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!
By Meaghan Tetro, Franklin & Marshall College
On Friday, February 23, 2018, I was able to attend a National Commission on Public, National, and Military service at the HACC Harrisburg Campus along with a few other members of the PACC cohort. At this event, there were 11 commissioners looking for input from the community about changes that should be made to selective service, and ideas for ways to engage young people in public service. Harrisburg was the first of 11 cities that the Commission will visit across the country, and the Commission plans to take the feedback it gains to make a recommendation to Congress and the Presidents by March of 2020.
At this event, there was an opportunity for people from the community to stand up and share reasons why they chose to serve. Many told their stories about why they chose to enlist in the Armed Forces. Others shared why they decided to dedicate a year of their lives to serving their community with AmeriCorps. Some spoke about the barriers faced when entering a service like AmeriCorps; the financial burden can prohibit someone who is already living in an impoverished community to continue to live in the “simulated poverty” that comes along with AmeriCorps positions. Myself and Brianna Pearson, PACC*VISTA at Alvernia University, had the opportunity to share our own thoughts with the commission as well.
Personally, I chose to share with the commission members that their recruitment presence on college and university campuses should drastically increase. With the rising cost of education, but no decline in necessity for higher education, making the right decision when it comes to schooling is more important than ever. The number of students who are about to leave college or high school — but are unsure about what to do next — is only going to increase. National service programs like AmeriCorps VISTA could be the perfect opportunity for these individuals because not only are they able to have hands-on interactions with their community and make real changes at a grassroots level, they are able to explore themselves personally and professionally, and have more direction when choosing what their next pursuit will be. If AmeriCorps advertised their programs more effectively on college campuses, they would see a huge increase in participation from young people.
Overall, it was exciting to have the opportunity to speak to members of the government who have opened their ears to the public. I enjoyed meeting up with some of my fellow VISTAs and hearing what they, and the greater Harrisburg community, had to offer to the commission. If you are interested in learning more about the mission and objectives of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, you can visit their website at inspire2serve.gov.
By Jamie Burnett, Wilson College
On Tuesday, February 27, 2018, PA/NYCC (New York Campus Compact) held a Supervisor Orientation in order to assist new and existing VISTA supervisors in understanding the goals, roles, and terms and conditions of CNCS, AmeriCorps*VISTA, and PA/NYCC. During this orientation, supervisors took part in learning their role in on-site orientation, ways they can promote and support positive mental health for VISTAs, the development of the VAD (VISTA Assignment Description), and how to recruit individuals for the position. PACC*VISTAs (Jamie Burnett, Danelle Wagner, Gina Nguyen, and Francis Miliano) attended the orientation to speak on a discussion panel for supervisors to hear their personal experiences in their role and advice that they have to further help supervisors provide support to their VISTAs.
Questions answered by these VISTAs included:
By Erin O’Neill, Allentown, PA
Blindly reaching for my phone to turn off the awful ringing sound that signaled it was time to wake up. I grabbed my phone and momentarily questioned why my alarm went off earlier than usual. I looked at the date and remembered today was our regional meetup. My groggy mood changed instantly. Eager to see my friends, I opened the weather app to gauge how many layers this cold December morning would require. The app opens to reveal the snowflake emoji. On any other day, I would have been overjoyed to see this symbol of icy roads, snow covered paths, and delayed work days. Today, I was the farthest from wanting to go back to bed. One of the best things about our PACC cohort is the connections and friendships we have been able to build with each other. I was determined to see Erin and my friends. My phone started to buzz uncontrollably confirming the others felt the same.
I read through the texts and ran down the hall to look outside. The roads in the area weren’t too bad and our meeting could still be held today. We all arrived safe at Northampton County Community College and ready to begin our meeting.
Erin began with a warm welcome and a brief overview of upcoming events and webinars. She then asked each of us to share updates of our projects. I spoke first and thanked both of them for attending the holiday party DeSales University hosted for the students in our tutoring program. I also was happy to share that my students at Raub Middle School have been accomplishing so many things so far this semester. My proudest moment was watching the boys from the autistic support class perform at the winter concert. They have been practicing how to play Jingle Bells and two other songs on the steel drums since last year, but have never performed in front of an audience. They did not make a single mistake and I could not have been prouder of them.
Desiree Ventureira, second year VISTA, went next and boasted of the success of her project, Hola Science. Hola Science hosts high school Latinas in the Allentown School District at Cedar Crest College and provides STEM education in a fun and interactive way. Hola Science’s most recent event, Totally Twilight was a hit for both the participants and the mentors. The girls were given a campus tour and were able to make a holiday themed stuff-a-plush! Desiree was also excited to deliver holiday treat bags to the girls at their high schools.
Katie Downing, a first year VISTA at Northampton County Community College, was slow to share her successes. She talked about her newfound relationship with the counselors and social workers at NCC. They were collaborating to bring a speaker to campus to discuss mental health and suicide awareness. She said she felt bad that she did not have more to share, and we were quick to assure her that it was okay.
