By Chelsea Lienhard, CCNYPA*VISTA Leader
Can you believe it? We are at the halfway mark of the 2019-2020 service year! Time flies by when you’re having fun and making a difference, right? To the CCNYPA*VISTAs-- you all deserve a huge pat on the back for making it halfway through your year of service because it surely is a feat.
As we trek along through the month of January and the start of a new semester at our host sites, I request that you take the time to truly reflect on the past six months. Think about the highs and lows, the insights after introducing a new idea or making a change, and most importantly, remind yourself of all the successes you’ve had thus far. It may seem like you are not doing much or making an impact some days, but just know that you are, and it does not go unnoticed! Here are some highlights and successes from fellow CCNYPA*VISTA members:
Overall, many of you have strengthened your career desires and passions due to the work you are accomplishing with your projects these past 6 months. You’ve gained confidence and motivation boosts, whether that was because you are a returning member and are feeling more sure of yourself or because of the successes and experiences you’ve had so far. Always keep those accomplishments in mind and don’t forget the little things!
By Jenna Paiano, CCNYPA*VISTA serving at Cabrini University
With the holiday season approaching, our college campuses are probably starting to slow down as students prepare for finals and break. However, we still have deadlines to meet, goals to accomplish and forms to submit for our projects. This may come with a bit of difficulty and stress.
That difficulty may linger into our everyday work and the relationships we have with our co-workers, students, and supervisors. While it is important to have a strong work-life/personal life balance, unideal situations at work can have a negative impact on our personal lives. Below are three tips for dealing with tough work situations.
1. Treat the difficulties as an opportunity for growth
The work that we do each and every day at our host sites is not very glamorous. We are constantly dealing with large projects, lack of resources, and the issue of always being mistaken as a student or an intern. With all of those issues, the last thing one wants to deal with is a conflict with a co-worker, volunteer, or supervisor. Instead of approaching the problem with a “why is this happening to me?” angle, look at it as a “how can I use this issue as a chance to grow?” opportunity. Reframing the problems into positives can help find a quicker, more concrete solution. Does it make the issue less difficult? Absolutely not. But, it is a productive, immediate response to the problem at hand.
2. View the issue from the other person’s perspective
Sometimes, in both our work and personal life, we tend to get very wrapped up in the “me” problems. I have a program to run and when *person* does *thing*I can’t get my work done the way that I want it completed. While, yes, you have a particular structure for your work and you have certain expectations for it, that is not always going to be the final result. Things happen, plans change, and you need to adapt to that situation. The person that you are having this problem with might also have a particular way of operating, or maybe they had a certain upbringing or trauma in their past that doesn’t allow them to complete work as easily. Try to consider other perspectives before assuming that they are making your life harder on purpose.
3. Take time away from the office as needed
I cannot stress this point enough: use your personal and medical days as much as possible. Yes, work is important, but your personal and mental health is more important. How could you possibly give your project your best effort if you are not feeling 100% you? Utilize your calendar and schedule in breaks as needed. Especially with the holiday season right around the corner, it is crucial that you take advantage of every day out of the office and “chill” workday as possible. Your body and your mental health will thank you.
It is unrealistic to assume that every office problem will go away when you have a positive mindset in place, but it definitely doesn’t hurt. Be sure to contact Chelsea, Danelle or Lucio if you are having problems at your host site that are larger than you can handle.
If you’re anything like me when it comes to packing for an overnight trip, you always end up packing WAY too much and bring things that are only needed in worst case scenarios (which 9 out of 10 times doesn’t happen anyway). And if you’re going on a company retreat, you’re probably wondering what other coworkers are bringing too. To avoid overpacking and to ensure you’re actually bring necessary items for the fall retreat, take a look at what returners from the 18-19 cohort usually bring!
1. An extension cord! Preferably one that is very long, of course. These are great because cellphone cords usually don’t reach the beds (or even in general). With an extension cord, you can use your phone while it’s charging from many feet away or even your laptop in a large room setting! –Jenna P.
2. If you’re someone that doesn’t sleep well in foreign places, bring an extra pillow/blanket to mimic your own bed to make it more comfortable. The extra blanket will also come in handy when we’re in the meeting rooms because it can get chilly!
3. For peace of mind, shower shoes are a must! Your college dorm days may be long over, but retreat centers use shared communal showers and they may not be up to your par of cleanliness.
4. Although we are provided with towels, an extra 1-2 towels might be a good thing to bring, especially if you’re someone that likes to use a separate towel for hair and body. – Katie S.
