By Jourdan Harris, PACC*VISTA at Susquehanna University
You know when you were a kid and adults always told you those words of wisdom that you never believed? Like, “Time goes so much faster when you’re older – enjoy every moment now.” Or one of my personal favorites, “Don’t be in a rush to grow up – being an adult isn’t that exciting!”
Well as I started my first year serving as a PACC*AmeriCorps VISTA at Susquehanna University, I knew that the saying about the pace of change in the nonprofit world is slower causing it to be frustrating at times, but as a young, enthusiastic professional I, of course, didn’t believe it. And as you probably guessed, I was wrong… change in nonprofit work does go slow no matter how much you want it to speed up. But through this journey serving with PACC, I also learned its always worth it.
Let’s go back 463 days ago – yes I counted – to the first day of service at my project. My project is a partnership between Susquehanna University and the Regional Engagement Center in Snyder County, Pennsylvania. The Regional Engagement Center (REC) is a multigenerational community center founded in 2016 to break down barriers in a rural area and provide easily accessible resources such as positive social opportunities for youth. To better understand the need in the community, we spend a lot of time examining research such as the Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS). The survey looks at 6th, 8th, 10th, and 12th graders’ behaviors, knowledge, and attitudes in regards to alcohol, tobacco, other drugs and violence. For Snyder County, the 2015 survey found that the top 3 risk factors are: student believing there isn’t a risk with drug use, having a low commitment to school, and believe their parent’s don’t care if they use drugs or alcohol. The survey also looked at protective factors that keep students from participating in drugs, alcohol or violence. Most importantly to us, the lowest protective factors for students are little school opportunity for positive social involvement and little community reward for positive social involvement. Knowing this and that only 26% of students are involved in activities in Snyder County supported the need for the Regional Engagement Center’s and the project’s focus on youth programs.
After learning about the need in the community and the mission of the REC, I was beyond excited to start working on youth programs! There was just one problem… The center wasn’t completed yet. The building, formally a church that sustained an interior fire, hadn’t even started being renovated. When I arrived, the building was striped down to its wood framing and consisted of a very large hole in the 3rd floor where the fire had been. Even with my tiny amount of knowledge on construction, I knew it was going to be awhile before the REC’s doors opened. So I spent the majority of the next year researching different youth programs, surveying the community, and meeting with other local organizations to make sure we were ready as soon as the doors opened. Through these meetings, many partnerships were developed.
That brings me to 395 days ago – no, the REC didn’t open… But we did have our first day of programming! The Teen Leadership Club was developed to reach 7th through 12th graders who are at a greater risk for engaging in drugs, alcohol, and violence. Once a week the Teen Leadership Club meets to participate in activities that will help them develop the knowledge, skills, and understanding necessary to be an effective leader. Then the Teen Leaders are given an opportunity to apply these skills in the community. The program was originally created as a way to reach local youth before the REC was open and to help shape the REC to fit what local youth felt was needed. However, over the last 395 days, the Teen Leadership Club has become so much more. Fifteen local teens have attended the program every week and have become a part of the fabric of the REC. The Teen Leaders held a book drive that collected over 700 books for the REC, participated in mentoring with Susquehanna University students, and helped develop Teen Nights and a Café at the REC through the Teen Business Innovation Zone program.
By January – 289 days ago – the Teen Leaders and I were extremely excited to here that construction has officially begun! The amount of support the center received from local businesses was beyond our greatest imagination. And just 68 days ago, construction was completed and the REC received their occupancy permit! All that was left to do was move in the donated pool tables, foosball table, air hockey table, musical instruments, board games, crafts, tables, and chairs!
And finally, 22 days ago the REC opened its doors. Since opening, the REC has offered a free after school program for students in 3rd through 12th grade. Every day, we have 30 or more local children come to the after school program to get homework assistance from Susquehanna University volunteers, play games, and just have a space after school. The Teen Leadership Club hosted their first Teen Night in which 25 teens came to play games, paint pumpkins, and watch Halloween movies. The Teen Leaders also opened their Teen Business Innovation Zone project, the Café, to sell snack and drinks during the after school program while developing an understand of how a small business runs, learning different soft job skills and using their leadership skills.
