By Katlyn Alves, CCNYPA*VISTA Leader
Service. Action. Advocacy. Those are the three pillars on which the IMPACT National Conference stands. The IMPACT conference holds a 35-year history of bringing together student leaders and activists, higher education administrators, nonprofit professionals, and national service year members (such as AmeriCorps*VISTAs). Conference participants share stories, tools, and resources with each other and leave inspired to create positive change within higher education and within their greater communities.
I greatly enjoyed attending my second IMPACT conference this year. The 2019 conference was held at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. My favorite sessions this year included local student activist keynote speakers and panelists who fought against White Supremacy embedded within their school district or University and who also organized against the deadly Unite the Right rally which descended on Charlottesville in August of 2017. Their conviction and resiliency to fight for racial equity is truly inspiring.
The IMPACT conference is unique because it uplifts so many excellent student leaders. Most of the conference workshops are led by college students who are doing impressive work to change their campuses and communities for the better. This year I presented a workshop entitled, "More Than I Do: LGBTQIA+ Advocacy in the Era of Marriage Equality." It was great to see my workshop attendees brainstorm with each other about what issues and supports they see for the LGBTQ+ communities back on their campuses and how they can become more involved. The most rewarding part of my presentation, however, was when I received an email later that night from a closeted trans woman who thanked me for creating such an inclusive space for her within the conference.
I highly encourage you to attend the next IMPACT conference. If funds for registration, travel, and lodging are a barrier for you, then I encourage you to apply to IMPACT's Planning Committee in the spring. Planning Committee members help coordinate the conference each year and receive free registration, hotel stays, and transportation to the conference. I hope to see you at IMPACT next year at Arizona State University!
By Kevin Collado, CCNYPA*VISTA Serving at Hobart & William Smith College
A few weeks ago, just after the start of the new year, we held our first regional site visit in Geneva, NY. CCNYPA Program Director, Breanna Datesman, organized the meeting in order to foster communication and provide support for the two VISTAs currently serving in the Finger Lakes region of New York, Kate Regner and myself. Alongside us sat our respective supervisors, Garth Freeman, Sage Gerling, and Katie Flowers. That morning, Breanna’s agenda included communication style activities, the sharing of ongoing project experiences, highlighting our sustainability goals, and a discussion centered around areas of existing overlaps and resource sharing between projects. This became an incredibly useful space in which we talked through our challenges and successes thus far, and it was rewarding to be able to hear the fresh perspectives of individuals who aren’t normally as involved in the projects on a daily basis. This allows one to take a step back from the details of a project in order to consider and analyze the bigger picture of one’s work. I enjoyed learning more about Kate’s project, which is focused primarily on organizing and maintaining an after-school program for children, and I was glad to consider a program that isn’t directly related to food security since that is what I’m typically consumed by on most days.
I particularly enjoyed Breanna’s decision to start off the meeting with the communication style activities. This gave us the opportunity to dive into our personalities and characteristics and how they relate to the way we communicate and make decisions. It was a great way to engage one another, providing us with a foundation for the remainder of the meeting that was grounded in an increased understanding of how we each work best to solve problems both individually and as a unit. It was a wonderful time well-spent, and those of us who were able to stay a little longer got to eat lunch at the beautiful and newly renovated Finger Lakes Welcome Center.
CCNYPA Host Site Visit Reflections: By Katie Sternbergh, CCNYPA*VISTA Serving at Millersville University
The Central PA CCNYPA VISTA Regional Group, along with their host site supervisors, participated in the VISTA Regional Site Visit on Tuesday, January 15th at Millersville University. In addition to providing CCNYPA VISTAS an additional layer of support during their service term, this meeting was also immensely beneficial for supervisors to connect with one another to discuss resources, project strategies, and avenues for future sustainability. Listening to each VISTA’s project developments, project year, and challenges provided me deeper insight to how my Year One project can evolve over time. One common theme that connected each of us during the meeting was that we all had to adapt to unforeseen challenges related to our project by demonstrating immense resiliency and creativity in moving our projects forward. Our areas, project years, partnerships, and project focuses were extremely unique from one another which made our conversations extremely rich--especially in the area of resource sharing. The feedback others shared helped me think about how I can start transitioning my project’s focus from spearheading an initiative with partner buy-in to implementing sustainable solutions for successful student employment outcomes. Lucio, CCNYPA*VISTA Program Consultant, facilitated a discussion and activity on sustainability planning which helped the group support one another in brainstorming how to address future needs related to our respective project areas. Some different sustainability themes that were discussed included: developing new community partnerships, identifying funding opportunities, creative problem solving, and fully utilizing community partners to address project needs. The conversations we had at the Site Visit helped me reflect upon my service year accomplishments, challenges, and areas of opportunity while the experiences my cohort shared provided me different strategies to consider in expanding capacity.