I think it’s easy for those of us in year two or three of our projects to forget how much work previous VISTAs put in to see little in return. Erin reminded us that all of our projects have different goals and objectives. Each project should not and will not look the same so it’s useless to compare them.
Next, Erin took us through several activities, which included making a to do list, identifying things we can and cannot control, and working with the end goal in mind. These workshops helped all of us not only get a little more organized, but also provided visual guides and maps for each of us to use throughout the course of our projects.
We took a short break and reconvened to pose questions about the midyear report and express anxieties we were having. Erin probably explained the difference between volunteers recruited and volunteers managed about 8 times and we discussed sustainability for each of our projects. For Katie, she wants to continue developing strong relationships with the counselors and social worker at NCC as they are her best resources for her project’s focus area. On the other hand, Desiree and I are shifting to put more responsibility on our student volunteers to continue the project after our years of service are complete.
Our meeting time was coming to an end and Erin wanted all of us to end on a high note. Each of us shared one positive thing that has come from our projects. It was a nice sentiment for all of to reflect on our successes, no matter how small.
What a year 2017 has been! I want to start by sending all my love, appreciation and thanks to our cohort of PACC*VISTAs! I have never met a more caring, passionate, driven group. Thank you for all that you do each day, no matter what to make your communities a better place.
Second, I want to recap on what a great year we have had together so far! 2017 brought its fun, hard work, challenges and accomplishments for us all. As a cohort, we were able to come together in Harrisburg, PA with our supervisors for our Fall workshop. We got to experience our first Fall Retreat together at Gretna Glen Retreat Center. We were able to meet in small groups based on our particular region twice. We got to check-in on our Monthly Webinar Series, with special guests on each one. All while staying connected through social media, newsletters, emails and phone calls. We even got to participate in Secret Santa gift exchange! We have attended conferences, attended workshops, developed professionally, and made lasting strides for the capacity and sustainability of our projects.
Looking to 2018, I know this is just the beginning! I cannot wait to see what each VISTA accomplishes by the end of the service term. We look forward to more webinars, regional meet-ups and Retreats in the new year! We are excited to roll-out a new initiative of a Leadership Track within the cohort this month.
As you go into the new year, I encourage you to take the time to reflect on all you have accomplished and how all the little things have built up to where you are today. The challenges have made you stronger and smarter and the accomplishments have motivated and inspired. Remember why you decided to do this and don’t let anything stop you from getting it done!
Let’s make 2018 the best year yet!
It would be an understatement to say that I was ecstatic as I drove down the one lane entrance to Gretna Glen Camp and Retreat Center on that cool, crisp fall afternoon, on the first day of November. The heavily wooded forest was cloaked with the most vibrantly colorful leaves, that made you feel as though you had entered another world. Upon arrival, we were warmly greeted by Erin and Breanna, our fearless VISTA leader and fearless supervisor. As members of our cohort filtered in, one by one, I could hardly contain my excitement for this retreat. Spending time in the beautiful outdoors has always been refreshing for my soul. I was extremely excited and so looking forward to being in this wooded wonderland for the next three days. What I had not anticipated, or realized prior to the retreat, was how much the support and encouragement from my leaders and fellow cohort members would also refresh my soul. This retreat proved to be an extremely valuable experience in my VISTA journey. Not only was it educational, but it was restorative, and provided renewed strength to continue serving on.
I am a bit of a conference nerd, as I thoroughly enjoy attending workshops and learning new, and relevant things. There we so many wonderful, applicable presentations and discussions at the PACC fall retreat. Watching the documentary, Poverty Inc., challenged me to think about the service I do and to critically think about the implications and unintended consequences of some charitable work. I was excited to have VISTA, Caitlyn Bordon, speak about community asset mapping, as she was the year two VISTA at my institution. I have found spending time with her and talking about our service project to be extremely valuable. I appreciated Char’s presentation on service learning in higher education, as the office I work with does service projects on campus, and I also work with faculty to provide volunteer or “service” opportunities for students in certain classes. Former VISTA, Lisa Weaver, did a nice job discussing the process of managing up and how to effectively work our supervisors, which is something I think we all benefited from. Lastly, one of the most intriguing presentations was by Linda Arra, on developing our career story by exploring our character strengths, passions, and skills. I really enjoyed being able to talk about character strengths with fellow VISTA members and appreciated the insight this provided.
Not only did we have fantastic educational components to the fall retreat, but we also had so many valuable opportunities to work as a team, learn more about each other, and just have fun. The team scavenger hunt was one of my absolute favorite activities from the retreat. The project show and tell was another great opportunity to learn more about each other’s projects and to showcase the great work we all are doing. Aside from the many wonderful team building activities, we were able to talk, play games, go for walks, have a campfire, enjoy coffee on the deck, watch Wonder Woman (always a highlight), and keep deepening our ever growing bond with each other.
I have kept in contact with a few VISTAs from PSO and words cannot begin to describe how grateful I am for PACC, the support they provide, and our amazing cohort of VISTAs. Devoting a year to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA is no small feat, and having PACC and our cohort makes the great times unforgettable and the challenging times overcomable.
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