As the REC gets more established, we hope to expand the resources that can be offered to the community. The REC’s dream plans include a summer camp, a preschool, a food pantry, cooking classes, fitness classes, and health and wellness classes through a partnership with local hospitals. And so while yes I was wrong, you can’t speed things up no matter how much you try, I also learned that sometimes that ok. Through the last 463 days, the REC has recreated a foundation for a successful future that I couldn’t be more thankful to be a part of through PACC*AmeriCorps and Susquehanna University. With my remaining 267 days, I look forward to learning more words of wisdom that indeed are true and seeing the REC continue to impact the community in great ways.
By Gina Nguyen, Reading, PA
It was a brisk Monday morning at the Franciscan Roman Catholic institution, Alvernia University, where the VISTAs gathered for the first Reading Regional Meeting.
Rachel Lillo, myself, Rhiannon Jacobs, Briana Pearson, Melody Dillee, Daisy Porrazzo, and our leader, Erin Sullivan, assembled at the Holleran Center Conference Room in Bernardine Hall.
As I poured myself a cup of scorching hot coffee, Erin began the meeting with a warm VISTA welcome, sharing with us the morning agenda.
Rachel spoke first, eager to share her perspectives from Albright College. As a year one VISTA, she devotes her time to the 13th Street Educational Partnership. She recruits Albright students to volunteer their time at Northeast Middle School with hopes to increase writing and math skills. Rachel aspires to motivate students to strive toward education, attend college, and pursue a career that would result in decreased poverty levels in the Reading area.
As a Penn State Berks alumna, I am serving as the first year PEPP VISTA on the Berks campus with the education initiative, PEPP (Penn State Educational Partnership Program). PEPP is an afterschool tutoring and mentoring program that operates within the five Reading School District sites.
Similar to Rachel’s initiative, I recruit Penn State Berks college students to serve as PEPP Learning Assistants, or PLAs, to work directly one-on-one with the Reading students. In addition to PLA recruitment, I develop and establish mechanisms and protocols to assist with the retention process at each site.
Also serving at the Berks campus is Rhiannon, a year two VISTA. As the Community Development Specialist for the Be Bold Take Charge (BBTC) initiative, Rhiannon is working to “address root causes of poor health in the City of Reading.” She explains that BBTC seeks to create transformational change, focusing on social determinants of health such as economic development, food access, and nutrition education.
Briana and Melody both serve at Alvernia University. Briana, or Bri, the Tyson-Schoener Educational Outreach Coordinator, facilitates the afterschool program for first and second-grade. She mobilizes Alvernia student employees and volunteers to work for the program and assists in planning logistics with the school.
Similar to Bri’s responsibilities, Alvernia-Millmont Educational Partnership Program Manager, Melody, manages the Millmont Elementary School site and has approximately 40 Alvernia students who help tutor and engage in fun, educational activities with the Millmont students.
“I look forward to collaborating with the other VISTAs in the Reading area to expand the reach of my project and create a bigger impact in the community,” she says.
Second year VISTA, Daisy, Alvernia University alumna, also serves at Alvernia. She assists the Berks Department of Agriculture and Berks Agriculture Resource Network, also known as B.A.R.N., to host events such as Harvest Fest and the Bountiful Berks Banquet.
Daisy is currently in the midst of rebranding the Bountiful Berks logo with hopes that local farmers, producers, and vendors will utilize the logo to support themselves as well as others. Additionally, she researches and helps with the Bountiful Berks’ social media and plans on launching it using the hashtag, #bountifulberks.
“I’m also helping at Bog Turtle Creek Farm with whatever is needed,” Daisy adds, “primarily guidance and helping with a possible kick off Food Pantry at Alvernia.”