By Jenna Paiano, CCNYPA*VISTA serving at Drexel University
Every spring semester, another group of dedicated, exhausted, yet promising individuals prepare for their transition from college to adulthood. As expected, there lays this underlying pressure of securing a job before crossing the stage and receiving their diploma. Personally, I felt myself crippling under that pressure for a variety of reasons. In the end, it worked out (just like it always does), and I found myself in the perfect program that fit my needs, wants, desires and more. Committing to a year of service as a VISTA with AmeriCorps was my best decision coming out of college.
So, uh, what exactly is an AmeriCorps VISTA?
AmeriCorps VISTAs (Volunteers in Service to America) are individuals dedicated to a year of service in a particular project with a specific community. My program is under the realm of Campus Compact of New York and Pennsylvania (CCNYPA). This means that our projects are all hosted at different institutions (hence ‘campus compact’) that work to eradicate poverty in the town/city that the institution is a part of. For example: My project is at Drexel University, and is focused on economic opportunity within the West Philly neighborhoods (specifically Mantua and Powelton Villages). My project works to provide more resources for community members at no-cost, resources they normally wouldn’t have access to.
When I applied for my position, I wasn’t 100% sure of the ins and out of AmeriCorps and everything that came along with being a VISTA. Now that I have had some serious experience in this realm, I wanted to share some information about this program to soon-to-be-graduates, and why doing a year of serving with AmeriCorps is a great option.
1. The Transition.
The transition from college to the workforce can be a scary one. Looking back, I don’t think I would have been able to adjust to a corporate office job immediately out of college. There’s so much that goes into learning about daily office life-- is there a coffee machine? Am I allowed to have coffee? Is that rude? What’s the dress code? How do I schedule a meeting? How do I use the online calendar? Do I have to color-code it? Why does xyz color code their calendar? Am I doing something wrong?
The questions are endless. Thankfully, as a VISTA, this transition is smooth because you are expected to ask questions. You are expected to be curious. Supervisors understand that many of us have never had an “adult” job before. You essentially spend your first month in your role learning the environment, the community, the work, what is expected of you, etc., in a totally non-pressure environment. Pretty cool, right? Now that I have the hang of a 9-5 job, I will feel much more prepared when I begin my job search.
In addition to your supervisor’s support, CCNYPA’s staff are a helpful resource as well. When in doubt, I know I can email one of my VISTA leaders and receive a speedy reply with tons of helpful information. This support system shines through the variety of programming incorporated into the service year. The most notable are the service retreats. During three separate occasions throughout the year, all CCNYPA*VISTAs will come together and have a three-day, two-night retreat. During this time, we reflect on our work, participate in a variety of workshops, and enjoy each other’s company. These are nice moments where we get to step away from the office and catch up with the members of our cohort.
2. The Opportunity to Explore Your Options.
Still not sure of exactly what you want to do in life? Then VISTA is a great option for you. While getting that hands-on, real world professional experience, you also get to dabble in this realm of work (higher education, non-profit, marketing, recruitment, volunteerism, etc.) and see if this is something you would like to pursue. And if not, no big deal, because you still received some great work-life experience.
3. Working with Students at Your University.
One of the biggest factors that pushed me towards this VISTA role was the opportunity of working with college students. Being that I was one of them just a few months ago, I knew that I would be able to relate to them. I was very involved during my time as an undergrad. Through my project, I am seeing the leadership roles that I held during my four years really shine through during the collaboration efforts I’ve had with students. After being on a campus for so long, student life is something I know very well. Thus, I knew that I could utilize some of my best skills through a campus-oriented position with AmeriCorps.
The VISTA program has a variety of different benefits that I was unaware of prior to applying. Beyond the living stipend, VISTAs are provided a health allowance, loan deferment, personal/medical days, and, my favorite benefit, the end-of-service award. This is either through a cash stipend of $1,800*, or an education award (which you can put towards your loans or future education) for $6,095*. You can choose which award you would like. *Amounts for the 2018-2019 year
In addition to these, your on-campus host sites may offer other benefits! For example, Drexel covers the cost of my travel. Therefore, they pay for me to get a trail pass each month and parking my car in my train lot! Trail passes are a piece of gold in Philadelphia-- I have access to virtually everywhere in the city, as well as some parts of New Jersey. I regularly use my pass for non-work related endeavors. Other programs offer housing, access to the campus’ gym, on-campus meal plans, etc. All schools are different with which types of benefits they offer, so make sure to ask when applying!
