Thursday, July 24, 2014

Moving Forward Looking Back: the 2013-14 Cohort

As the close of the 2013-2014 VISTA term fast approaches, 17 North Carolina Campus Compact VISTAs spread across the state each work diligently to leave their projects on the firmest of footings. Under their watch, programs have flourished, resources have been gathered, and volunteers have been mobilized to fight poverty with the power of higher education! Now, they are sharing capstone presentations, writing final reports, reflecting back on their year, and looking ahead to the next one.

As part of the close of their year, the 2013-14 VISTA cohort gathered together for a day of service and reflection on July 11. The group began at the Greensboro Children’s Museum clearing weeds, raking, mulching and chicken wrangling in the Edible Schoolyard. Under the expert tutelage of Edible Schoolyard Manager, Justin, the VISTAs had the Schoolyard looking much more presentable by noon.

We then traveled to the campus of UNC Greensboro, where the Office of Leadership and Service Learning provided us a delicious Chipotle lunch and space in the Faculty Center to spend the afternoon looking back at our year. We started off with a slideshow, and moved on to talk about lessons learned from the year. Many expressed the desire to learn more about political systems and policies that engender poverty, while others shared a new understanding about the importance money and access to it, plays in creating pathways out of poverty. Another popular theme of the VISTAs’ age, real or perceived, and how it influenced other peoples’ opinions of VISTA-led programming, also surfaced.

The loudest and most heartily felt reflection though, was that their year was worth it. No matter how many obstacles lay in their path, they overcame them one by one, and they did it by strengthening communities.

A prime example of triumph in the face of adversity is VISTA Brittany Johnson's experience. Brittany was promised a building to begin a Thrift Store Enterprise program for the Hospitality House of Boone at the beginning of her year, but after the building deal fell through, she spent most of her year fundraising, getting the word out, and writing a Thrift Store business plan. Along the way, she met every single resident who came through the building, and made tons of community connections. After a year of uphill work, Brittany finally secured a building, but also secured many new Hospitality House allies. The Thrift Store is now scheduled to open this weekend!

Brittany’s story is just one of seventeen, but each VISTA will tell you the same thing. The work was hard and the salary wasn’t great, but the lessons learned, the programs created, and the people met along they way, made each VISTA’s year an invaluable experience.

Five VISTAs enjoyed their VISTA year so much, they plan to stay on for a second term! Jess-Mara Jordan will return to UNC Asheville’s Key Center to continue developing a mentoring program. Will Jones at Western Carolina University will put his green thumb back to work revitalizing not only WCU’s community garden, but it’s volunteer base to maintain, harvest, and distribute food to local food pantries and soup kitchens. Brittany Johnson at Hospitality House of Boone will dive head-first into the new Thrift Store to design job and volunteer training programs for sustainable management of the store. Elizabeth McIntosh will begin her second term as she finishes up the PAGE (Partnership For Appalachian Girls’ Education) summer camp program. Elizabeth continues to build the organization by creating supplemental year-round programming, building strong partnerships in the region, and continuing the process for PAGE to become an independent 501c (3). Last but not least, Anna Mahathey will be joined by two new VISTAs at High Point University. Anna will work with senior Bonner Leader Students and begin to develop food security programming at West End Ministries. If history is any indicator of the future, we can also expect an MLK Day extravaganza next year!

As for the rest of the cohort, several are still deciding their next steps. However, the successes of their VISTA year are strong evidence that they will succeed at anything. Even without the final Quarter's numbers, the VISTA impact is clear:

$77,512 - in cash/grant resources generated
$46,789 - in non-cash resources raised
3,685 - volunteers mobilized  
23,681 - hours of service performed by volunteers

Christina Hunter will finish her second VISTA year at Queens University of Charlotte, but will stay on as the Assistant Director for the Center for Active Citizenship. She also hopes to attend graduate school for a Professional Masters of Business Administration at Queens.

Dalton Hoffer will wrap up his service term at UNC Pembroke but will stay in the Office of Community and Civic Engagement as the new Assistant Director.

