed. He left Hugo shortly afterwards to be with his mom and younger brother in Oregon.

    Months later, I still didn't have a thriving program because the school was allowing very few students to participate. One afternoon, while sitting all alone in my "crow's nest" I began to wonder what good I was really doing and actually started crying. Suddenly, the school secretary came onto the loudspeaker to announce that I had a call from Oregon. It was Sammy, who sounded happy and let me know that he was doing well. He even played his guitar over the phone for a bit. I took it at as a small sign from the universe that something good had in fact happened and that I was fortunate enough to have realized it.

    VF: That was good timing! What else did you accomplish that you are proud of?

    Christy: Just before the school year ended, I attended a Choctaw County Arts Council meeting with a friend of mine who was a local artist. We had tossed around the idea of doing a mural with the kids, and we knew that the Arts Council was getting ready to plan their projects for the summer. So we suggested doing the mural and the Council was very receptive to the idea. We explained that as long as we could get matching funds (in-kind or cash), GEAR UP would help pay for the project.

    Shortly afterwards, we met with the American Legion, who owned a huge building with an empty, 700 square foot wall. They agreed to donate the space, which was such a boon since it was right in the middle of town on the main street (I could imagine our principal passing it every day to and from work). The Choctaw Nation agreed to donate snacks and a local business gave us scaffolding. The local paper agreed to photograph and write about our progress every week. Members of the Arts Council volunteered their time to help plan.

    Once school was out, we began working with about twenty-five kids who led the project from inception to completion. They chose to make the mural one that contained historical images of Hugo and so they painted everything from the circus and the rodeo to crop dusters and cattle. It was an unprecedented project and I extended my term of service to see it through. At the end, we hosted an unveiling where about a hundred residents, parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, and cousins showed up to celebrate the mural's completion.

    VF: How did you find living in Hugo, OK?

    Christy: Hugo is a very small, rural town of about 6,000 where it seems like everyone knows everyone else's business. I lived in an old motel that had been converted into a cozy Section 8 housing complex surrounded by pecan groves. The Hugo Housing Authority actually donated my apartment to me during my term of service, which was wonderful. I loved my neighbors, who were very generous and looked out for me. In fact, getting to know them helped me adapt to being in Oklahoma, which was just so different from where I grew up in Columbia, MD.

    Roughly a third of the people there live below the poverty line and the unemployment rate is pretty high. In town, there were several small businesses, a WalMart, a rodeo, some restaurants, and an onion factory that smelled funny when you drove past it. Unfortunately, there was also widespread meth use, homelessness, and crime at a rate you might expect in a more urban area.

    Outside of town, there were farms and cattle ranches – flat landscapes peppered with haystacks, cows and horses. People waved when they passed you on the road. And just on the outskirts of town were the winter quarters of a few truck-drawn circuses. It wasn't unusual to drive past them and see a giraffe grazing or trapeze artists dangling from up high. I actually taught English to several children from South America who were circus clowns in the summertime.

    I certainly had my share of adventures while I was in Oklahoma. I learned how to horseback ride, two step, and shoot a muzzle loader. I ate mountain oysters without knowing what they were – something I'll never do again. I made a pilgrimage to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, TX (which was 30 miles south of Hugo). I never managed to make peace with the tarantulas though I became quite adept at swerving around armadillos while driving down the highway at night.

    VF: How do you feel your experience as a VISTA affected you personally and professionally?

    Christy: Personally, it broadened my worldview. When I entered AmeriCorps, I really took to heart the notion of being a catalyst and not a leader. At the time, I also felt that if anything I did wasn't potentially sustainable, it wasn't worth doing. So for me, the greatest impact came from living in and becoming a part of the community. In some VISTA sites, it's easy to leave the community at the end of the day. I didn't have that option and I'm thankful for it. I gained an intimate understanding of where I was and who I was serving. That made all the difference in what was ultimately a shared experience.

    Professionally, I went on to be a VISTA Leader at Greater Homewood Community Corporation (GHCC) in Baltimore, MD and then earned my Masters of Art and Community Art at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art). I'm now the Director of Development at GHCC, and continue to take part in community art projects here in Baltimore, one of which was voted Best Mural in the City Paper last year.

    VF: What advice do you have for VISTAs working on Reservations or with Tribal populations?