5. The Service Focus!
If you have any sort of passion for service and giving back to your community, look no farther. Through your service year, you will help sustain programs while simultaneously building lasting capacity. Your project won’t feel like work, it will feel like you’re making a difference, which is the best reward of all.
Have questions about the VISTA program? Reach out to myself or anyone else in my cohort, and we would be happy to discuss!
By Joseph LaPlante, CCNYPA*VISTA serving at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County
From November 7th through the 9th, VISTA's from the CCNYPA*VISTA cohort got together for a retreat at Trout Lake. We covered plenty of topics throughout our retreat that are important to VISTAs ranging from knowing the propsectives of people in need, self-care, communicating with your supervisor, and finding your character strengths.
Discussing self-care was an important topic for me. Living in poverty hasn't been easy. Having to carefully budget money, I realized that lifestyle of being in poverty can be tough, especially when it comes to eating habits and how it impacts your social life. However, while I deal with poverty issues, I realize why I am serving as a VISTA. There are people who have been consistently in poverty, for quite some time. I am affiliated with a food hub project for my region in order to create a sustainable local food economy and help alliviate poverty with farmers in the area. I knew that this was an issue that needed to be dealt with before I joined VISTA, since I have family members who have recently lost their farms. I also learned that farmers have the highest rate of suicide in the United States. Learning about self-care not only helps myself, but also enables me to realize the ones I am helping are also dealing with this issue and that they may need help with self-care as well.
On a lighter note, Linda, a career coach, came to our retreat to talk about finding our character strengths. At first, I was excited about the career coach speaking to us becuase I have been wondering what is next for me after my year of service. Not only that, she helped put perspective on my strengths and how I can correspond this to my future career, and also how I can use these strengths to help contribute to the goals of my project.
During the time at the retreat, I found that this was a great time to reflect on my project. There have been some road bumps in my project, but I also found that I was not alone. I think the most important aspect of the retreat, for me, was sharing our experiences with each other and having the chance to talk about our project with others. Overall, I feel that the VISTA get togethers makes us a closer group.
By Guadalupe Sanchez, CCNYPA*VISTA serving at Alvernia University
It’s hard to believe we are nearly halfway through our VISTA term. It’s been great that we have evolved from awkward introductory conversations to forming a supportive community amongst ourselves but seldom have we had the chance to build upon it, with most of us living hours away from each other. The beautifully scenic Trout Lake retreat center was the perfect setting to afford us the opportunity to build upon this camaraderie and cohort solidarity during the fall retreat. Although it was freezing outside, I was personally sold the minute I saw we were given brand new towels and pillows to use for the duration of the stay. I don’t take pictures often, but waking up to see an unreal lake view complete with swans warranted a few minutes outside in the cold to document the moment.
I also don’t like to run or do much exercise for that matter, much less outside in the cold, but I ran (more like jogged, actually) and spent more time outside than I would otherwise spend during this retreat. Surprisingly, I was not the least bit bothered by it and in fact had a nice time. I recognize this was the case in large part due to planning of activities that ensured we had a fair and productive amount of professional development coupled with structured and informal bonding time, all while ensuring an appropriate amount of sleep, which I always appreciate.
In a daily life full of our VISTA work, with some having additional jobs and responsibilities, we may not allow ourselves the time necessary to think about our own development and care. From a comprehensive self-care workshop, to a career development session, to having play-dough and drawing tools available at all times, this fall retreat was a refreshing, productive, and wholesome experience. I very much look forward to the next one to learn more about my fellow VISTAs’ amazing accomplishments and spend some more much needed quality time together.
The Fall Workshop was held on Tuesday, October 9th at the University of Scranton. This one day workshops provides an opportunity for VISTAs, supervisors, and community partners to collaborate on their VISTA project.
By Alexandra Garney, CCNYPA*VISTA serving at University of Pennsylvania
As we showed-up to the Fall workshop, I couldn’t believe that so much time had already passed since I had begun as a VISTA at the end of July. It felt like just the other day that we had all attended our first retreat. The agenda for the day included a lot of opportunities to connect with other supervisors and VISTAs across programed focuses, geographic areas, and interest areas. We kicked-off the morning learning about our True Colors Leadership style. My supervisor and I both had the same leadership color. It was interesting to think about how that influenced our working styles and approaches. Later, we also reviewed my VAD. It is helpful to consistently find time to revisit this document to ensure we are both on the same page and that the VISTA project is progressing. Finally, we closed out the day with our VISTA team and had the chance to brainstorm in small groups about different areas in which we were interested. I appreciated this activity and talked to some other VISTAs about planning for after our year of service. It was awesome to hear about what others were thinking and start to create my own plan.