Takira Dale, currently at Duke University, will stay in Durham and work for Teach for America's Eastern North Carolina region. She will act as Coordinator of Special Events and Donor Engagement.

Jacob Lerner, currently at the Marion Cheek Jackson Center, will also be close at hand working as a field organizer with Aim Higher Now NC in Wake County. He will be educating people about the current climate of Public Education in the state legislature.

Camille Smith, currently at NC State, will travel slightly further afield to work with Stop Hunger Now, an international hunger relief organization, as the Assistant Program Manager at the National Capital site in the Washington, D.C. metro area. This new position allows her to combine passions in education and world hunger!

Devin Corrigan, currently at UNC Greensboro, will enroll in a second term of VISTA service as the Development and Communications Coordinator at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation. She will also be holding lots of babies, as she will be much closer to her family in NYC!

Perhaps the furthest flung traveler will be Shifra Sered, currently at East Carolina University. She will be a Shatil Social Justice Fellow with the New Israel Fund, an organization that safeguards human rights in Israel.

In the next few months Sarah Cohn, currently at the Community Empowerment Fund, will be working on a science outreach project with the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) in Durham. She will also continue working on a bilingual curriculum for elementary-aged students of all backgrounds to learn more about evolutionary biology and related sciences.

Ariel Mitchell, currently at Lenoir-Rhyne University, plans to attend graduate school out West. She is scheduled to take the GRE at the end of the summer.

Bevelyn Ukah will move back to her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia to continue the righteous grassroots activism she took part in at Guilford College with the Elimu Empowerment network.

Anna Donze, currently at Wake Forest University, will begin working as the Volunteer Coordinator at Samaritan Ministries on August 11th.

All of our VISTAs worked tirelessly to fulfill the North Carolina Campus Compact mission to fight poverty with the power of higher education. They planned Hunger and Homelessness Awareness events, MLK Days of service, met NC mayors, and led ASB trips near and far. So many of their successes can't be measured, but by reviewing quarterly increases in volunteers recruited and resources secured, we can see a sliver of their huge accomplishments. It is clear that they will continue to live lives of service in whatever endeavors they pursue.

As they move on to the next step in their careers and lives, we wish them great and humbling adventures!

Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
-- Maya Angelou, excerpted from "On the Pulse of the Morning"

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Let’s Talk Taboo: My experiences with race and poverty as a NC Campus Compact VISTA

In June and July, North Carolina Campus Compact will be publishing articles written by our VISTA members. These pieces give readers access to first-hand experiences and reflections of VISTAs serving throughout the state. We are excited for them to share their perspectives on community and service with us! 

Please note: Any opinions expressed on the VISTA VIEW blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions, or policies of North Carolina Campus Compact, the AmeriCorps VISTA program or the Corporation for National and Community Service.

By Shifra Sered
NC Campus Compact VISTA at East Carolina University and the Third Street Community Center

Shifra (Left) with ECU student volunteers.
The AmeriCorps VISTA program was founded in 1965 as “a national service program designed specifically to fight poverty in America.” Throughout our VISTA Pre-service Orientation (PSO) we discussed theories of poverty and were asked to think critically about how to alleviate poverty in our communities. As VISTAs we are asked to build the capacity of organizations to alleviate poverty and are assessed on our ability to do so. Both VISTA and North Carolina Campus Compact have provided us with online and in-person trainings on topics ranging from utilizing social media in our work to creating asset maps for our community.

Throughout PSO and my year of service, I have been struck by the lack of intentional conversation about race in trainings provided by VISTA and NC Campus Compact. As shown by a study completed in 2012, a staggering 34 percent of African-Americans in North Carolina were living in poverty compared to 13 percent of the white population. As race and class are deeply intertwined, I believe that it is counterproductive to talk about poverty in North Carolina without evaluating the role of race. Focusing on one while ignoring the other can, at best, make VISTA's service less effective and can, at worst, run the risk of perpetuating systemically racist power structures.

