I have been assisting the campus-wide basic needs committee with educating faculty and staff about basic needs resources available on-campus and in the Pittsburgh region. I have also been able to provide recommendations to senior administration to promote the holistic well-being of the student population based on identified gaps and barriers between areas of need and current resource availability.
I think the most challenging thing COVID-19 brought to my VISTA terms is the lack of face-to-face interaction. I was ready to be in different rooms around campus meeting new people. I was ready to highlight the work that myself and others on campus are doing to meet our students’ basic needs. I was excited for VISTA retreats and being able to get to know the cohort more. I have taken advantage of several virtual events and conferences that have been held at Pitt and other institutions where I am able to chat with people. I have been able to join several groups like CCNYPAs Community of Practice where I get to listen, learn, and speak with other higher ed professionals. The VISTA Power UPP events have been great for getting to know the cohort better and learning more about their work. I think I have done my best making do with the opportunities I have been presented due to COVID-19.
Aside from the obvious transition to remote work I have taken a real leadership role as the “Student Affairs Basic Needs Expert”. It is a title my supervisors have told me to own, though I would not call myself an expert. Being known as the “expert” or basic needs info guy has helped build my confidence from year one to year two of VISTA. It has led me to many different opportunities to advocate and educate our community on the importance of meeting our students’ basic needs. I have seen myself take a positive step in owning the knowledge that I have with confidence, and not needing to second guess myself.
Ask for help whenever you need it and come prepared to listen and learn from all of those around you.
Hi everyone - my name is Mikaileigh (Mik) Baker (she/her[s]) and I am currently an AmeriCorps SerVermont VISTA in Vermont serving with Willing Hands as their second year Program Development VISTA. Willing Hands is a non-profit, charitable organization in the Upper Valley Region of Vermont and New Hampshire. Willing Hands works with 82 recipient organizations, many local farmers, and hundreds of volunteers to recover, donate, distribute, and deliver healthy, wholesome foods and collaborates with organizations to provide nutritional education.
In my time as a CCNYPA VISTA, I was a third year serving at Alvernia University working with the Berks County Department of Agriculture and B.A.R.N. as a Healthy Futures VISTA in 2018-19. My primary work was creating legacy documents for the organization that archived new and old processes for events, program logistics, and helpful information. I developed a county wide food resource guide that involved months of survey creation, performed data collection and analysis, and guided design creation that will eventually lead to an online version. Working on this project led to major internal growth and adaptability - there were several moving parts that, throughout the year, I needed to have a pulse on and be mindful of on behalf of the University, Department, and B.A.R.N., as well as, all the other entities I was in contact with.
My favorite part about serving in CCNYPA were the in-person retreats (sorry everyone.. I miss them too..) and being able to connect with VISTAs that I was not able to interact with otherwise. Shoutout to the ‘18-’19 cohort of beautiful humans now spread out doing amazing work! I greatly appreciated the amazing support systems I found in the organizations I served with and CCNYPA.
During my VISTA year I was multitasking throughout most of my time (shh!) as I was applying to the Peace Corps in my first half of the year and then preparing to leave (medical and criminal clearances) in September for Senegal. My time in Senegal was cut short due to COVID-19, but I communicate with the closest connections I made weekly, even through my deteriorating language skills and the agricultural, cultural, and social knowledge gained has been invaluable. While Senegal is culturally male dominated, I had wonderful females to lean on - my two amazing CIFs (cultural and integration facilitators), Adji and Awa, who helped me acclimate in my permanent site of Koussanar, Tambacounda and my patient work counterpart, Fatoumata. I cannot stress enough that the ability to be adaptable and self-advocating in any environment is crucial. I had to do this everyday while living in Senegal while still learning the language to effectively communicate.
In my fourth year post grad, it is only now that I am starting to clarify what interests me and the path I would like to take. I did my CCNYPA year because I knew I would gain more knowledge and skills and strengthen the ones I already had (I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but that is beside the point), which turned out to be a solid choice when applying for the Peace Corps - a resume boost with alum everywhere. Network, network, network. It will be surprising who you meet and how they will play a role in your next endeavor.