In this moment, we realized we shared more similarities than differences. Through some serious and not-so-serious discussions, the six of us shared laughter, advice, and words of encouragement for one another.
As a result, we have come to the conclusion that it is most important to support each other in all future endeavors, care for our own health and well-being first, and be honest and speak your mind.
In the words of Helen Keller, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
By: Nicolette Epifani, Philadelphia, PA
On Wednesday, October 18th, PACC VISTAs from the Philly area got together in the very place where their journey as a cohort first began – Drexel University’s Lindy Center for Civic Engagement. There were three universities represented – Drexel University (myself), the University of Pennsylvania (Jaz and Janae), and West Chester University (Gabby).
Our fearless VISTA Leader, Erin, started the meeting in the best way possible – with homemade pumpkin bread! Beyond the delicious treats, she created a space of loosely guided activities that sparked natural discussion. This meeting gave us the time to catch up with each other informally, find touchpoints for connection, and express our trials and tribulations thus far.
Throughout the session, we voiced concerns we were having at our site and received feedback on how to navigate them and move forward. While a VISTA year may bring challenges, it also presents many rewarding and exciting opportunities – a fact that was evident to us all, even this early in the game. Erin guided us through an activity that encouraged us to talk about what parts of our projects are currently going well or which opportunities for growth we were hopeful for.
So often we refer to one another as a “VISTA” (a title I am proud of!) with so much focus on our specific projects, but it was nice to have a meetup like this where we could pause and appreciate one another as fellow young, female professionals. We each talked about some of our passions outside of our project or our goals for after this year of service.
Overall, the regional meetup in University City was a success, and we are all looking forward to seeing one another again soon at the next one!
P.S. Erin – if you have any leftover pumpkin bread, I’m sure we won’t mind you dumping it on us again
Lots of VISTA love,
By: Desiree Ventureira, Allentown, PA
In our region which is Allentown, we have three vistas working at three different college campuses which are, North Hampton Community College, DeSales University, and Cedar Crest College. Our first visit was hosted by DeSales University, home of the Bulldogs, located in Center Valley, PA. When I first arrived I was greeted by lots of open fields and cozy campus feel, and complete confusion on where the building Mcshae was, but its okay I got through it. Erin O’Neil the VISTA that hosted the meet up greeted me with the familiar friendly smile I knew. She than gave us a mini tour of the building which is also their student center. To the left there was pool tables and TVs, to the right there was a mini café (that made me salivate a little) and in front of us was a giant showcase of some plaques and trophies highlighting DeSales. What was amazing to see was the charter inside the show case for Alpha Phi Omega, the community service fraternity on campus, with Erin’s name listed as a founding member! We then got to hangout in Erin’s office for a little while we waited for the last VISTA, Katie, to arrive. The office space was filled with great scents and lots of paintings which gave it a not so “office feel”. We than took some time to discuss some apple pie recipes and when we all started to get a little hungry Erin (our vista leader) told us that she brought us brownies as a silver lining. We then went into a conference room and disused our current vista situations, challenges, and how we can work together and utilize each other. After the meeting, brownies, and many tortilla chips with salsa the room felt a little less tense and a little more lite. I feel that this regional meet up made me and the girls realize that we are not alone in the feelings we share and it helped us discover new ways on how we could use each other as a balance to many of those problems. By the end of the day we even discussed how we are going to create a “Community Conference Day” during the spring semester which can bring all of our service projects and ideas together in one setting. It was really great to be able to get out of the office and my regular work routine to meet up with friends and just come back to reality that we are not alone during the hardships we endure. What I took away from this experience was the feeling of togetherness and how I have come to love the people in our cohort because there is nothing but unique ideas, good vibes and endless support from everyone. What I appreciate the most is that even when you can’t see the finish line for yourself this cohort adjusts your glasses and runs with you to the end, and that’s something special.
By: Francis Miliano, Harrisburg/Lancaster, PA