I currently work at East Carolina University as the VISTA in the Volunteer and Service-Learning Center, as well as the Third Street Community Center (TSCC), a local faith-based community center. ECU and Third Street are both located in Greenville (Pitt County), a city still reconciling a past of deeply entrenched and often racist social norms. As recently as 2013, a court case was brought against Pitt County for school assignments that effectively re-segregated certain school districts. There are 12 members on the board of the Pitt County school system, but only 3 are African-American despite the fact that almost half of Pitt County school children are African-American. This unequal racial distribution, perhaps itself an effect of long standing racist attitudes, is a possible reason why governing Boards such as the Pitt County School Board allows current segregationist policies to stand and in fact continue to pass such policies.

The Third Street Community Center is located in “West Greenville,” an area more defined by its population than its physical boundaries. In fact, it seems to me like no one can decide the physical boundaries of West Greenville, but we can all agree it refers to the black and poor neighborhoods on the west side of the city. When I first moved to Greenville, I was warned to stay away from West Greenville as it was “the bad side of town.” Others refer to it euphemistically as the “inner-city,” despite the fact that Greenville is not a particularly large city. The area of West Greenville, as we try to vaguely demarcate it, is almost exclusively African-American. Poverty rates are as high as 100% in some neighborhoods. Third Street Community Center is very much dedicated to working within West Greenville. That said, the staff (including myself), the original board and the building owners of the Center, are all white. I believe it is important to openly recognize and discuss the potentially problematic implications of an all-white community center staff serving a black community. I fear that we, as a center, are stripping away the agency of the local community by insinuating that outsiders are the only ones capable of making profound, positive change. I fear we are continuing the widespread cultural narrative of the “white savior” who has the ability to “save” a community (see Teju Cole for more on the “White Savior Complex”). I believe this discussion about the ways that race informs our work at TSCC could be fostered with more intent. I do not mean this as an indictment of the community center and I believe that the center has the potential and the desire to do a lot of good in West Greenville. However, if we, as a community center, ignore the role that race plays in the perpetuation of poverty in West Greenville, then we run the risk of preserving the inequality that we are committed to fighting.

From my observations during my year of service, I believe that VISTA and NC Campus Compact need to intentionally include topics of race as part of our training and on-going dialogues around poverty as race heavily informs my work in the community. I believe that it is not enough to attempt to alleviate the effects of poverty; we must also target the root causes of poverty, which include racism. VISTAs do great work by building the capacity of organizations, strengthening tutoring programs, building responsible homeownership programs and creating nutrition programs. However, when schools in African-American neighborhoods are underfunded, racist housing practices lead to segregated neighborhoods, and places like West Greenville continue to be “food deserts,” providing communities with VISTAs is not enough. Our service needs to be evaluated as part of a larger system in which racism, both direct and indirect, is a contributing factor. Without acknowledging the way that racism shapes the experience of the communities we serve and the ability of the VISTA to effect positive change, we cannot create truly sustainable solutions to systematic and complicated issues.

I want to end by saying that I have learned tremendously from my year of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA. I believe that AmeriCorps does important and necessary work that, on an individual level, can make all the difference in someone’s life. I believe it should continue to provide volunteers to strengthen non-profits and engage with communities. However, I also believe that the work of AmeriCorps is not done in a vacuum and must take into consideration the ways structural inequalities work in our communities, in our organizations and within AmeriCorps itself.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

There is something special about Southeast Raleigh

In June and July, North Carolina Campus Compact will be publishing articles written by our VISTA members. These pieces give readers access to first-hand experiences and reflections of VISTAs serving throughout the state. We are excited for them to share their perspectives on community and service with us! 

Please note: Any opinions expressed on the VISTA VIEW blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions, or policies of North Carolina Campus Compact, the AmeriCorps VISTA program or the Corporation for National and Community Service.

By Camille Smith
NC Campus Compact VISTA at NC State University and the Raleigh College Center

When most people think of the Triangle area of North Carolina they think of tobacco road basketball rivalries, an exciting academic hub full of research and resources, great barbeque, and southern hospitality. When I became a Raleigh transplant four years ago, I quickly learned that this area is so much more than that. Raleigh truly is a magical place rich with history, creativity, charm and a small town feel with big city thinkers. I had been in Raleigh for two-and-a-half years before I was exposed to Southeast Raleigh. As a student at NC State, I had an opportunity to explore the different parts Raleigh via several internships in town, events, and social outings, but had never spent extensive time in the southeast area.

