Hello everyone! My name is Julie Cruickshank (she/her/hers), and I am the Program Coordinator of the Mav Market, Mercy College’s food and resource pantry. As a third-year VISTA, the goal of my project is to continue to reduce food insecurity across our three campuses by providing students with access to nutritious food, snacks, and toiletry items. I maintain the operations of our campus pantries in the Bronx and Dobbs Ferry, as well as provide one-on-one basic needs support to students.
Share a few things about yourself, why did you decide to serve? What are you passionate about?
Jumping into year three of this project during a pandemic was challenging, but it was ultimately the uncertain state of the world that drove me to serve in the first place. Looking back on this year of service, I am happy that I was able to serve within this community during such an unpredictable time, with the support of a wonderful supervisor whose own passions for this project helped continue to drive our mission forward all year long. I also have the privilege of being surrounded by food most days, which really fuels my passion for cooking (and eating).
How would you describe project sustainability? Why is it important to you & your host site organization?
As a third year VISTA, the focus of your project shifts to how the needs of your community will continue to be met after your departure. I think of successful project sustainability as the ability to strengthen multiple pillars of your project’s framework, including program, human, and financial capacity. VISTA projects may build frameworks from the ground-up, but they are temporary assignments. Starting conversations about sustainability with your host site early on is important to get the ball rolling for a successful post-VISTA plan. The goal is to continue the momentum that has built up within the first three years and transfer the project into capable hands, whether they belong to staff, organization, or community members. Much like taking the training wheels off your kid’s bike (I would imagine), knowing that they have the capacity to succeed without your direct support.
What are some actions you’re taking to ensure your project can be sustained after VISTA?
The details of sustainability look different to different projects! At Mercy College, we have recently transitioned our campus pantry forms onto a new platform, which will centralize the documents and allow multiple individuals within the institution to access them. This will be beneficial if someone new must step in and oversee pantry operations in the future, and provides an opportunity to further integrate our food security resources with other Mercy College support teams -- a productive step towards creating a multifaceted support system for student basic needs insecurities!
It has also been helpful to involve organizational leaders into the conversation and present relevant data or host training sessions to inform a wider audience of our project’s purpose. Presenting data that we’ve gathered on basic needs insecurities has helped demonstrate the importance of our project’s long-term sustainability to those outside of our department. We’ve also been offering training courses to any staff or faculty member who would like to learn more about basic needs resources. Spreading our project knowledge campus-wide helps ensure that as an institution, we can all collectively continue to touch as many lives as possible, even after the VISTA service term has ended.
One last action I’ve taken to prepare my host site for my departure is making sure that our legacy documents are up to date. Simple “how to” guides uploaded to a shared drive can act as quick training materials for future employees, and will help remotely transfer any knowledge, materials, and institutional relationships. While the exact future of the project may remain uncertain, I’ve found that the key seems to be keeping an open mind and brainstorming multiple pathways towards the desired end result. While it is uncertain whether a new full-time staff member will be funded by the institutional budget, a generous community donor, or replaced by a robust team of student staff and volunteers, it’s all about initiating the conversations early on and maintaining both creativity and persistence.
What would you hope to see happen to your project in 5 years time?
In five years, I would love to see our Mav Markets continuing to thrive on all three campuses, as well as a strong foundation in place to provide a complete support package to students experiencing basic needs insecurities. The creation of a new role altogether, such as a Basic Needs Coordinator, would provide specialized and multi-faceted support to the entire student population of Mercy College. Having a basic needs expert present to act as the liaison between other departments, such as the counseling and mentor teams, would open the door to a fully integrated and deeply connected network of student support. I would also love to see the overall rates of basic needs insecurities continue to decrease campus-wide!
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone in a first or second year project?
There will be successes, but there will also be setbacks! Roll with punches and try to find just as much value in the tasks that fall flat as you do in your achievements. Serving as a VISTA during this pandemic has taught me that some level of uncertainty in the future of your project is inevitable, and adaptability is more important than knowing exactly how something will turn out before you start. Stay flexible, optimistic, and open to learning -- both through the ups and the downs. You’ve got this!
Welcome to the CCNYPA*VISTA Blog, written for VISTAs, by VISTAs!