"Getting together with the entire cohort of VISTAs and supervisors was beneficial in several ways: 1) seeing the breadth and reach of the work we are doing was energizing and positive, 2) hearing best practices and strategies to engage in this work will inform my logistical practices and programming, 3) thinking about how I personally engage in this work and what my strengths and challenges are was eye opening and timely." ~Supervisor
"My greatest take away from this meeting was that I was able to connect and share ideas with other VISTAs who are involved in similar projects as my own." ~VISTA
"I took away that there is no perfect project and that everyone has some sort struggle with their project. With saying that, though, they/we are not alone in the struggle with the support of many individuals, which is helpful!" ~VISTA
"What an amazing group of VISTA workers!" ~Supervisor
By Troy Okum, VISTA serving at Shippensburg University
Community service can come in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is as simple as helping your neighbor shovel snow off of their sidewalk or it can be more intricate, like organizing a spaghetti dinner fundraiser. Whatever the case may be, service to others, especially to strangers, is the glue that keeps a community together so that all of its members can thrive.
It is human nature to want to help others, but one problem people often face is how they can get involved. Many organizations and people are in need of support, but in a busy world that is flooded with distractions it hard to cut through the clatter and be heard. This is especially true in a college town, where students are unfamiliar with the community and can be easily separated from it.
Rest assured though, when there is a will to help and serve others, there is always a way to do so. Like many schools, Shippensburg University (SU) organizes events through its community engagement office to create a link between the campus and local populations. Perhaps the greatest of these events is the Fall Day of Service, which allows eager volunteers to serve Shippensburg in both big and small ways.
More than 300 SU community members participated in the second annual Fall Day of Service on Sept. 8 to help dozens of organizations throughout the area.
The day of service is a chance for SU students to work alongside faculty, staff, and alumni to serve the greater Shippensburg region. Community service projects included cleaning and maintaining places like the rails to trails and a historic cemetery, while other volunteers traveled to farm fields to glean watermelons, (which yielded about 10,000 pounds of produce!).
And of course, when there is any community service project it is likely a VISTA won’t be too far away.
In this case, the SU Social Work Department and AmeriCorps VISTA Troy Okum teamed up to organized a car wash to raise money for the Hound Packs Program. The Shippensburg Community Resource Coalition’s Hound Packs Program provides weekend meals for public school students suffering from food insecurity. Despite a cool, rainy day, the car wash raised $75, which is enough to feed 12 students for one weekend.
AmeriCorps VISTA Jamie Burnett and VISTA Leader Danelle Wagner helped by assembling flood buckets at one of the community partners, Mission Central.
The Fall Day of service provided hundreds of hours of community service and helped bring awareness to many issues and causes throughout the region. The event also helped spark new relationships between SU and the community as some volunteers are returning to organizations like the Boys and Girls Club and Hound Packs to continue serving them.
For the AmeriCorps VISTAs though, it wasn’t just any other day of volunteering. While VISTAs often work behind the scenes, (organizing and managing projects, and not getting in the trenches) they made a point of rolling up their sleeves during this time of the year to commemorate the volunteers who responded to the September 11 terror attacks.
VISTAs participated in the 9/11 Day of Service in a variety of ways, simple and intricate, big and small, but the size and shape doesn’t matter. Their service is about honoring those who gave the last full measure of devotion to their community and country so that all people can share in a common good. In their memory, VISTAs carry a great legacy wherever they may go.
2018-2019 CCNYPA*VISTA Cohort and some of the CCNYPA staff
Service Orientation for the 2018-2019 CCNYPA*VISTA Cohort took place this year at Keystone College from July 30th to August 1st. This three day event is where the 40 CCNYPA*VISTA members were able to meet in person for the first time to begin their year of service together. During Service Orientation, members were introduced to Campus Compact and their role as a VISTA. There were several professional development workshops that provided members with the tools they needed to start the year off successfully. The cohort was able to begin building meaningful relationships with fellow VISTA members and the CCNYPA staff through team enhancing activities. Service Orientation is an impactful experience for the VISTAs and sets the tone for their service year.