As I progressed through college, the reality that I was a student who had beaten the odds to get into college became more evident to me. I was one of those college students with limited resources and it was a miracle that I had the opportunity to attend an institution as full of resources as NC State University. My parents could not afford to send me to college so when I was in high school; I did everything in my power to ensure that I had a scholarship out of my hometown of Anderson, South Carolina. I worked hard to keep my grades up while excelling in volleyball. Like many minority high school students, I believed that my only ticket to college was through a sports scholarship. Luckily, I earned one at a historically black college, Virginia Union University. Although I loved my university, I decided to transfer at the end of my freshman year because I realized that what I wanted out of college was not offered at my university.  In 2010, I began as a sophomore at NC State University through a generous financial aid package and the grace of God. Almost immediately after my arrival to this behemoth state-funded school, I realized that students like me were rare and far between. For the first time in my life, I felt completely out of place and overwhelmed with a school environment.  I then began to reflect on my life, and how I got to this point. If it were not for the several mentors, teachers, counselors, friends, and family, in my life I would not have made to college nor would I have graduated. If it was not for their continuous support and guidance, I would not have seen it through and I would not have capitalized on the opportunities offered at NC State University. They showed me that, despite my background or upbringing, I not only belonged in college but could succeed.

Chavis Community Center
My experiences in life led me to my AmeriCorps position at NC State University. My title is Program Coordinator for an initiative created by Raleigh area higher education institutions, businesses, and community partners (also referred to as the Raleigh Colleges and Community Collaborative) entitled the Raleigh College Center. We believe that by promoting higher education access to under-represented youth in our community (specifically in Southeast Raleigh), that the cycle of poverty can be significantly reduced. I had the privilege of splitting my time between both NC State and the Chavis Community Center. My intention was to pay it forward to other youth who were like me, who did not have all of the resources, but who needed that push or exposure to knowledge on making it to a higher education institution.  What I have learned in this process is much more than I have expected!

A Brief History of Southeast Raleigh

First, I want to say that the Southeast area, is Raleigh’s best kept secret. The potential that lies in this region is just now being re-realized by city administrators, who are beginning to pour money and resources into this community, including the Raleigh Colleges and Community Collaborative.  When I say that the potential of this area is being “re-realized”, I mean that the residents of Southeast Raleigh understand their history and share a rare camaraderie that is deeply rooted and culturally aware, and it seems as though leadership in Raleigh has taken notice. I have been so fortunate to work in what I deem this community’s hub- The John Chavis Memorial Park and Community Center. Before I continue, I believe that it is only appropriate to give a brief history, for one to wrap their head around the amazingly talented children that I work with, who have been born and raised in this community.

Longtime Chavis staffer
and local resident Larry Wells
John Chavis Memorial Park is the largest community park located within walking distance to downtown Raleigh. Based on the history of this park, it is my belief that there is no better home for the Raleigh College Center! The park was established in the late 1930s by the city of Raleigh to serve the recreational needs of African-Americans during the Jim Crow laws. Prior to desegregation, Chavis was the largest recreational facility that was open to blacks from Washington, D.C. to Atlanta, with amenities such as a large swimming pool, playgrounds, a football field with seating, a baseball field, a carousel,  and picnic shelter.  The history that is embedded in the community center and the grounds around it is rich and frequently celebrated and echoed throughout the center on a daily basis. At least once a week I meet a new person that shares their John Chavis Park story. When I think of someone who has seen the transformation that the neighborhood has gone through, I think of twenty year Chavis Community Center staff member, Larry Wells, who grew up in the neighborhood and has frequented the park since 1961. In my time as a VISTA Larry’s insights about what makes Chavis what it is today, and his age-old wisdom have helped me put my volunteer duty into perspective. When speaking with other patrons of the Jim Crow generation, their eyes brighten up when bringing up memories of riding on a children’s train that toured the park, or learning to swim in what was then, the only pool that blacks could use in the region. It was a civil rights hub, where the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized marches from the park to downtown Raleigh. Ultimately, Chavis served as a safe and happy space when our nation was going through the civil rights movement.