If you are thinking about doing a year (or even a second year) of service with CCNYPA, do it. You can’t go wrong with gaining more experience and potentially doing something outside of your comfort zone and you’ll have a safety net along the way - remember to budget your income and use the free resources because they are FREE.
Enjoy your year, it’s yours!
As a first-generation college student, I overcame several hurdles that I thought were impossible to conquer when it came to my education. I had no one to confide in or guide me through my undergraduate years, so I am proud to not just serve as a VISTA but most importantly serve beyond that and inspire youth to take advantage of all the opportunities presented to them. This mindset has really excited youth to not just look forward to high school, but way beyond that-- which has most definitely made my VISTA project more rewarding. With all this being said, it is safe to say that I am passionate about 1. Serving and 2. Being a mentor for youth.
One of the many things I am incredibly proud of is how often I am emailed about my project and what we stand for. We have grown a lot since my 1st year as a VISTA and it seems to me that our commitment and dedication has reached many ears in the community I serve. This small milestone seemed impossible at first because of the lack of communication with the community we were trying to target. At first it seemed that many were simply not interested but with the help of my amazing supervisors and their own dedication to educate, I have been able to thrive in my VISTA project day in and day out.
To all my fellow VISTAs, thank you for your devoted commitment to serve others during these unprecedented times. As a year 2, many things have certainly changed, but without doubt we have all ROCKED it. Much love and appreciation.
My name is Rachel Bowden. I am a Year 2 VISTA working at the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I work in healthy futures and food insecurity so I take on a few different roles at the campus. I oversee the 6 campus pantries to ensure they are bringing in healthy options, abundant amounts of food to feed our students, and are offering SNAP information, nutrition information, and additional benefits. My day-to-day job consists of helping recruit volunteers for the pantries, offering cooking classes, creating additional partnerships, and applying for grants.
I received a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Penn State and am currently working towards my Masters in Public Health so this VISTA position is perfect for my professional and personal interests. I chose to enter the field of public health and serve as a healthy futures VISTA to advocate for the millions of people living in the United States that are uninsured, facing life threatening illnesses, or simply don’t have access to adequate health care/resources. I love spending time with my family, boyfriend, friends, and dog and exploring Pittsburgh. On the weekends you can find me hiking, cooking, or tailgating for a Steelers or Penn State game.
Gift Giving Style
My gift giving style varies depending on who I’m buying for. I tend to splurge a little on my boyfriend and close family but I make sure I do so reasonably. I like to plan ahead for them so that I can look out for sales on Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Small Business Saturday as well as having time to save up some money. I also really like to go along with their interests so I know it’s a gift they’ll love and use. My brother loves to run and there are so many small, meaningful things you can buy for runners. My boyfriend loves to grill and have people over on the weekends so I decided to get him a smoker this year. I planned this gift a few months back and was able to find a great sale on Black Friday. As for my friends, they love when I find their favorite local product or when I make something myself. In previous years we’ve even done a secret Santa gift exchange so that we don’t feel obligated to buy for everyone. We make a whole evening out of it with wine and Christmas cookies and it always goes over well! This year I decided to make them little gift baskets with all local products that I know they’ll love! I really recommend exploring your city or town to see what is available, you’ll be surprised! Some of my favorites in Pittsburgh are:
“Simply You,” a homemade candle and soap company (for the friends and family who love self-care)
“Steel City Salt Company,” a flavored salt and seasoning company (for the friends and family who love to cook)
“Steel City Apparel,” a clothing company (for the friends and family who love to rep their team and city)
BONUS “Grounds and Hounds,” a coffee company that donates 20% of their proceeds to local animal shelters (for the friends and family who love coffee and love their pets).
People really love knowing that you found something that coincides with their interests while also supporting local companies!