    Christy: It is important to understand history of wherever it is you're serving. While in Oklahoma, I had the opportunity to visit Choctaw headquarters, learn about the Nation and meet Chief Greg Pyle. I also learned some of the Choctaw language, as it was taught in the schools. Learning about Choctaw heritage gave me a frame of reference and deeper appreciation for their current context, especially in Hugo.

    And if you meet with resistance, the most important thing to do is to have faith and be patient. There is always someone in the community who is seeking to make change happen. At the PSO I attended, these folks were referred to as "truth tellers." Seek them out and you can rise above the resistance. Ultimately, it's about building relationships because you really are a catalyst – your job is to facilitate change, which is something you simply cannot do alone.

    VF: And knowing how to build relationships should be helpful to you in your current job as a fundraiser?

    Christy: Definitely! Fundraising is all about building relationships. Without them, you will most certainly go broke.

    VF: How did serving as a VISTA impact your career and your life?

    Christy: My VISTA supervisor encouraged me to get my Masters so now I'm going to Kentucky State University for a degree in Public Administration.

    As a VISTA Leader, I felt like a "human advocate" – an advocate for all. I help provide others with resources – not just the women I work with. My friends joke about it but they come to me for credit counseling and other advice!

    It really is 24/7 – it doesn't leave you because you always wear that AmeriCorps service cap.

    VF: Any final words of wisdom?

    Christy: If you're considering joining AmeriCorps, look for something that suits you and feels right, but do not hesitate to venture into the unknown. It's inspiring to realize that following your heart is a fundamental step towards making the world a more beautiful, compassionate, and meaningful place. That may sound cliché, but it's a truth that nearly everyone recognizes, no matter where you are!

  • Alumni story
    Beth Workman 2008 2009 Frankfort

    Viewfinder: You have quite the resume of national service. How did you become interested in serving?

    Beth: When I was in high school, a teacher of mine always told such intriguing stories about serving in the Peace Corps. I always thought that was something I wanted to do. But then I realized I wanted to do something closer to home – to make my own community better in order to make the world better.

    My aunt told me about AmeriCorps as she had an AmeriCorps State member working with her in Bardstown, KY at a community action agency.

    VF: What was your first year of service like?

    Beth: I started off as an AmeriCorps State member with Habitat for Humanity in Lexington, KY. I enjoyed what I was doing, but then KDVA announced a VISTA Leader position – this was prior to the rule change of having to be a VISTA first.

    I was intrigued. I have always had very strong female mentors in my life. I liked the idea of women helping women - even though we have three men who work at KDVA! I also wanted to try indirect service to see if I could reach more people.

    VF: What is the biggest difference doing indirect service?

    Beth: At first, I was iffy about indirect service. But I'm so glad I made the switch because I feel I can reach more people in the time that I have.

    We always need the front line/direct service impact, but I feel like what I'm doing now is making a bigger difference. When I was serving with Habitat, I was reaching out to maybe twenty people in a week. Now I'm organizing and facilitating workshops in multiple locations across the state, securing grants to grow the entire organization, and I established a pre-IDA program.

    VF: Tell us more about IDAs– and your pre-IDA program – what is that?

    Beth: IDAs are Individual Development Accounts – they are matched savings accounts that enable low-income Americans – in our case women who are domestic violence survivors - to save for home ownership, education, or to start a small business.

    We wrote and received a grant of $300,000. KDVA then matches the funds through local support – we raised the funds through the Kentucky Housing Corporation and Assets for Independence. With the match, KDVA has a total of $600,000 to support women.

    VF: Wow. That's amazing. How do the women get the money? How does the program work?

    Beth: The women have case management and financial literacy requirements to fulfill. They also have to be employed and save $2,000. Once they have done this, they get it matched from KDVA and the federal government for a total of $6,000. And the best thing is that it's not a loan – they don't have to pay it back. They have three years to save their money.

    VF: It sounds too good to be true. What's the catch?

    Beth: That's exactly what the women thought. At first they weren't taking advantage of the program and we had to convince them to participate. But after the first year, they starting hearing success stories…a woman just got her own home, someone went back to school. Women become motivated when they know women who have benefited from the program.

    We realized there was more interest, but because of the challenging circumstances of leaving an abusive relationship, the women needed more time to utilize their money.

    That's why I started a "pre-IDA" program.

    VF: Tell us about how you established this program.

    Beth: I created pre-IDA to teach the women what to expect from the program.

    Many of the women at the shelters don't have any income, so they learn job skills in order to participate. Some needed to get used to saving. We wanted to best prepare women for what IDAs demand so they have a better chance of succeeding and being able to purchase a home or whatever it is they want to do.