5. The weather can be very unpredictable at this time of year, so pack warm clothing such as a heavy sweatshirt, a scarf, and thicker socks!
6. A reusable water bottle or if you prefer convenience, pack at least 2 drinks per day. I think we all know that ~not all water tastes the same~ so bring at least 1 water per day and a “fun” drink like a seltzer, soda, etc. – Katie S.
7. When you need to have “me time” during the free time at the end of the day, headphones/earbuds are great so you can decompress without any distractions around you. If you’re a light sleeper, pick up a pack of earplugs at the dollar store, especially since we share lodging with another member.
8. If you’re someone that snacks throughout the day, I highly recommend bringing personal snacks because the last provided meal of the day is dinner and you still might be hungry after that. Just don't bring a snack that requires refrigeration because we don't have access to that!
9. Now would be a good time to use those hotel soaps and shampoo/conditioners that you have stockpiled under your bathroom sink and just toss out whatever remains after the retreat is over! Using these allows you to travel lighter instead of bringing the full-sized products that you have in your shower. – Katie S.
10. Lastly, bring fun things, like a deck of cards, to do during free time! If you know Kevin, he always packs a soccer ball because he loves being able to connect with others over something as simple as kicking a ball around. Regardless of skill level or knowledge of the sport, he finds that it's a consistent way for him to share something he’s passionate about while also serving as an entertaining conduit for conversation!
By Jenna Paiano, CCNYPA*VISTA serving at Cabrini University
As AmeriCorps VISTAs, our role is very simple, but also very complicated: work towards alleviating poverty within our communities. These roles come with plenty of pressure, rules, and of course, assumptions. As VISTAs, it is important that we advocate for ourselves and ensure that our host sites, community partners, students, etc. have a vast understanding of our responsibilities. But, more importantly, they need to know what our responsibilities are not. Here are a few assumptions about the VISTA role, debunked:
FACT: AmeriCorps VISTAs are not interns, students, or full-time salaried staff.
AmeriCorps VISTAs are in a very strange, very unique place in their role. While we are not a full-time staff member, we still work in an office with other full-time staff members. Although some of us take college courses during our VISTA term, others should not view us as a student, student worker, etc. It’s kind of weird, right?
The way I see it (and the way I have tried to explain it to others) is like this: I am not a full-time staff member at X institution; X institution is simply the place that hosts both myself and my project. While we do not hold the full-time staff member title, it is important that we are treated like our work is just as important as theirs. (Because it is.)
FACT: AmeriCorps VISTAs should only do work that is revolved around or surrounding their project.
As a member of this institutional community, you may be pulled into other work assignments, projects, and programming. Sometimes that is okay, especially if it is related to your project’s final goal. But, most of the time, this is simply a distraction from your year of service’s objective. Many times, other co-workers are simply looking for someone to pile their extra work onto. Do not fall into this trap. Be sure to stand your ground and reiterate that you are there to work on your specific project. If you let it happen once, it will happen over and over again.
FACT: Host sites must provide some sort of support to their VISTAs.
This support could be given in a variety of ways. They could offer housing, an on-campus meal plan, a stipend for your rent, professional development, or something else. These will vary depending on the institution and what the institution is able to offer. Due to our fairly low living allowance stipend, this support is extremely important. How could you possibly put your all into your work if you are too worried about making your rent payment next week? If you ever feel like you need more support, reach out to your supervisor. These problems will only be solved if you express that there is a problem at hand.
FACT: VISTA is real work.
If this is one point that you take away from this post, let it be this: the work you are doing is real, it is impactful, and it is beneficial to both you and your community. Through our VISTA year of service, we learn to navigate the “real world” with not only the support from our host site and community partner but from our cohort as well. We learn about volunteer management, community partnerships, higher education, and so much more. This year is an extremely worthwhile year that will help prepare you for your next steps. Be proud of your work!
During the course of your VISTA year, you will more than likely explain your role to your community partners and host site co-workers over 20 times. You will probably get asked to do irrelevant work, and you might feel like you are not making a difference. Sometimes, the hardest part of our projects is to simply take pride in our work and in ourselves. Once you cross over these hurdles, the success stories will flow one after another. Just keep in mind: it’s not about the setback, it’s about the comeback.
By Chelsea Lienhard, CCNYPA*VISTA Leader
On Wednesday, 9/11, Americans across the country volunteered in their communities to commemorate the September 11th National Day of Service and Remembrance. Among this group of people that served are the dedicated members of AmeriCorps, including the CCNYPA*VISTAs.