I can’t tell you an exact budget when planning for the holidays because everyone has different expenses and people that they are shopping for. I will tell you that it is crucial to sit down and write out a budget. Whether you do this 3 months in advance or the week before Christmas, I think it is critical to have a plan to avoid going in blind and spending too much money. If you plan ahead, it makes it a lot easier to set a little aside each pay period so that you’re still living comfortable up until the holidays. My brother, sister-in-law, and I also tend to all go in on something for my mom or close family. This is definitely something to consider if you really want to spoil someone but need a little assistance to do so. Last Year vs. This Year
Last year I didn’t create a budget and went in completely blind. This resulted in being in a tight financial position for a few weeks after the holidays and causing some unnecessary stress. I felt obligated to get my family gifts, my friends, my boyfriend’s family, my coworkers, etc and it just wasn’t feasible. Creating a budget and making a list ahead of time was a huge stress relief this year and I’m so glad I decided to take time out of my day to plan it all out. The holiday season is stressful enough without additional financial stress.
Biggest Piece of Advice
My biggest piece of advice to a new VISTA is not to put yourself in a tight financial position just because you feel the need to buy expensive gifts. Your friends and family UNDERSTAND. They respect what you do as a VISTA and no one expects anything. They’d much rather receive something personalized or homemade and hear about how you’re making a difference in your community. Homemade gifts go a LONG WAY because people know you put time into it and it’s personalized. Really play off of your skills. If you can paint, paint an ornament, if you can bake, bake them some cookies or another holiday dessert! At the end of the day, your family and friends care more about seeing you, spending time with you, and knowing you’re healthy and safe (this year more than ever) than they care about receiving a gift. Happy Holidays!
My name is Hannah Berling, and I have been a Student Life Specialist at Mercy College in New York since 2016 after finishing my Masters in Higher Education in Student Affairs from Salem State University. One of the largest parts of my role at Mercy outside of overseeing Student Life activities at our Manhattan Campus, is to oversee our three Mav Market food and resource pantries across our three campuses (Dobbs Ferry, Bronx, & Manhattan). When we opened our first Mav Market location three years ago at our Bronx campus, myself and my supervisor, Felipe Henao, knew that we could not do this work alone. This was especially true as we planned to expand to the other campuses. When we discovered the VISTA program, we applied and put a focus on getting a VISTA with a strong passion for fighting food insecurity. We were able to get our first VISTA, Mary, on with us. Mary came in with a background in food insecurity and food sustainability work and was able to jump right in and help streamline processes and build a foundation for the Mav Market. Mary now serves as the 2020-2021 CCNYPA VISTA Leader, but her passion & hard work for two years with us has carried on to our current VISTA, Julie, who is working hard to pivot the markets where needed in these unique times while also putting her touch and influence into it.Supervising both of these wonderful VISTAs has been such a rewarding experience for me. As a young professional, the chance to work with our VISTAs has given me the opportunity to grow as a leader of professional staff and to help the VISTAs in return see their potential to make change not only on college campuses, but in society as a whole.
We are in a unique position here at Mercy as we have three campuses, but I primarily only work out of the Manhattan Campus. Our VISTAs visit all of the campuses, but live at our Dobbs Ferry location and do a bulk of their work between Dobbs Ferry and the Bronx. This distance between us has allowed me to build my communication styles and problem solving skills as we navigate the challenges and successes of the VISTA project. Scheduled weekly check-ins are accompanied by daily texts, calls, or Zoom meetings in order to make sure our VISTA feels supported and open to asking questions, even if we are not physically together as much. Having VISTAs come in who are change-makers, who want to work in the nonprofit sector, and who are strong relationship-builders makes supervising them a bit easier, as the passion runs deep and translates into everything they do.
My best advice for supervising a VISTA is to establish what your relationship will look like from the beginning. Our project site is on-campus, so we are not working with an outside member agency. I have been able to build a great relationship with both of our VISTAs because we are all working towards the same goal: to improve the lives of our students.