Once desegregation was achieved, Chavis facilities virtually became frozen in time, and according to Mr. Wells, in the 1970s and 1980s the Southeast neighborhood began to experience higher crime rates.  He remembers attending high school at Ligon (now known as Ligon Middle School) when it was a thriving neighborhood in the early 1970s then returning later in the decade and becoming wrapped up in what the neighborhood had transitioned to. This once thriving historically black neighborhood surrounding John Chavis Park, was now becoming an alienated sector of Raleigh, with limited resources, and a growing pool of untapped potential. As Bob Geary wrote in a 2011 Indy Week article:

“Southeast Raleigh is a quarter of the Capital City. About 85,000 people live here, but they're not all the same. It's one of the fastest-growing parts of Raleigh, but some neighborhoods are in decay. It has a reputation for crime. There is crime. And poverty. You don't have to look hard to see it. But even in the worst parts of Southeast Raleigh, there's hope. In most of Southeast Raleigh, there's very little crime and the neighborhoods are middle-class—middle-class and still predominantly black.”

In local residents and Chavis staff members like Mr. Wells, I view this “hope” that Geary describes. There is a felt consensus in Southeast Raleigh for a yearning of growth and re-making it into the gem that it once was fifty years ago.

Fast forward to 2011

Southeast Raleigh is a hotbed for growth and opportunity, and several organizations have been created to uplift it and its residents. In 2010 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, began to show interest in alleviating poverty in Southeast Raleigh. Businesses, community organizations, and all six colleges and universities in Wake County began to come together to rise to the challenge. Our community banded together to gain a $1.2 million dollar grant to invest in human capital through raising awareness about college access.

Cue the birth of the Raleigh Colleges and Community Collaborative and the subsequent establishment of the Raleigh College Center in 2012!

Raleigh youth visit Wake Tech, a member of the collaborative.
I serve as the second AmeriCorps VISTA in the growth of this initiative. My duties have been to expand our college access/youth serving network, collaborate with community partners, and act as Program Coordinator for the Raleigh College Center hosted workshops at the John Chavis Community Center.  What has been the most enriching part of this experience has been the ability to speak candidly with other youth serving individuals and youth in our community. Their perspective of Raleigh is both refreshing and innovative. In my opinion, these people are the true heroes of the future of our community. The youth that I work with are so vivacious and full of ideas for the future. Their savviness in communicating via technology is equally a generational barrier and an efficient method of communication and collaboration in the future. From my experience, I have found that the youth in southeast Raleigh, like many all over the country, have a separate and fresh way of
communicating with one another, but in some cases lack the confidence and tact that is required in speaking to others in person and in a professional setting. The Chavis Community Center provides a safe space for the teens in the area to build confidence through verbal communication, recreational activities, and by articulating their dreams at the Raleigh College Center.  The initiative and its partners have just begun to scrape the surface of the untapped potential of our community’s youth.

The College Center's 2nd Annual Etiquette Dinner
Within the past six months we have had an opportunity to connect with community partners such as Youth-Thrive, The WELL (Wade Edwards Learning Lab), Neighbor to Neighbor Outreach, YMCA Y-Achievers, 4-H, Habitat for Humanity, and more. We have collaborated with our partners to be innovative in the way that we expose our students to college. We have done everything from college visits, free test prep, personal finance courses, a local college fair, application readiness workshops, and even an etiquette dinner where college students taught our students the important of etiquette and
manners in today’s society!. 

The VISTA program with NC Campus Compact has allowed me to experience so many opportunities, that I otherwise wouldn’t have experienced at this point in my professional career. In the process of planning and implementing programs for the Raleigh College Center, I have been able to connect with professionals in higher education, local government, local educators, and the nonprofit field. Together, each of these people has contributed to the well-being of the students and families of Southeast Raleigh. My grandmother once told me that it takes a village to raise up a child, and the people whom I have encountered in my year of service serve as the village that has indirectly impacted the youth. Because of them, I was allowed to gain professional skills in public speaking by being asked to conduct college access seminars and speak in front of city council on the 2014 Mayor’s Day of Recognition for National Service. I have been able to network with Raleigh youth-services leaders at Youth-Thrive Training events. I even was asked to serve on a 40,000 Book Drive in partnership with Wake County Public School System and Wake Up and Read, where we raised well over our goal with 65,000 books!
Camille and other AmeriCorps members took part in the
Mayors Day of Recognition for National Service.