    VF: Was your program well received?

    Beth: Not at first. So I partnered with shelters and introduced it to IDA and case workers. And I started to see the enrollment going up. Now lots of shelters are requiring the pre-IDA program.

    VF: How did that make you feel?

    Beth: It was great. One of my proudest moments was when the program took off. And it didn't cost anything to KDVA because VISTAs were managing the program.

    And the best part is helping a woman become self-sufficient. It greatly increases her chances of not going back to her abuser if she is financially independent.

    VF: What did you get out of serving?

    Beth: More self-confidence. I had always had entry level jobs before VISTA. Now I can problem solve and think on my own which has empowered me.

    I learned about working with others in the community – when you're young you don't have the experience as to how organizations work and interact with each other.

    Also how to live on an extremely tight budget! The experience teaches you how to save.

    VF: How did serving as a VISTA impact your career and your life?

    Beth: My VISTA supervisor encouraged me to get my Masters so now I'm going to Kentucky State University for a degree in Public Administration.

    As a VISTA Leader, I felt like a "human advocate" – an advocate for all. I help provide others with resources – not just the women I work with. My friends joke about it but they come to me for credit counseling and other advice!

    It really is 24/7 – it doesn't leave you because you always wear that AmeriCorps service cap.

    VF: What advice do you have for VISTAs currently serving?

    Beth: You're not going to change the world in a year, so don't get overwhelmed. I believe that it's a life changing experience. If you apply yourself, you can benefit greatly from serving.

    If I can make a difference in one person's life, then I've done my task. And I still hope to do Peace Corps someday!

  • Alumni story
    Nikki Roberts 2003 2006 Lufkin

    Viewfinder: You served as a VISTA for three years, managed the AmeriCorps State project for two years, and now you're a supervisor to four VISTAs – all with the Goodwill Industries of Central East Texas. You must have lots of wisdom to share from working in all three of these roles with the same organization.

    Nikki: Sure!

    VF: What advice would you offer to new VISTAs?

    Nikki:

    • Rome wasn't built in a day – whatever you're working on will take more than one day, one month, one service term. In fact, certain projects take until the second or third service term to come to fruition.
    • Keep in mind that the hierarchy within an agency factors in with an idea being proposed from a volunteer. When our agency hired its first VISTAs, most of the staff didn't know about VISTA so new ideas took time to be accepted.
    • Have patience.
    • Manage your "Save the World" syndrome by channeling your energy into getting things done on your VAD. This will show you how to put a timeline on things that need to be implemented and pace yourself throughout your service term.
    • Don't be scared to venture out into community – get out of your comfort zone. Try not to feel confined to your cubicle – go out and meet people.

    VF: Can you give us advice on establishing a relationship with your VISTA Supervisor?

    Nikki:

    • Define boundaries – do this early on and figure out what your relationship looks like outside and inside the office
    • Speak – share your ideas, say what you think – go ahead and present your new ideas. You may also have thoughts on better ways to get something done. You may get "shot down," but don't let that discourage you from letting your thoughts out – the other staff need to hear your ideas.

    VF: As a supervisor, how do you encourage your VISTAs to get out there and start feeling comfortable in the community?

    Nikki: Whenever we get new VISTAs, we send them out on a scavenger hunt throughout the city. We send them out with a list of things to do such as take a picture at city hall, say hello to the owners of the mom and pop store, read a story to children at the shelter down the street.

    VF: Since you've been a VISTA and a supervisor to VISTAs, what advice do you have for supervisors?

    Nikki:

    • Support your VISTAs. Remember that these members are coming to your world from their world. In a way, they are almost like a family member. Do whatever you can to help them locate housing, survive on the stipend, let them know about local resources, etc.
    • Be aware you will get people that are pretty "raw" – any professional development and training that you can give them early on will benefit the VISTA and the Supervisor. And because a lot of VISTAs haven't been in workforce before, be mindful they may need basic tips, e.g. call-in if you're sick, be on time.
    • Be realistic – just because you put this project design on paper, know that implementing it is not going to be "peaches and cream" – how well you recruit the person may contribute to how smoothly the project goes
    • Have policy and procedures in place so you don't have to scramble when it's time to submit reports
    • Organize how you keep track and maintain the details of the project, e.g. keeping electronic and paper copies
    • Have regular meetings
    • Do an in-depth assessment on your VISTAs – individuals with certain skill sets can be an investment for the agency. For example, if you have a VISTA interested in taking a Spanish course that can be an investment for the VISTA and the agency.