VISTA Perspectives on Service Orientation
My Experience at Service Orientation
By Javier Videla – 8/28/2018
In my view, Service Orientation started the moment one of my fellow VISTAs, a stranger back then, picked me up to drive to Scranton, PA. I remember feeling nervous about meeting all of the people whose faces I had seen on a screen during the introductory webinars. The nervousness was totally in vain because the moment I got in the car with Hannah, I could already tell what a kind, good-hearted person she is. Most of my nerves were a thing of the past now and as we made our way through the gorgeous Pennsylvania scenery, the conversation got more and more interesting. We talked about the prospect of ending poverty, empowering minorities, social change, and animal welfare, among other things. I remember thinking: “We seem to have a lot in common”. That feeling was a constant during Service Orientation. After a three-hour-long drive we arrived to Keystone College, where a handful of friendly faces were there to meet us all and make us feel welcomed. One by one, the members of the 18-19 cohort kept arriving: Alexandria, Aaron, Katie, Lupe, and Shemeca, just to name a few. Our cohort is especially big because it is the first year that the Pennsylvania Campus Compact and the New York Campus Compact have joined their forces to serve the community. There were plenty of chances to do fun activities and get to meet everyone, but there were also lots of talks about the quality of the jobs we had all signed up to do. I found these lectures especially helpful because I was not sure how to start tackling all of the problems that my community faces. There were workshops on Volunteer Mobilization and Resource Development, Team Building and Leadership, Capacity Building and Sustainability, Equitable Economic Development; all of them crucial when it comes to being a VISTA. Time flew by and before we knew it, it was time to go back home; but this time with a whole new set of like-minded friends and a deeper understanding of how to serve as a Volunteer in Service to America!
CCNYPA Service Orientation Experience
By Francis Milliano
My service orientation this year coming back as Year 2 VISTA was completely different from the previous year. Both of the service orientations were amazing but also completely different from one another. During the first year as a VISTA my cohort was smaller and all females. This year my cohort is double the size from the previous year, coed, and is more diverse in experiences, ages, and backgrounds.
The experience this year was just as amazing as the previous year. Coming back for a second year I was a bit nervous to see how different the cohort would be. Although this year’s cohort is completely different from the previous year, I had the opportunity to meet some amazing people and made good friends in a short period of time. Overall, I enjoyed the experience! Meeting individuals who have a love for serving others just helped motivate me even more for the year, reminded me why I decided to serve as a VISTA, and why I decided to serve another year.
There are multiple reasons why I decided to serve as a VISTA. One of the reasons I decided to serve as a VISTA was because I wanted to get experience in the field before returning back to school to pursue a Master’s Degree. I wasn’t very unsure what I wanted to study and being a VISTA allowed me the time to research different studies that I may be interested in. Along with the time to explore my next steps after serving as a VISTA, I decided to serve as a VISTA because of the objective of my project. The project focuses on providing college and career readiness programming and exposure to high school students’ grades 9th-12th. I’ve had experience in this kind of programming since I attended high school and due to my participation in these sort of programs I have had many positive and everlasting experiences that I cherish and have also gained many mentors who play an important role in my life.
Giving students hope and teaching them about the many opportunities that are available to them is and has been a very rewarding experience. My passion for helping students has followed me from high school, throughout my undergraduate years and even now as a VISTA and has been one of the main reasons why I decided to serve as a VISTA and to return for a second year.
Serving as a VISTA in the CCNYPA cohort has many meanings. It means being part of a cohort who understands what you may be going through in your position, helping push and motivate you during those tough times, but also celebrating your successes with you. Being a part of this cohort introduces you to and educates you on many issues related to education, economic development, healthy futures and military and veteran that are occurring within our states that we may not have been aware of. Being a part of this cohort not only teaches you about different issues but also different perspectives. The cohort is a safe place where VISTAs can open up and discuss any given topic without the fear of judgement. We all push each other to work hard! I’ve had the privilege last year to be a part of an amazing cohort and I am looking forward to learning more about the individuals in this year’s cohort and seeing how much I grow throughout the year.
By: Monda Williams, Washington and Jefferson College
Dear near future VISTAs:
You are about to embark upon an experience that is filled with learning experiences, which you will carry forward into your future for years to come. When I first signed up to become a VISTA, I had no idea that a volunteer service-learning opportunity would turn into such a valuable learning experience as it had for me.
You will meet new people from all walks of life, and through these encounters, you will discover people who may be very similar to who you are and some who are very different. However, you will learn to embrace your VISTA peers, first, by sharing time and space with them at SO. During the workshops offered at retreats, you will later come to learn that although we all have differences on the surface, we often have similar personality styles, thoughts, and perspectives on many ideals.
While you are serving at your host sight, you will learn to develop new relationships and engage with individuals from both your host sight and partner organization. You will again discover new people from various cultures other than what you may be accustomed to. Both of the aforementioned will prove to be a cultural competence development opportunity, if you remain open to it.