This day of unity and charitable service was started in 2002 by the nonprofit group MyGoodDeed. They garnered support from families that were affected by the attacks at the World Trade Center to create a permanent and positive way to observe this day every year. Congress later designated September 11th as "Patriot Day," and requested the observance of 9/11 as an annually recognized "National Day of Service and Remembrance." Since then, events are held nationwide by hundreds of nonprofit groups, schools, and businesses. Nearly 30 million Americans annually engage in various forms of charitable service through volunteering, donating to charities, and simply doing good deeds.
This year, CCNYPA*VISTAs served in a plethora of ways including community cleanups, meal preparations, assisting in set-up for large events, and even volunteering at animal shelters/rescues! Taking part in the 9/11 Day of Service is a requirement when taking on the VISTA role, but it means something more to us besides getting out of the office for the day. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word ‘service’ has many different definitions, so I asked the cohort, what does service mean to you?
As you can see, we don’t just serve because it’s part of our job description, but because of what it means to us individually. To me, service means altruism. Volunteering in my community leaves me with a genuine satisfaction and I don’t expect anything in return. Though, you might call this reciprocal altruism because of the “helper’s high” sensation I feel afterwards. No matter what and how we serve, we certainly feel some type of fulfillment from it.
I recently saw a quote about serving/volunteering, and I think it pretty much sums up why we serve as VISTAs and wraps up what service means.
“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” – Anonymous
By Chelsea Lienhard, CCNYPA*VISTA Leader
I think we can all attest that the AmeriCorps stipend is quite modest and well below the amount we would prefer to get paid for a job. The living allowance allows us to live very frugally and mirrors the income of the community we are serving. You’re probably thinking, How the heck does anyone or any family live on this income?? But as the AmeriCorps website explains, the allowance is based on poverty rates for a single individual in your geographic area (which is still, surprisingly, not very much). At the end of the day, though, no amount of money could equate to the gratitude and satisfaction we receive from giving back to our neighbors when serving our community.
Learning how to provide for ourselves on this modest living allowance has its challenges but there are so many tips and tricks to easily live off of it and still have money left over after paying your expenses for the month. Below are my top tips and suggestions to still live fully on limited means as a VISTA!
1. Create a budget in the beginning of your service term AND STICK TO IT.
A great online tool to calculate how much you’re taking home every paycheck is Federal Paycheck Calculator. This calculator is so spot-on accurate, give or take $1 - $5. It’s super user friendly and easy to follow, just make sure the items selected under “Work Info” are correct! The best way to use this tool is either with a laptop or desktop computer rather than a mobile device. Figure out what your monthly expenses are and when they need to be paid (good to know when, so you know what paycheck it’s coming out of). After that, you can calculate how much extra “spending money” you want to give yourself!
2. Apply for SNAP/food stamp benefits as soon as possible!
Food will always be an expense because you can’t not eat just to save money BUT it doesn’t have to be an expense that comes out of your living allowance. Applying for SNAP benefits will save you so much money because you don’t realize how much groceries total out to every month. Every state’s County Assistance Office runs differently, so make sure you read up on their website beforehand to see what forms and documents you need to have/bring when you apply! To keep track of your SNAP spending, download the mobile app Fresh EBT!
Did you know? The monetary allowances that AmeriCorps VISTAs receive shall not in any way reduce or eliminate the level of, or eligibility for, governmental assistance or services (for example, TANF, Medicaid, childcare subsidy, SSI). The federal law which prohibits AmeriCorps VISTA monetary allowances from being counted is known as the “income disregard provision.”
3. Take full advantage of the IMG healthcare benefit plan/allowance.
In the beginning of your service year, you will be emailed a link to sign up for the health benefit plan or healthcare allowance through IMG. You can apply for the health benefit plan if you’re not on an insurance plan through a parent/guardian. What’s great about this is it doesn’t come out of your living allowance! You can apply for the healthcare allowance if you’re still on a parent/guardian’s insurance plan. This allowance helps to cover copays and reimburses the difference that your primary health insurance doesn’t cover. Be aware that many doctor offices have never heard of IMG and that it is NOT health insurance. If they are still unsure after you explain it to them, they can call the hotline on the back of the card.