    VF: How were you supported by your supervisor when you first arrived at Goodwill?

    Nikki: My supervisor was great. She even arranged a discount on housing by talking to the manager of a nearby apartment complex.

    VF: What advice would you give to VISTAs on how to handle challenging supervisors?

    Nikki: I recommend having a second "go to" person other than your supervisor. Find an ally within the agency. If that's difficult to do, you can always get support from your State Office.

    VF: How was being a VISTA beneficial to being a supervisor?

    Nikki: Awesome! I can see some of the same things that I did so I can catch them – e.g. setting boundaries when using social media at work. I also have a weekly meeting on Mondays at 10am to discuss tasks completed and to plan new projects.

    VF: Thanks for talking to the Viewfinder about your experiences.

    Nikki: Thank you!

  • Alumni story
    Ericc Powell 2006 2007

    Viewfinder: What was it like for you to live on the VISTA living allowance?

    Ericc: It definitely made me establish good spending habits!

    Being low-income as a VISTA turned out to be a blessing. It helped me realize that you can still live a very good life on not a lot of money. You can still be happy.

    When you think about the people living in poverty and hear their stories, it makes you feel blessed but it also makes you realize there are so many people with circumstances much worse than mine. Many times they don't complain and often they are the ones giving me hope. No matter how bad my situation gets, I realize there are always people worse off than me, and therefore I am called to find out what they need in order to bring themselves out of poverty.

    VF: Why did you choose to serve?

    Ericc: It all started with my parents. They raised me to have the philosophy that if you have enough to live on, you should give back. In high school, I started experiencing how good it felt to give back and how much of an impact you can make on other people's lives.

    After college, I knew I wanted to take a year off before graduate school – I wasn't ready to go into the "real" world. I wanted to give back even if it was not in my community. I also wanted to use the experience that I gained in college to help inspire others.

    VF: Would you say your perspective on poverty changed throughout your year of service? If yes, how?

    Ericc: Yes. I learned more about how poverty is not necessarily just physical or obvious to the naked eye. There is internal poverty, spiritual poverty, mental poverty, and so on. In working as a VISTA through Rhode Island Campus Compact, I learned more about just how broad the term poverty really is. Is poverty not having enough food to eat? Is poverty thought of as sleeping on a park bench at night? Is poverty equated to not having a decent education? Is poverty tied to feeling lonely and isolated? I would answer yes to all of the above.

    The term poverty often conjures up certain images in one's mind, and perhaps one can say that the word poverty is overused or misused in situations. Whatever the case may be, there are people suffering unjustly (and some justly as a result of their own personal decisions). Everyone deserves access to resources to tend to their basic human needs.

    VF: What did you get out of serving?

    Ericc: My current job! I'm a training coordinator with the Corporation for National and Community Service. I coordinate AmeriCorps*VISTA & Supervisor Orientations, ensuring that details and logistics are taken care of prior to and during the orientations.

    I also really gained an unexpected passion – a serious passion – for VISTA. To me VISTA is not just an experience or eliminating poverty or serving to help people. It's really devoting your life to help make the world a better place.

    When I first signed up, I thought I would have a good experience. But I didn't expect to meet all of these amazing people and make such great connections.

    VF: Do you think VISTAs should be allowed to work part-time?

    Ericc: No, for many reasons. For one, if VISTAs are allowed to work part-time, you'd have to be very clear about how you define part-time. There would be too many "what ifs" and specific scenarios to be addressed. Secondly, it would take away from the experience. For example many of my meetings took place in the evenings with the students and if I had a part-time job, this wouldn't have been possible. Finally, part of the mission of VISTA is to live a simple life – focus on your community and your project and to not be overwhelmed by external factors like work/school.

    You have your entire life to work – this should be a year of gaining experience and learning what you can.

    VF: What is your advice for VISTA's on how to make the most out of the living allowance?

    Ericc: Get to know people in your organization and the environment you're working with – this can lead to people taking you out to lunch! Meet people in the community and explain what VISTA is along with your story. They will want to help you out.

