Learning. Serving. Bonding. These three words summarize the month of August for our 2015-16 cohort of AmeriCorps VISTA members.
VISTAs are national service members who work full-time for one year in a low-income community to build the capacity of an organization or program that fights poverty. Our VISTAs are at both colleges/universities as well as community partner organizations. The members started off their year with lots of learning, from the intensive on-site orientation planned by their host sites to the various webinars and orientation we provide as supplements to prepare them for their year of service.
All new members to the VISTA program must attend a Pre-Service Orientation (PSO) hosted by the Corporation of National and Community Service, the federal agency that manages the VISTA program. Our new members attended PSO from August 3rd to 6th in Atlanta, GA where they spent an intensive four days of learning about poverty in the United States, familiarizing themselves with their detailed Volunteer Assignment Descriptions (VADs), and meeting other VISTAs from across the country. On August 5th, VISTA program coordinator Carolyn Byrne and VISTA Leader Catherine Casteel, traveled to Atlanta to meet with this enthusiastic cohort. This was the first time the new group had a chance to meet each other, and learn more about Campus Compact and the history of civic engagement in higher education. Carolyn and Catherine also facilitated a discussion exploring the history of university-community relationships in the places they will be serving. The VISTAs left Atlanta excited about learning and serving at their sites!
After being sworn in on August 6th, the VISTAs traveled to their placements to begin their year of service on August 7th. It was also the last day of service for our outgoing VISTAs, so some of our new members were able to meet their predecessors and get some last minute, on-the-ground advice. Our returning members rolled into their second year on the very same day. The host sites conduct their own on-site orientations that allow the VISTAs to shift from learning broader themes to settling into specific assignments. NC Campus Compact also hosted two webinars in the weeks that followed, covering topics such as asset based community entry, performance measures and monthly reports, and preparing the VISTAs for the upcoming orientation at Elon University.
This year, for the first time, Campus Compact hosted our VISTAs for a two-day training at Elon on August 27th to 28th. The two days were filled with workshops of different topics presented by both staff and guest speakers. The goals of having an intense two-day orientation were to allow the members ample opportunity to bond with each other as a cohort, learn more about specific topics and tools that they will need to succeed in their year, and also hear from experts in the field. Each carefully planned session was made better by the eager participation, great questions, and thoughtful reflections from all the VISTAs. August 27th started bright and early as our members drove in from all corners of North Carolina. After introductions, our five returning VISTAs shared their IMPACT stories- a summary of their year of service with both highlights and challenges and projects that they are proud of. Shannon Barr, (High Point University), Justin Brantley (Feast Down East), Meghan Engstran (Meredith College), Matthew Kauffmann (Community Empowerment Fund) and Natasha Vos (Wake Forest University) had different approaches to their presentations but each highlighted the importance of clear communication and innovation when faced with any challenges. Hearing of real experiences allowed the new members get a perspective on their year ahead and gave them the opportunity to ask questions.
Over the two days the NC Campus Compact staff led different workshop sessions that were both informative and interactive. VISTA Program Coordinator, Carolyn Byrne, led thought provoking sessions on Cultural Competency, setting goals for the year, the importance of self-reflection and revisiting the topics discussed at PSO. Chad Fogleman, NC Campus Compact Assistant Director, offered information about theories of change and logic models, which provided a foundation for VISTA Leader, Catherine’s session on performance measurements and the importance both numbers and narratives as they reported each month on their progress. VISTA leader Perdita Das also led a session on project and event management on the second day to conclude the orientation. The sessions gave the VISTAs a chance to break out into their focus areas (Education, Economic Opportunity, and Healthy Futures), and have meaningful discussions and share experiences.
Apart from these thrilling workshops, the VISTAs had an opportunity to serve together as well. On the morning of the second day, the VISTAs along with the VISTA leaders and program coordinator , had the opportunity to work on a house with Habitat for Humanity of Alamance County in Burlington. It was a beehive of activity as they shoveled around the foundation, cut boards, picked up glass and much more. Although it was only an hour and a half, the large group of volunteers helped Habitat take care of many small assignments in one day and the VISTAs learned more about Habitat, their application process, the volunteer hours needed per house and as they reflected when they returned to Elon, they wanted to “know more” and it “made them feel more together as a cohort.”
We were very excited to hear from an array of guest speakers over the course of the two days as well. We welcomed back three VISTA alums, Sara Acosta (2010-12), Derald Dryman (2010-13), and Mariel Steinbeiser (2010-11), to join us for lunch the first day to share their experiences. We were also excited to welcome Dr. Robert Korstad, professor of Public Policy and History at Duke University who talked about the North Carolina Fund and some statistics on the poverty in North Carolina. He was joined by Adrienne Harreveld, Program Coordinator for the Research Network on Racial and Ethnic Inequality. On August 28th, we welcomed Hudson Vaughn and George Barrett (who served as a VISTA last year) from the Marian Cheek Jackson Center in Chapel Hill, who led a fun session on creative tips and best practices of effective community partnership development. We also had Mary Morrison, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement at Elon University, lead an energetic workshop on student volunteer recruitment, management, and recognition. Hearing from those with such extensive experience in the field gave our VISTAs knowledge and confidence as they embark on their own journey of this new experience.
The two days were long, fun, full of conversations and laughter and a great start for a great year. As the members reflected upon the orientation, they shared words like “cohort,” “support,” “knowledge” and “inspiration.” We are inspired too and cannot wait to see what this year brings. Good luck VISTAs!