You will learn to persevere. While being a VISTA can be fun, there is a lot of work to be done that may become frustrating to you. You will be responsible for answering to multiple individuals and entities depending on your role or position. Your first obligation is to adhere to the requirements of the program (CCNYPA); you will simultaneously abide by and responsibly fulfill the duties as layed out by your host site in your VAD; and finally, you must equally respond to and perform activities for the partner organization, as they play a major role in the goals and concepts for whichever program you are working. However, this is where you will strengthen your ability to persevere.
Perseverance may be seen as the cousin to resilience. If you sharpen your perseverance tools, you will become more resilient throughout your term of service when challenges arise (and they will). The main point behind both of these concepts for me became the WHY. You must remember your “why,” as in: Why did you choose to serve? What do you hope to gain or accomplish? And this is where we determine the value of being a VISTA by keeping the end result at the forefront of the service term and reminding ourselves of the rewards behind the “Why,” whether it’s a passion for service or otherwise.
Aside from the educational award or stipend, I learned about NCE (Non-Competitive Employment) opportunities. After completion of service, this opportunity will give you a competitive edge over the average person when applying for positions with the Federal Government and that’s value within itself!
To this end, a year of service is time well spent and worthwhile; remember your “Why!”
By: Meaghan Tetro, Franklin and Marshall
–Show up. If you are serving in a new area, search out local events on facebook or groups that pique your interest. If you already have friends in the area, grab them and go out to meet others in your community. But, if you don’t have any friends yet, go by yourself! Showing up is the key to be exposed to new ideas and interesting opportunities, and will help you to meet new people.
–Be your own advocate. By choosing a year of service, you have signed up to give so much to your community. Take full advantage of different professional development opportunities, and talk with your supervisor about what you are interested in. If there is something that might cost money, but you can’t afford to pay for it out of pocket on the VISTA stipend, talk to your supervisor about why the opportunity would be beneficial and ask if your office has funds that can help support you! Advocating for yourself and asking questions can only benefit you — the worst anyone can say is no.
–Utilize food stamps! Enroll infood stamps ASAP. You are going to be happy you did — you can save around $1,500 over the course of a year (depending on the amount you’re awarded each month, which can be different for everyone). While you have this, experiment with new foods. You have this set amount of money you’re given each month — use this opportunity to try a new vegetable or a new dish while you can. Pinterest has hundreds of different recipes, so you’re bound to find something new you like!
From April 4th to 6th, our cohort had the chance to reunite all together at our spring retreat. We cannot believe that spring is here already and were excited for some much needed VISTA bonding, project sharing, professional development, and other trainings and presentations.
Our three days together began with an empowering activity where VISTAs were able to brag a bit (Boast & Toast Activity) about their successes this year in their projects, in which were each followed by a round of applause and excited encouragement from their fellow VISTAs.
We then shifted gears to looking internally at our paths and identities that brought us here and what that means for our projects while looking ahead in our futures.
We were so lucky to have our Leadership Track: Katlyn, Danelle, Jamie, and Gina lend a helping hand during this retreat. They gave world cafe style presentations, planned various optional activities like trivia and Twin Day, held a diversity discussion, assisted in engagement and even planned LinkedIn headshot sessions with our cohort’s very own photographer, Desiree.
Day 2 was filled with vast information in action. We were happy to welcome our Executive Director, Char Gray, for a presentation, discussion, and activity on Telling Your Impact Story. We got the chance to talk about sustainability and the framework for some real plans and how VISTAs can leave their legacy with our VISTA Leader, Erin. Then, we were inspired by our Alumni Guest Speaker, Jeremy Flick, who provided us with some great research-based psychology and thought-provoking discussions on self-care, work-life balance, and defining success which was a great transition into our PACC*VISTA Alum, “Life After VISTA” panel, to hear from the experts.
Finally, our last day spent together was with our ever-so cherished career coach, Linda Arra, who taught us to effectively share our story in cover letters and interviews and authentically articulate our experiences as VISTAs in continuation of our webinars on character strengths, networking, and LinkedIn.
We were able to end our time together with what we liked to call an “Energy Exchange” to share positives vibes as we take on the end of our service years! We got this!
By Gina Nguyen, Penn State Berks
On a chilly Friday afternoon, I make my way to Mi Casa Su Casa, a Latino American restaurant “with a touch of soul.” The Penn Street eatery smells of fresh brewed coffee and an array of baked goods.
The red walls peeked between several original paintings and drawings, and the muted TV aired a telenovela as Jamaican jams entertains the restaurant.