All of these experiences have shaped my viewpoint of Raleigh.  Although Raleigh is not short of its flaws and historical obstacles, it is quickly changing, and on the cusp of what many believe to be an urban explosion full of growth and even more opportunity. From my observations, I believe that it is extremely crucial to never forget the historical scars that have been left on the people of Southeast Raleigh, and use what has happened in this community to grow forward and in a positive manner.

As I move on to other places and other opportunities, I will never forget how my experience with poverty in Southeast Raleigh as an AmeriCorps member has been one of the most transformational seasons of my life. When I return to this community to visit, even after the current John Chavis Memorial Park and its Community Center transforms into the rightful community hub of the downtown Raleigh area, it is my hope that this community is still laced with a strong sense of history and strength that it has today. Being a VISTA in Raleigh during this time has opened my eyes to how I want to be a leader in my professional career and I have this amazing community to attribute to that.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Obsessed with Step

Throughout the month of June, North Carolina Campus Compact will be publishing articles written by our VISTA members. These pieces give readers access to first-hand experiences and reflections of VISTAs serving throughout the state. We are excited for them to share their perspectives on community and service with us! 

Please note: Any opinions expressed on the VISTA VIEW blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions, or policies of North Carolina Campus Compact, the AmeriCorps VISTA program or the Corporation for National and Community Service.

By Jess-Mara Jordan, NC Campus Compact VISTA at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and Open Doors of Asheville.

In the past eleven months, I have had many wonderful experiences and opportunities but one of the most memorable I’ve had stemmed from the fact that, at times, I can be a little bit loud and a tad bit “extra.”

This past January, while I was in full MLK Day of Service planning mode, the rest of the school was in full Homecoming planning mode. My alma mater’s Homecoming was in the Fall so the idea of a Winter Homecoming was very foreign to me. Nonetheless, the week’s events promised to be nothing less than extravagant. I was very excited. One day, when I went to the Intercultural Center to visit my supervisor, he was meeting with the Homecoming Step Show committee. Naturally, I offered to come back later, but they insisted I stay because they were “just talking about me.” We all know that statement can go either way. I expressed how excited I was that the step show was a regular part of their Homecoming celebration even though there are currently no National Pan-Hellenic Council organizations or step teams on campus. Little did I know that in the next few seconds they would make my whole day, week and possibly year with six simple words: “Will you host the step show?” Without hesitancy, I exclaimed “But of course!” As I mentioned earlier, I’m guessing my outgoing personality and love of the spotlight were some of the reasons they asked me to be their host, but little did they know that stepping is also my passion and has been for 13 years.

My love for stepping started at the age of 10. I was always one to hang out with the big kids so even though I was in 5th grade, many of my friends were already in middle school. In my neighborhood, it was ritual for kids to get home and rush to do their homework and other chores just to get outside and play. My friends and I would always be making up games, playing double-dutch, riding our bikes, or playing on my backyard jungle gym. One evening, my friends and I decided to go down to Brittany’s house. Brittany was in 7th grade and was like a cool, big sister to us. Brittany and her friend Maria were practicing this really cool dance-but-not-dance, cheer-but-not-cheer like thing that I later came to know and love as stepping. I was so fascinated and begged them to teach me. I caught on pretty quickly and from that day forward, my mother can attest, I have not stopped stepping. I would step in the house, in the street, in the grocery store, under the dinner table. I was, and still am, obsessed.