Firstly, start having conversations about the work culture of your institution: find out what your VISTAs leadership style is and what they look for in a leader/supervisor, chat about what modes of communication work best for them, and where they think they may need the most support. We start asking some of these questions in the interview process because we would never want to put someone in the uncomfortable position of rarely being together in person or bouncing between campuses if they are not okay with that. Secondly, establish how often your VISTA wants to meet and how formal or informal those meetings will be. We want our VISTAs to have autonomy and feel like they are leaving their names on the project. In addition to just chatting over tasks at hand, we make it a point to discuss projects that our VISTA wants to pursue within the project, checking in on how things are going personally, and chatting about future endeavors and what can be done in our project to help build applicable skills. Through this style of supervision, our VISTAs have been able to do incredibly successful work. Mary built the foundation for our markets and established effective processes and did amazing work to get us to a place where we could assist members with other basic needs services beyond just food security. Julie has been able to have great success in doing all the pivoting we have needed to continue providing services during a pandemic, and has worked on a great holiday food program to provide extra holiday help during a particularly trying year.
2020 has certainly been an interesting year. We have been lucky at Mercy in that supervising remotely is not uncommon for us because of our set-up. Ultimately, communication is key-- knowing what type of communication works best for you and your VISTA will help drive the mission of your project forward. Wellness checks are also particularly important now as this is a very draining time for professionals and burnout is very possible, it is important when supervising during a pandemic to know that everyone processes this hectic time differently, but if you have the communication in place, your systems and your VISTA can still thrive. I would certainly encourage higher education institutions to design a project and recruit a VISTA, as this is an excellent opportunity for any college or university, and allowed our food & resource pantry to flourish in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise!
Written by Carly Auchey, AmeriCorps VISTA at Gettysburg College
Back to my Roots
If anyone told me a year ago that I’d be living in a small rural town (which happens to be close to my hometown) and working on a farm, I would have laughed. That’s just not me. To be fair, I also wouldn’t have believed anything about an unprecedented pandemic, murder hornets, or many other things that have happened so far this year. But here I am, in a year of firsts getting back to my roots.
My name is Carly Auchey (she/her/hers), and I am a Healthy Futures VISTA serving at Gettysburg College in collaboration with Casa de la Cultura. My project involves encouraging participation in current programming and (hopefully) promoting new programming related to nutrition, health, and wellness to the Latinx population here in Adams County. After four years of studying Social Work and Spanish near Philadelphia, including an eye-opening study abroad experience in Mexico, I knew that I wanted my career to involve social justice and the Latinx population. As graduation got closer and the reality of COVID-19 set in, I kept going back to stories I had heard through various internships with AmeriCorps VISTA.
Fast forward to now and I am beyond thrilled to be a part of this project. While many VISTAS (and other professionals alike) are navigating the world of virtual and online engagement, I am thankful for an opportunity to engage with families in person; even if it is with masks and from a distance. This in-person venue is la Granja de la Tortuga Pintada (the Painted Turtle Farm). While my project doesn’t relate to farm management or anything like that, the farm has become one of my favorite places to be.
“La Tortuga” as most of the families call it, is a community garden above anything else. The disappointment over the lack of the community aspect has come up in almost every conversation I’ve had with families about what they like most about the farm and how it is different this year. Let me explain the well-oiled machine that is la Tortuga. When you first walk in, you will see 26 family plots; these are raised beds where families pick culturally appropriate plants that they want to care for and harvest throughout the season. Families care for their “parecelas” (plots) on Monday or Wednesday nights to abide by social distancing. I spend these evenings working with families in their plots, talking about vegetables, favorite recipes, why I was there on the farm, their kids going back to school, what they’d like to see in the community, and honestly anything else that came up.
Moving on from the family plots, you will then see the herb boxes. In these seven boxes, we grow cilantro, parsley, tea, dill, pepicha (Mexican herb), oregano, and other herbs for the community to use. Past the herb boxes, you’ll find “the big plot.” It is deemed so because this is the plot that is in constant rotation of planting and harvesting to fill Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) bags. On Wednesdays, we harvest. This is when students and other volunteers harvest and record what plants are ready to fill CSA shares. These CSA shares are what fund the seeds for the family plots for the season. CSA members get these bags from harvest once a week, every other week, or once a month. The bags are typically overflowing with so many naturally grown veggies and herbs depending on the time of year. When I joined the team in July, bags were filled with zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes (of various kinds), basil, kale, Swiss chard, various peppers, and more.
