Did you know that Earth Force has several employees who are AmeriCorps VISTA members? It’s true! In fact, I, myself, am one such employee.
VISTA, an acronym for Volunteers in Service to America, actually predates AmeriCorps. It was established under President Lyndon B. Johnson and incorporated into AmeriCorps during theClinton administration. VISTAs work to fight poverty in theUnited States, while boosting the capacity of deserving organizations, and several have chosen to do so throughout the years at Earth Force. In addition to myself, we have two other VISTAs this year: Dan Brown, my Philadelphia counterpart, and Taylor Moulton, who works for Earth Force in D.C. For many people, committing an entire year to service as aVISTA helps them to dig deep into important and complex poverty issues while also gaining work experience in the nonprofit sector.
But working on poverty issues in this capacity can feel like a roller coaster at times, experienced first in the wages we earn. VISTA salaries are only 110% of the poverty line, an intentional AmeriCorps decision that was made so we can better understand the living circumstances of the populations with which we work. I’ve become accustomed to waiting in line at the county assistance office to get my food stamps (well, it’s a SNAP card now, but essentially the same). It’s certainly an experience I won’t soon forget.
Over the course of the year, we are strapped into the roller coaster. The year starts off on an exciting note; you meet new people, go to fun orientations, and just soak in the newness of the experience. Sometimes that guy at the coffee house even comps your drink because he admires your work—life is good. Eventually, you settle in, and reality hits. You’ve been tasked with building out programming and bringing a community together around a specific issue: in my case, engaging young people living in communities of low income in environmental problem-solving. Building sustainable programming is tough, especially in communities with limited resources. Both funding and time are limited within schools, and it takes hard work to connect the right people together in meaningful ways.
As a newcomer (on a fixed timeline) to this field of work, it was daunting at times to tackle these complexities of partnership-building. But I began to slightly reframe my position as a consultant-type role. I could bring my “outsider” perspective to approach the work with a slightly different outlook than my coworkers and together we could devise creative solutions to the challenges that popped up along the way.
Now, three quarters of the way through my VISTAterm, we’re at the top of the roller coaster again. The skills that I’ve gained by working as a service-learning coordinator have been invaluable and I feel comfortable and capable in my work. In almost every way, the job is certainly different than anything I’ve ever done. I know I’ll take the experience with me when I move into the next phase of my life.
For information on the AmeriCorps VISTA program, visit http://www.americorps.gov/about/programs/vista.asp