4. Put your student loans into forbearance or deferment.
Repaying student loans can be a hefty cost so take advantage of this option as a VISTA! Go onto your MyAmeriCorps Portal and find the loan forbearance/deferment option in the left hand-side drop down menu. This is not an automatic thing that just happens so you must be proactive and follow-up with your college/university to make sure it went through and your loan service provider as well. If you are a VISTA that has recently graduated college, you will need to wait for the 6-month grace period to be up to apply.
5. Cook your own meals rather than going out to eat or ordering take out.
We all know it’s much easier to go out to eat or order takeout on Seamless or DoorDash, but those costs sure do add up rapidly. So, put on your chef hat and apron and start trying out all those recipes you have saved on Pinterest and tabbed in your cookbooks! If your host site provides you a meal plan, take advantage of that because it’s free food. If the dining hall food isn’t your thing and you’re really missing your go-to meal at a restaurant, check out CopyKat Recipes to find your favorite and make it at home! If you love fresh produce but not the price at local grocery stores, check out Farmers' Markets that accept SNAP benefits!
6. Shop at your bargain grocery and retail stores!
There are SO many bargain grocery stores out there, don’t be afraid to check them out. Just because food is cheap doesn’t mean the quality is bad! My favorite bargain stores are Aldi, Walmart, Dollar Tree (or any dollar store), and Grocery Outlet Bargain Market. Do a Google search of “bargain grocery stores near me” to find the closest store. Shopping for appropriate work clothes can get expensive too, so make a stop at Goodwill or your neighborhood thrift store! I recently bought a brand new, with tags, Calvin Klein coat that went for $300 and got it for only $13! Who doesn’t love a good deal?
7. Try DIY projects!
Why buy an expensive laundry detergent or all-purpose cleaner when you can make your own right at home? Repurpose old bed sheets to make curtains or repaint picture frames you found at Goodwill to fit your style in your place of residence! Getting crafty and resourceful can save those extra cents here and there. When the holiday season comes around, create your own holiday cards and give a go at making handmade gifts.
8. Practice minimalism.
This is the #1 thing you can do as a VISTA when it comes to saving money. As someone who considers shopping as “retail therapy,” I have to take a step back many times and think, do I really need this? Because 1—It saves me money, 2—I probably have a similar item anyway, and 3—It’s taking up space that I don’t have and I most likely won’t even touch it for a while. I give myself a little pat on the back when I walk past the shoe aisle without being tempted and when I don’t buy the dog sweater for my dog just because it’s cute. Practicing minimalism has made my life a little simpler and has actually reduced some of my stress!
Living a minimalist and frugal lifestyle this year in an eye-opening lesson within itself. It will give you a better understanding of the difference between what you want versus what you need. Thinking of whether you can afford something or not will constantly be on your mind—just like the members of the community you’re serving. Living this way may or may not be a learning experience but don’t forget--If it’s free, it’s for me!
On Saturday, June 8th, Campus Compact of New York and Pennsylvania (CCNYPA) hosted their first annual VISTA alumni event at Messiah College. There were approximately 20 VISTAs in attendance ranging in years of service from 1972 to present!
Alumni were welcomed by CCNYPA's Executive Director, Char Gray-Sorensen. VISTA alumni Tom McKeon and Lisa Weaver spoke about the impact service has made in their lives and why they continue to stay connected with CCNYPA. Remarks were also made by State Representative Patty Kim.
The event consisted of networking, sharing stories, playing games, and enjoying hors d'oeuvres. It was a wonderful day celebrating service and we look forward to hosting this event again!
By Francis Miliano, CCNYPA*VISTA serving at Millersville University
On Friday, May 3, 2019, Francis Miliano, a second year CCNYPA*VISTA had the opportunity to present at Millersville University's Community Partners Breakfast about her program, McCaskey Tornado Career Corps. McCaskey Tornado Career Corps is a college and career readiness program that provides programming, resources, and support to the School District of Lancaster High School students grades 9th-12th, to better prepare them for a successful life after graduation.
In the program Francis is responsible for selecting and training approximately 10-12 Millersville students, preferably graduates from McCaskey High School to serve as Career Corps Educators. The Career Corps Educators work with students individually and in small groups by mentoring student participants in externship/job shadow experiences and leading workshops, panels and presentations on college and career readiness.
This year at Millersville's Community Partner Breakfast one of the Career Corps Educators, Javier Brown, who has served as a Career Corps Educator for all three years of the project, was awarded the Newman Civic Fellows Award. This award honors inspiring college student leaders who have demonstrated an investment in finding solutions for challenges facing communities throughout the country. Prior to Javier being awarded the Fellows Award, Francis had the opportunity to highlight many of the program's successes throughout her two terms as an AmeriCorps VISTA.