Jess-Mara (center) with a gospel step team she helped start at Elon.
When I moved on to middle school, I auditioned and made the PVMS Pride Step Team, the same step team that Brittany and Maria were on, and I remained a member for all three years. When I moved on to high school, I joined the Rapid Thunder step team and participated during my Freshman and Sophomore years. My Junior and Senior year, we unfortunately didn’t have an advisor and therefore weren’t able to have a team. In addition to my school step teams, I was also a member of Steppers in Unity, my church’s step team. Even in college, I kept stepping. My sophomore year I started “Order My Steps,” a step team under our gospel choir, and remained the President until I graduated. You can see why I was so excited about hosting this step show. Although the actual event was a great time, it’s the many other events that followed that have made this year truly special.

After the step show, I was contacted by Ms. Smith, a teacher’s assistant at one of the local elementary schools. She initially contacted me to get information on how to get the step teams that performed to come and do a workshop with the kids. When that proved too difficult, I offered to come and do the workshop myself. On one Tuesday morning I spent 2.5 hours with the 3rd, 4th and 5th graders at Isaac Dickson Elementary School teaching them the history of step, my involvement with step and how they too could become steppers. It was an amazing day. A few months after, I got another email from Ms. Smith saying:

“I just heard from a fifth grade teacher this week that the 5th graders are obsessed with stepping now! When they went on their class trip to DC they stepped at every rest stop! One class is also going to incorporate stepping into their graduation ceremony! I had no idea that your talk with them made such an impression, but it did!”

I was elated. I couldn’t believe that my obsession had spread so quickly and was taking this school by storm. Also in the email, I was asked to come to their End of Grade (EOGs) Testing Pep Rally to step. Unfortunately, I was out of town for that event, but I sent in a video of me stepping and encouraging them to do well on their EOGs to be played at the pep rally.

To this day, whenever I visit the school, I’ll hear students whispering “Hey, that’s the girl from the video!” No big deal, but I’m kind of a local celebrity. As Ms. Smith mentioned, one of the 5th grade classes had incorporated step into their graduation assembly and even asked me to come help and fine tune it. However, something strangely amazing happened. When I got there and they showed me their step, it was PERFECT! You could tell they had been practicing so hard and that they were really enjoying what they were doing. Instead of changing anything about the step, I taught them a new one to be done at the end of the assembly.

Watching them perform at their graduation ceremony a week later brought tears to my eyes. It took me back to when I too was in 5th grade and finally found my niche. I wasn’t good at sports like my brother and sister, I wasn’t very graceful in dance like my friends, and I was too girly for martial arts. But I could step and I could step well. Now 13 years later, I am able to mix the two things that I am most passionate about, children and stepping.

One of the things that I remember from our Pre-Service Orientation for incoming AmeriCorps VISTAs last year was our leaders telling us to find that work-life balance and incorporate what we love into our year of service outside of our work hours. As a returning VISTA for 2014-15, I plan to help develop an after school step club at both the elementary and middle school this upcoming school year, offer step as a physical education activity at the alternative middle school and teach a step workshop at an end of school year youth conference. And I owe it all to the fact that, at times, I can be a little bit loud and a tad bit “extra.”

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

AmeriCorps VISTA: The Key to Opportunity

Throughout the month of June, North Carolina Campus Compact will be publishing articles written by our VISTA members. These pieces give readers access to first-hand experiences and reflections of VISTAs serving throughout the state. We are excited for them to share their perspectives on community and service with us! 

Please note: Any opinions expressed on the VISTA VIEW blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions, or policies of North Carolina Campus Compact, the AmeriCorps VISTA program or the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Becoming an AmeriCorps VISTA 
has opened the door to so many 
opportunities and helped me find 
my purpose in life. 
By Brittany Johnson, NC Campus Compact VISTA at the Hospitality House of Boone

Before serving in AmeriCorps I knew nothing about the program and did not even know it existed. I had no idea about the opportunities it presented and how it would change my life.

Originally from Eastern NC, I grew up in a very small town that I never quite fit into. After a failed attempt at college right after High School, the start of my 20’s was filled with uncertainty and confusion. At 22, I decided to go back to school and figure out my purpose in life. I transferred to Appalachian State University my junior year of college, and since then things have started falling into place. Majoring in Public Relations, I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do after graduation as there were many paths I could take. It wasn’t until my last semester of college that my path became clear.