I can’t forget the hoop house! This structure houses too many kinds of tomatoes to count, poblano peppers, habaneros, green peppers, eggplants, and more. The farm is filled with flowers to attract bees and other good insects to help the plants.
What I love about the farm is that it’s not just about growing food; it’s about fostering relationships and a sense of community across lines of difference that often seem insurmountable. Not only am I getting back to my roots, but I’m creating new ones in ways I never would have imagined!
Check out Carly's latest video below that she created for Casa de la Cultura about Healthy Options!
By Mary Sherman, CCNYPA VISTA Leader
Hello! My name is Mary Sherman (she/her) and I am serving as the VISTA Leader at Campus Compact of New York and Pennsylvania. I recently had the opportunity to speak during a National AmeriCorps VISTA webinar focusing on Resiliency and Service Wellness, where I was able to share some of my insight and experiences on serving in the midst of a pandemic. The webinar was hosted by Ginlin Woo, a VISTA alum from 1968 - 1972, as well as a teacher, facilitator, curriculum designer, educational planner, mentor and coach. Daysha Humphrey, VISTA Leader at the Maroon Volunteer Center at Mississippi State, also shared her care strategies and how she was able to navigate being a VISTA in the middle of COVID-19. If you weren't able to catch the live webinar, you can find a recording here or on the VISTA Campus website!
We were asked to consider cultural protective factors that ground us as we navigate life, and immediately I thought of food and cooking. I find great comfort in creating things with my hands; growing up, my family held many traditions surrounding cooking and eating (just ask my lovely partner about the 2-day affair lovingly dubbed “Cookie Day” where my cousins and I spend hours making over 200 dozen cookies for friends and family). Thinking a bit deeper about this, I realized that this love for cooking stems from my love for sharing my passions with those around me. Not being able to share this love in the ways that I was familiar with was very difficult at the onset of the pandemic, especially living in New York City while I had friends across the Northeast. I realized I was missing my friends, my family, and colleagues, so I made the intentional effort to reach out and just set up times to chat. We had virtual happy hours, played phone games against each other, and just set time aside to chat and play with those goofy video chat filters on Facebook. This energy from them was so crucial to me being able to live in the epicenter and get through the apex of the pandemic. It was and continues to be so important for me to reach out and take that initiative to stay connected with my loved ones, and so if you’re sitting here with someone on your mind that you haven’t reached out to in a while, text or call them today. Nothing special, just a simple “hello”, and I promise it will make a world of a difference for both of you. I’ve shared a few photos of some of the best people in my life (certainly not exhaustive, but you can get a taste!)
I also spoke about my service adjustments as a VISTA member serving at Mercy College. Reflecting on the challenges that came out of the pandemic, it made me realize how resilient I am as a human being but more so thankful for the incredible support system I had around me-- both at CCNYPA and at Mercy College. To my fellow VISTAs, past and present, please know that you have done an incredible job, regardless as to whether or not every point on your VAD was checked-off. Continue to bring your passion into everything you do, but care for yourself first. What you have done is the best you could have possibly done given the circumstances, remember to always show yourself kindness and to move forth in wellness. Together through healing can we bring power to ourselves and those around us. Only then may we strive alongside our community towards success and make a positive change.
By Chelsea Lienhard, CCNYPA*VISTA Leader
As we all know, the month of February is dedicated towards the celebration of contributions and achievements had by African Americans throughout the history of the United States. As a jumpstart to Black History Month, we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. day in January with a day of national service. Although this is a federal holiday observed by many corporations, organizations, and employers by having the day off, the Corporation for National and Community Service calls for citizens to make it “a day on, not a day off” by performing some type of volunteer service. Our duty as an AmeriCorps VISTA member was to do just that. From what was gathered, the CCNYPA cohort:
Participated in neighborhood cleanups, chipped in at their local food pantries, assisted in daily tasks at animal rescues, volunteered through MLK Day events hosted at their universities/colleges, and engaged in many more ways
Engaged with over 1000 volunteers at their selected events
Served 75+ HOURS
I think Martin Luther King Jr. would be very proud and honored to see how this day commemorates him and his legacy! This holiday is the perfect segue way into Black History Month. The annual month-long observance began as a way of remembering important leaders and events in the history of African Americans. Did you know tt actually only used to be a week-long celebration? It was called “Negro History Week” and was created in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson. Did you know these little-known facts about Black History Month?