Throughout the two years that Francis has served as an AmeriCorps VISTA, her program has had a total of 15 Career Corps Educators, serving a total of 760 volunteer hours, facilitating 120 college & career readiness workshops to over 800 School District of Lancaster High School students. During her service, Francis also coordinated a college and career readiness Summer Academy that hosts 9th-12th grade School District of Lancaster students on Millersville's campus for a week exposing them to different career fields and professions through career days, workshops, panels, and more. Francis also created and coordinated a new Dual Enrollment Course, available to both Millersville University and School District of Lancaster students, for the Art of Entrepreneurship course on campus which was structured similar to a startup weekend. This was a pilot course that allowed student participants hands-on experience in creating a business plan while also learning about Entrepreneurism. This course will now be offered throughout the academic year and facilitated by several Millersville professors.
Now that Francis' term is coming to an end her next steps are working as a Legislative Assistant for Representative Mike P. Sturla in the 96th Legislative District (Lancaster County) and returning to Millersville University in Spring 2020 to pursue a Dual Master's Degree in Social Work and Emergency Management.
The Spring Retreat for CCNYPA*VISTAs was held at Sky Lake in Windsor, NY from April 3rd to 5th. During this three day, two night retreat, VISTAs had time to share project accomplishments, attend a variety of workshops related to project growth, hear from an alumni panel, and gather interview tips from our career coach, Linda Arra.
Reflections from Kate Regner, CCNYPA*VISTA serving at SUNY Geneseo
"From the moment we all arrived at the Spring Retreat, I felt the friendship and support of my fellow VISTAs that I’ve grown so close with over the past nine months. These retreats are so valuable not only for the camaraderie, but for the insightful workshops put on by our amazing leaders and peers. Personally, I found the poverty workshop particularly interesting and enlightening. The activity that we did, making sacrifices with a low income, forced me to get out of my own head and situations and put myself in the shoes of someone that is struggling to make ends meet. A powerful moment for me was tying the feelings that I experienced during the simulation back to my own program and the struggles that my kids and their families face every day.
Shout out to all of my fellow Leadership Track members! I enjoyed getting to collaborate with you and see all of our hard work come to fruition."
Reflections from Chelsea Lienhard CCNYPA*VISTA serving at Albright College
"Getting to spend time with my fellow cohort members at the retreats is something I always look forward to when it comes around. At the spring retreat, I enjoyed hearing about everyone's proud accomplishments during the "Boast and Toast" because it makes me happy for them as well! Our hard work does not go unnoticed, but it is hard to see fellow VISTAs assignments come to life because we are not with each other every day. I value learning about and seeing what others are doing in their service year and I can't wait to hear how everyone's year wraps up at the close of service retreat!"
By Danelle Wagner, CCNYPA*VISTA Leader
I had the privilege of attending two campus compact conferences in the past month! The first was the Continuums of Service Conference that was held at the University of San Diego and hosted by the Western Region Campus Compact in the beginning of March. The theme for this conference was “Beyond Borders, Embracing Multiple Ways of Knowing and Being.” The second was the Eastern Region Campus Compact Conference held in Providence, Rhode Island at the end of March. The focus for this conference was “Education for Democracy: Innovating in Complex Times.” Both of these regional conferences happen biennially during the opposite year of the National Campus Compact Conference.
Both conferences provided opportunities to expand my network and enhance my knowledge around work in higher education. The ability to meet new people who are passionate about the great work that they are doing, is one of my favorite things about conferences. I was able to make connections with folks serving at Universities and Campus Compacts all across the country! I also attended countless workshops, plenaries, and heard some truly inspiring keynote speakers. I gathered dialogue tools for addressing community conflict, learned about decolonizing approaches to engagement, lessons learned from international service trips, and so much more! One of my favorite workshops was on how to use photographs to tell service learning stories. We discussed how gardening photos are some of the most popular and “sexy” service photos, but that it is important to select photos that demonstrate your work, that support your mission, and that are representative of your community avoiding “white savior complex”. There is so much value in hiring or designating a photographer for each event and creating a shot list, so you are not stuck with whatever selfies attendees are willing to share.
I am extremely grateful that I had the opportunity for professional development through these two fabulous conferences! I would recommend regional campus compact conferences to anyone interested or working in higher education with a focus on community and civic engagement.
Welcome to the CCNYPA*VISTA Blog, written for VISTAs, by VISTAs!