I arrive half past 11 with my colleague and year 2 VISTA, Rhiannon Jacobs, where we also encounter VISTA alumna, Lisa Weaver. Their supervisor, Jim Shankweiler, arrives as Thomas McKeon, or Tom, approaches our table dressed in his usual smile.
As we all get situated, Alvernia VISTAs, Bri Pearson and Melody Dillee, as well as my supervisor, Guadalupe Kasper, joins shortly after.
We sit in a circle around the Berks Countian who currently works as the executive director for the Berks County Industrial Development Authority (BCIDA), an economic development agency.
Now that we are here, what exactly does an executive director for BCIDA have to do with AmeriCorps VISTA?
Well, Tom is not so different from us actually. In fact, he served as an AmeriCorps VISTA in 1972. During this time period, Philadelphia struggled with housing shortages; Frank Rizzo came along as mayor; and drugs and crime plagued the city.
But before we get into the juicy stuff, can we order some delectable lunches? As we spend time pondering over the menu full of countless treats, our waitress, Leira, arrives to place our orders.
By the time we receive our meals, I immediately dive into my plate that has an abundance of yellow rice and beans, grilled chicken, and a beef and cheese empanada.
Now that I am completely regretting the amount of food I just inhaled, let’s have a look at Tom, a 23-year-old “hippie flower child” (see image below).
Check out 23-year-old Tom second to the left.“Not PhD Material”
A recent graduate from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy—now known as University of the Sciences—received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry. After various internships and lab work, he realized he was “not PhD material” and wanted to pursue something he’s truly passionate about. And so, Tom enrolled in environmental law and community development at the University of Pennsylvania; and he decided there and then he wanted to be an urban planner.
As 1971 rolled around, Tom contacted the dean at Rutgers University who advised him to do something to demonstrate his commitment, especially since his background in chemistry was quite drastic from community engagement. Naturally, the dean recommended the full-time, one-year service program—you guessed it—AmeriCorps VISTA.
Rosetta “Rose” WylieAs Tom proceeded to take the dean’s suggestion, he interviewed with a woman named Rosetta “Rose” Wylie, President of Philadelphia’s Residents Advisory Board (RAB).
The RAB focused on changing the living conditions of public housing, since tenants had limited rights. The Board wanted tenants to learn trades and provided numerous services to tenants including: tenant advocacy (case managers), daycare centers, social services, laundromat services, and job trainings.
Aspiring to help tenants learn trades, Rose helped those who were drug addicts clean up their act. To do so, she rented out three apartments within public housing and approached this issue by drying them out.
The high rise building was drug infested and crime ridden. Elevators hardly ever functioned which resulted in tenants hiking the stairways often. The run-down structure was highly impoverished.
The RAB president was a civil rights movement leader who sued Philadelphia’s Housing Authority and won. As a result, this movement set the stage for a model lease, which Housing and Urban Development (HUD) later adopted.
Around 1970, Rose founded the National Tenants Organization (NTO). She believed in the tenants’ rights and wanted them to have a key role in the organization. Likewise, the people believed in her and her mission to create a better living environment while also giving tenants the dominant voice in the community.
The Highlight of Tom’s Year
Rose had convinced Tom to quit his job as a lab technician and work for her for free, which Tom accepted. But before his actual VISTA term began, Rose assigned the young activist his first task to organize the 2nd National Tenants Organization Conference in San Francisco, Calif. He was in charge of the charter flight, which carried approximately 100 passengers who were individual community members throughout the east coast region.
“It was a lot of phone calling and trying to keep track of how many seats we had filled,” Tom says.
His role involved communicating and contacting all passengers, verifying the funds, and ensuring all 100 seats were filled.
“Sometimes people would call and say, ‘I can’t make it’ and then we would suddenly have a free seat,” he adds.
As a reward, Tom had the opportunity to participate in the conference. During his trip to San Francisco, Tom reminisces sitting on the hotel floor, speaking to various civil rights leaders. He spent most of his time with Georgia state representative and social activist, Julian bond, District Attorney Arlen Specter, and Shirley Chisholm, United States’ first African-American congresswoman.
Tom explains how this key moment was the highlight of his year, which I can clearly see why. What 20-something do you know had the opportunity to be around so many civil rights activists of the century?
Before beginning his official term in October, Tom as well as the other VISTAs were required to attend national training similar to Pre-Service Orientation (PSO). As Tom spent his few days in Philadelphia, he had the opportunity to connect with other VISTAs and hear about their VISTA assignments.
During his training, Tom met with members who would also serve in the Philadelphia area, so they decided to move in together. In their West Philadelphia apartment, the women and men lived on separate floors and became inseparable.