    Here are some more tips:

    • Get used to fact that you're not making a lot of money – realize this is not a time in your career to make money
    • Accept the circumstances
    • Mypoints.com, a free website where you get points for making purchases and redeem them for gift/gas cards
    • Make gifts for people instead of buying gifts
    • Use coupons
    • Buy groceries at the store and farmer's markets instead of eating out
    • Consider applying for food stamps
    • Create a budget and stick to it
    • Avoid borrowing money from parents or relatives (unless it is absolutely necessary) because it's part of what makes the experience
    • Don't suffer alone! Make your sponsor organization aware of your challenges. Not that it's their role to fix it, but perhaps the organization can accommodate some of your needs.

    VF: Any final words?

    Ericc: When I'm working at PSO, I always hear people talk about how a year of VISTA is a stepping stone. Use it as a stepping stone but as you step up bring that stone with you. Once a VISTA, always a VISTA. If you really invest yourself, it will stay with you and impact your life and career.

  • Alumni story
    John Lyon 2008 2009 Austin

    Viewfinder: How did you first learn about VISTA?

    John: I learned about VISTA through the media – I heard some radio ads. And I thought to myself, maybe this is something I can do. When I looked up the website and the first thing I saw was, "Fight Poverty with Passion," that really spoke to me.

    VF: What type of work were you doing prior to VISTA?

    John: I was laid off in 2003 while working as a network administrator. I really didn't like what I was doing and began thinking that I wanted to do something more than be a cog in the wheel that drives shareholder value.

    So I decided to go back to school for public administration while being a stay at home dad.

    VF: Tell us about being a stay at home dad.

    John: Well, living in Austin, there was a great local group of dads that would get together for playdates, hikes, and other activities. Our group was even featured on the Cobert Report!

    VF: So how did you go from being a stay at home dad to a VISTA?

    John: When I was finishing my degree, I looked into my university's career placement website and they had several VISTA positions listed. VISTA intrigued me as well because I did service with the military back in the '80's. I was active duty Navy but I liked the idea of doing service in a different way. I appreciated the opportunity to serve my country and my community.

    VF: Would you say that VISTA helped you re-enter the workforce and transition your career?

    John: Yes. VISTA gave me an opportunity to work in a nonprofit that I wouldn't get just walking off the street and filling out an application.

    VF: What types of projects did you work on as a VISTA?

    John: I was brought into the community events department at the Capitol Area Food Bank of Texas. My goal was to reach out to the faith-based community. This seemed like a natural source of people that could be aligned with our mission. It turns out it was more challenging than we thought to get the faith-based community involved in our work.ms.

    VF: Factoring in those hurdles, what were some of your accomplishments?

    John: I did outreach for the Souperbowl of Caring. This organization started with a youth group in North Carolina over 20 years ago and now it equips and mobilizes congregations, schools and businesses to positively impact their communities by collecting money or food on or near Super Bowl weekend. The contact database that I created last year is being used to conduct outreach this year.

    I also went out to communities and talked to various congregations, which was very rewarding.

    VF: How do you feel your experience as a VISTA prepared you for future job training?

    John: I let people know about nine months into my service that I was interested in staying on at the Food Bank. The CEO has a great vision and it's a well run organization. But with the downturn economy and tight budgets, they didn't have any positions in November when my service was over. So I came back to the organization as a volunteer helping out with community events and the food mobiles. In December, they called to say there was an opportunity for me.

    VF: Wow. That's impressive. So you finished your VISTA service, returned as a volunteer, and then a job opportunity came up?

    John: Yes!

    VF: That's a good reminder that volunteering can lead to a job. What job placement advice do you have for current VISTAs that are nearing their close of service?

    John: If your current organization has room for growth, definitely consider looking where you are. You can also consider serving another term as a VISTA with the same or a different project. It's also helpful to know that VISTAs receive non-competitive eligibility status for federal jobs.

    VF: Do you have any final thoughts to share with our Viewfinder readers?

    John: Some of the things I found most rewarding as a VISTA were not on my VAD. I got involved with other parts of the Food Bank such as food distribution to seniors. Try to be as involved in your organization as possible. It might open up possibilities.

  • Alumni story
    Lise Cox 2008 2010 Indianapolis

    Hello Lise (pronounced Lisa). You are a self-proclaimed "untraditional VISTA" in that you are middle-aged, legally blind and have a son who served as a VISTA Summer Associate. Tell us how you discovered VISTA?

    Lise: I was on disability for 10 years and hadn't worked during that time. It had been a year since I'd gone to the grocery store. I never left the house. I had stopped socializing because of being significantly visually impaired. My husband acted as my eyes to the world. I finished college in 2006 and that is when he declared he wanted a divorce.