How did you honor and celebrate Black History Month?
By Chelsea Lienhard, CCNYPA*VISTA Leader
Can you believe it? We are at the halfway mark of the 2019-2020 service year! Time flies by when you’re having fun and making a difference, right? To the CCNYPA*VISTAs-- you all deserve a huge pat on the back for making it halfway through your year of service because it surely is a feat.
As we trek along through the month of January and the start of a new semester at our host sites, I request that you take the time to truly reflect on the past six months. Think about the highs and lows, the insights after introducing a new idea or making a change, and most importantly, remind yourself of all the successes you’ve had thus far. It may seem like you are not doing much or making an impact some days, but just know that you are, and it does not go unnoticed! Here are some highlights and successes from fellow CCNYPA*VISTA members:
Overall, many of you have strengthened your career desires and passions due to the work you are accomplishing with your projects these past 6 months. You’ve gained confidence and motivation boosts, whether that was because you are a returning member and are feeling more sure of yourself or because of the successes and experiences you’ve had so far. Always keep those accomplishments in mind and don’t forget the little things!
By Jenna Paiano, CCNYPA*VISTA serving at Cabrini University
With the holiday season approaching, our college campuses are probably starting to slow down as students prepare for finals and break. However, we still have deadlines to meet, goals to accomplish and forms to submit for our projects. This may come with a bit of difficulty and stress.
That difficulty may linger into our everyday work and the relationships we have with our co-workers, students, and supervisors. While it is important to have a strong work-life/personal life balance, unideal situations at work can have a negative impact on our personal lives. Below are three tips for dealing with tough work situations.
1. Treat the difficulties as an opportunity for growth
The work that we do each and every day at our host sites is not very glamorous. We are constantly dealing with large projects, lack of resources, and the issue of always being mistaken as a student or an intern. With all of those issues, the last thing one wants to deal with is a conflict with a co-worker, volunteer, or supervisor. Instead of approaching the problem with a “why is this happening to me?” angle, look at it as a “how can I use this issue as a chance to grow?” opportunity. Reframing the problems into positives can help find a quicker, more concrete solution. Does it make the issue less difficult? Absolutely not. But, it is a productive, immediate response to the problem at hand.
2. View the issue from the other person’s perspective
Sometimes, in both our work and personal life, we tend to get very wrapped up in the “me” problems. I have a program to run and when *person* does *thing*I can’t get my work done the way that I want it completed. While, yes, you have a particular structure for your work and you have certain expectations for it, that is not always going to be the final result. Things happen, plans change, and you need to adapt to that situation. The person that you are having this problem with might also have a particular way of operating, or maybe they had a certain upbringing or trauma in their past that doesn’t allow them to complete work as easily. Try to consider other perspectives before assuming that they are making your life harder on purpose.
3. Take time away from the office as needed
I cannot stress this point enough: use your personal and medical days as much as possible. Yes, work is important, but your personal and mental health is more important. How could you possibly give your project your best effort if you are not feeling 100% you? Utilize your calendar and schedule in breaks as needed. Especially with the holiday season right around the corner, it is crucial that you take advantage of every day out of the office and “chill” workday as possible. Your body and your mental health will thank you.
It is unrealistic to assume that every office problem will go away when you have a positive mindset in place, but it definitely doesn’t hurt. Be sure to contact Chelsea, Danelle or Lucio if you are having problems at your host site that are larger than you can handle.
Welcome to the CCNYPA*VISTA Blog, written for VISTAs, by VISTAs!