In fact, he recalls his friends giving him a birthday card that featured a black power fist. On the cover, it stated, “Hi, Whitey,” and the interior said, “Happy birthday!”
We all laugh as Tom explains this gesture was a symbol of belonging and being accepted.
The Philadelphia Community
Just past University City was a minority community—a culture which completely captivated Tom.
To truly learn and understand the city and its people, Tom spent two weeks living at public housing, which was a requirement for his new VISTA role.
He coexisted with tenants, Nancy, her boyfriend, and her two kids. For Tom’s first dinner with his host family, Nancy wanted to have some fun, so she served pigs feet with hot sauce, which he surely has never experienced before!
Benefits for VISTAs
During the 1970s, Tom received a modest living stipend as his only benefit. He and his friends would save their money and put their funds together to buy an album, specifically, ‘Tommy’ which was produced by an English rock band.
The VISTA crew would often play their new records while hosting big parties lasting all weekend long.
“Rose continued to rise in promise.”
During the early 1970s, inflation was rampant, thus resulted in President Nixon freezing rents and creating the National Rent Advisory Board in which Rose was appointed as representative for the tenants to voice their demands.
The board helped regulate rent throughout the country and made recommendations lowering rent costs.
Later, Rose ran for congress, which spiraled into disaster. As Tom describes her, the vulnerable and lonely 44-year-old woman was convicted as more conspiracies came into fruition. Rose had relations with the contractor in the modernization program for public housing who diverted checks into Rose’s bank account.
In addition to the scandalous events, Rose’s son, Aaron Blandon, was later proved as a no show employee. In fact, the contractor had devised a way for her son to be paid without providing any services. Rose even forged endorsements on checks for Samuel Via, a nonexistent person, according to The New York Times archives.
The Tough Decision
At this point in Tom’s term, everything had collapsed. The edgy flower child, as he described himself, wanted to renew his term for a second year, but due to recent events, he decided to move forward in his long journey to come.
He got accepted to Rutgers for graduate school where he later received his master’s degree in City and Regional Planning.
A few years later, Tom ran into Rose as she gave Tom a big hug and said, “Boy, Tom, we had some good times.”
As for his VISTA program, things eventually “got back on its feet” as someone new had taken over.
Despite the outcome of his year, Tom says, “It was a sad ending but an experience for me.”
He enjoyed all the connections he made with his roommates, his host family, and his community volunteers. Even though Tom was living in poverty as a VISTA, he says, “I didn’t feel like I was poor.”
Although he made lasting memories with so many people, he still has one regret.
“I didn’t keep the connections that I had to my community,” Tom says.
Back Home in Delaware County
Eventually, Tom went back home to Delaware County to visit his parents and oddly enough, he felt out of place. At one point, the suburban boy felt like he moved to a “foreign country” when he first arrived in Philadelphia, but after his return home, it was quite the opposite.
Tom mentions his first time in Philadelphia, he was “exposed to living in University City and being involved in student and city life.”
Once he was put into a really impoverished area, lived there, and interacted with the tenants, it completely changed his perspective.
Our VISTA Progress
After his term of service, Tom developed organizational and communication skills which helped him become a better administrator. His invaluable experience provided an opportunity for him to learn from different cultures and to have different ways of seeing and communicating in the world. He learned how to analyze any given situation and make a coherent presentation.
“I learned skills I still use today,” says Tom.
As the windows of the compact red and yellow restaurant become clouded, snowflakes begin coating the Reading streets as Tom continues to explain the progress in each of our projects to what he compares to a “long marathon relay.”
“When you see the Olympics, and you see the torch being passed from one athlete to the other until it finally reaches Olympic lane,” Tom says, “each generation passes the torch to the other with the ultimate purpose being the elimination of poverty in the end; a very long marathon that takes generations to achieve.”
Many of us may decide that nonprofit work isn’t for us, and that’s fine, but it is important to “carry this awareness” wherever you go. Tom stresses the importance of being exposed and understanding the depth of poverty.
He says even if you don’t go back to this kind of work, you have to understand it. You need to remember this experience “because as citizens, you are going to understand that [poverty] and continue to have responsibility.”
Each person’s circumstances are different. If you feel you have unfinished business with your project, Tom advises to stay and do the work that is needed.
Thomas McKeon at Mi Casa Su Casa in Reading, Pa.For those of us who are torn between renewing our second year of VISTA, graduate school, or other career options, it is important to “follow your heart and envision where you’ll go.”
If you’d like to hear more about Tom’s AmeriCorps VISTA experience, please feel free to contact him via e-mail at TMcKeon@countyofberks.com.
Special thanks to Tom for letting me share his story! Once a VISTA, always a VISTA!