    VF: That must have been very difficult. How did you handle being on your own?

    Lise: I was a shell of a person just going through the motions. There just wasn't much left. I soon realized I couldn't live that way anymore. I'd had enough. So one day I decided if I can't help myself, maybe I can help someone else. I wanted to take the focus off of me.

    VF: Helping others instead of yourself is a very noble approach. What did you do to make that happen?

    Lise: I googled "volunteer opportunities Indianapolis" and Bosma Enterprises came up. This organization was only three miles from my house and they offered services for the visually impaired. I couldn't believe it.

    VF: That is quite a coincidence. How did you approach Bosma?

    Lise: I called and offered to volunteer. I starting helping out three days a week for 5-6 hours a day.

    VF: What was it like transitioning from being a recluse to volunteering everyday at an organization that helps people like you who are visually impaired?

    Lise: When I first started volunteering, it was described to me that I looked like someone that was pretty beaten down. I didn't hold my head up and I didn't talk much. But as time progressed, I gained self-confidence. One of the first things you lose when you lose your eyesight is self-confidence. Prior to my eye disease, I had worked in banking and finance. So I knew what to do – it had just been such a long time. I started to become myself again. It was so amazing to be in a place with people just like me.

    VF: How did you shift from volunteering to serving as a VISTA?

    Lise: The Director of Philanthropy asked if I would consider being a VISTA. I was thrilled and said "yes" immediately. I worked closely with the volunteer coordinator and we started working on my VAD.

    VF: What did you do as a VISTA?

    Lise: I recruited over 30 volunteers during the year and raised over $1,000. I knew what serving others had done for me so I started an employee volunteer program. Our visually impaired staff volunteered in the community for Habitat for Humanity, the Girl Scouts, and the United Way Day of Caring. Bosma now offers release time so employees can be compensated for the time they spend volunteering.

    VF: It sounds like your experience as a VISTA was life-changing.

    Lise: Absolutely. It was transforming for me. The disease I have is degenerative. I was diagnosed at 23 and am now 43 years old. I was able to utilize Bosma's services and went through their orientation and mobility training and learned how to travel safely. At first I was resistant to using a cane because it's an outward sign there is something wrong with me. However, it restored my faith in people. When they see that cane, they do anything to help you.

    VF: Tell us how your son got involved with VISTA.

    Lise: My son, Chris, saw me at my lowest point. There were times when he had to take care of me emotionally. But last year I was recognized as being the "Outstanding VISTA" for the state of Indiana. He was so proud of me. That award was the pinnacle that mom was going to be okay. Because of my work at Bosma, it confirmed there are other people like his mom. He saw how VISTA had transformed me, which inspired him to get involved as well.

    VF: What did the experience of being a VISTA Summer Associate do for your son?

    Lise: Chris worked at the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic. The experience taught him empathy and compassion. Being a VISTA and working for Bosma has done so much for our relationship. Going into it I had no idea how much volunteering would do for me or my son.

    VF: What are you doing now?

    Lise: In June of this year, I accepted a full-time position with Bosma as the Volunteer Coordinator and VISTA Supervisor. Previously, I hadn't realized the value in volunteering and now I want to promote it both within and outside of our organization. The unemployment rate among blind or visually impaired people is over 70%. I want to demonstrate ability and break down some of the perceptions. Through volunteering, we can do that.

    VF: What else has serving with VISTA taught you?

    Lise: What this experience has taught me is that you have to get out of your own way. "I don't have enough time to volunteer; "I'm blind;" "I'm in a wheelchair." This doesn't help. When you can allow yourself the chance to help others, in turn, you help yourself. Volunteering did as much for me as it did for anyone that I have helped.

  • Alumni story
    Sonja A. Hervi 2002 2003 Salt Lake City

    In a world that sometimes seems chaotic, angry, and full of despair, Bend-in-the-River is a place that offers hope and peace.

    Formerly a two-acre wasteland on the banks of Salt Lake City's Jordan River, the hard work and passion of hundreds of volunteers from the community, university, elementary school and corporate groups transformed Bend-in-the-River into an urban green space and environmental education area. During the past six years, "the Bend" became a cornerstone for the ethnically and socio-economically diverse community surrounding it. It's also become a positive symbol for a struggling community unfairly labeled "not quite good enough." Instead of giving up, many residents are fighting back, getting involved, making a difference, and chipping away at the walls of doubt, intolerance, and narrow-mindedness surrounding them. The Bend is a catalyst of this magical change.

    Bend-in-the-River represents the truest sense of community partnership. Diverse partner agencies, including the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center at the University of Utah, Tree Utah, Utah Society for Environmental Education, Utah Federation for Youth, Corporation for National and Community Service, and Salt Lake City Corporation, generously contribute. The project allows people in the surrounding neighborhoods to get involved and feel like they are making a genuine difference in their community. Although all age groups participate, it's the youth involvement that is most exciting. Parkview Elementary, the partner school for the project, and its students have been active since the project's inception. They helped survey the area when it was an overgrown, abandoned mess. And through the creative lens inherent to children, they saw past the weeds and garbage to envision a place they could call their own. Parkview students pulled weeds, planted trees, painted pictures, studied migratory birds, tested water quality, and wrote earth poetry. The Bend site now hosts hundreds of schoolchildren every year, and each fall, there is a new group of excited students who have heard about the Bend from an older sibling, neighbor, or cousin.

    As the AmeriCorps VISTA project coordinator, I got to work with these amazing kids each week. Although I usually taught the lesson, I ended up learning so much from the students, like how to say "river" in Spanish or how to sneak up to a tree without scaring away the downy woodpecker. But the most important lesson I learned occurred during a Saturday service project.

    A group of student leaders from the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center (my AmeriCorps*VISTA sponsor agency) and a group of teenagers from Odyssey House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment center in Salt Lake City, visited the Bend. It was a wonderful, warm fall day, and the kids from Odyssey House impressed me with their enthusiasm and hard work. After our service project, we held a reflection session in the Michael Foundation Urban Tree House, the Bend's outdoor classroom. I told the participants a little more about the history of the project and thanked them for their help. Then I asked for their thoughts. Based on my experience with teenagers I wasn't expecting much response.

    They surprised me as almost every one of them took a turn to thank or congratulate each other and speak about the importance of service. Our reflection period was ending when one quiet young man spoke up. He told us that he had grown up in the surrounding neighborhood, and he remembered when the Bend was unsafe for kids and families. He also confessed that he and his cousins had been responsible for some of the mischief. Everyone laughed, but then his tone turned more serious. He said that he couldn't wait to finish his term at Odyssey House so he could bring his cousins to Bend-in-the-River and show them the changes.

    At that moment, I realized the incredible importance of Bend-in-the-River and other projects like it. The Bend reaches kids, even if it's one at a time, and gives them an outlet to make a tangible change for the better, both in their community and in themselves. It dawned on me that the Odyssey House kids removing invasive weeds at the Bend was remarkably similar to them working to remove negative elements from their own lives. Conversely, each time a new shrub or tree is planted at the site, it affords us an opportunity to worry about something other than the concerns of daily life and just focus on the simple act of planting a tree … the labor of digging a hole, the feeling of soil between our fingers, and the care and concern necessary to ensure the seedling will survive.

    If the students who enjoy the Bend can learn to care for the land in this way, I have every hope that they can spread that knowledge. Not only just taking care of the earth, but also in taking care of each other and their communities. Perhaps it's idealistic, but idealism brought me to national service with AmeriCorps*VISTA. And in difficult times like these, what else do we have besides the belief that each of us can make a difference?

    I often think about the young man who joined the reflection conversation and told us about his history at Bend-in-the-River and his plans for the future. I hope he does come back to the Bend many times to see the changes he made on the site. And I hope it inspires him, as he did me.

    My AmeriCorps*VISTA experience changed both my outlook on the world and plans for the future. During my two years working as a Bend-in-the-River VISTA volunteer, what I saw in each person that came to the site, whether for educational or service reasons, continually amazed me. I especially enjoyed working with the schoolchildren and ended up going back to school for my teaching certification and a graduate degree in Education. I now teach in a wonderful elementary school with demographics similar to the schools I visited for the Bend project: lower income, ethnically diverse, and largely transient. These demographics could be reasons for my students to give up and drop out. Instead, like at the Bend, they care about this school and the surrounding community. I see so much potential in each of them to make a positive difference in their community, and I am proud to be a part of the faculty that makes this school a safe place for them.

    I am grateful for my VISTA experience and the ways it helped me grow, both personally and professionally. Most of all, I am grateful for the opportunity I had to spend two years at the Bend, in a community that I otherwise might not have explored. 

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