After loading over $3000 cans donated to 
the Hospitality House, the late Ron Hurst
 and I stopped to take a photo together. 
Ron was a resident at the HH who inspired me
 and reminded me that he and others like him
 are why I do my job. He is greatly missed. 
For my senior capstone project, I was paired with Todd Carter, Director of Development for Hospitality House of Boone, to work on a campaign to raise funds and awareness for the nonprofit. After being educated on the homeless and poverty issues in Watauga County and receiving a tour of the amazing facility, I was hooked. I immediately wanted to know more and how I could get involved. Todd was an amazing mentor and his passion was so strong. He inspired me to look beyond my own assumptions of poverty and homelessness and open my eyes to the reality. Throughout the semester- long project I continued to learn so much and develop a passion of my own. I’ve always enjoyed helping people but it was more on a customer service level. Now, I have reached a level that was beyond my imagination and discovered my purpose: to serve others in need.  Todd informed me about the AmeriCorps VISTA program and how Hospitality House was trying to apply for a VISTA to manage a very unique project.  Filled with excitement, I knew this was the program and project for me. After a lot of research, I applied and became the NC Campus Compact AmeriCorps VISTA for Hospitality House of Boone, and it has been the best decision I’ve made since deciding to go back to college.

Since August I have been working on the Enterprise Project, a thrift store that will act as an economic
Celebrating a successful fundraising 
event at the Color Blast 5K, raising over
 $8,000 for my project and Western
 Youth Network, another community nonprofit!
resource to Hospitality House as well as a training facility for building job skills and financial literacy for Hospitality House clients. Starting a business from the ground up is not easy. Eager to apply my marketing and PR skills, I had to reroute that energy into writing a business plan, something I never had done before.  In addition, the location that was originally promised to us by a donor fell through, leaving us with no prospects for the store location. Refusing to quit and be discouraged, I continued to move forward, determined to stop at nothing until the project was successful. In February, I started planning a 5K and a Flapjack Fundraiser to raise money for the business startup costs.  The fundraisers were a success and we earned over $4,100 for the store. The hard work finally started paying off. On June 1st we signed a lease for our new thrift store, Welcome Home Thriftique, where we will sell upscale items such as furniture and home goods. It is so exciting to see this vision come alive. As the repairs are made and walls are painted, what seemed to be impossible at one time is now coming in to focus.

Looking back on a challenging yet amazing year, I realize that I have grown so much. The VISTA program has allowed  me to apply the skills I have in a field that suits my interests and every day I learn something new. Without the amazing staff at Hospitality House, the support of this beautiful community, and the guidance and wisdom of two amazing VISTA supervisors, this would not be possible. The lessons I have learned about the business of nonprofits, poverty issues, and the people I serve are priceless. Fueled by my passion, I work hard for something I truly believe in and realize that I am one of the lucky ones who get to do what they love every day. Being a VISTA has taught me to go beyond my comfort zone and realize my own potential and that with hard work and dedication, anything can be done. I am happy to announce that I have signed up for a second year in this program and I cannot wait to see what the next route of this journey has in store.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Why Summer Learning Matters

By Grace Troccoli, VISTA Summer Associate at NC Campus Compact. Grace is a rising senior at Elon University, majoring in Special and Elementary Education and minoring in History. 

As a future teacher, nothing irks me more then when kids return to school in the fall and have forgotten all of their multiplication facts or have fallen several months behind in reading. Yet this phenomenon is a common occurrence in classes I work with and in other classes across America each fall.

Why? Because the lack of kids’ summer learning causes learning loss.
("Summer Learning Day")

In fact, studies since 1906 have consistently shown that most students regress in their learning during the summer. Over the summer, students have been shown to lose about two months of learning in math. Additionally, low-income students typically lose two months of learning in reading while their middle-class peers typically make slight gains in reading.  These consistent summer learning losses add up; summer learning loss accounts for two thirds of the ninth grade achievement gap in reading (Fairchild, 2008).

Yet despite these facts, an estimated 43 million children in the United States miss out on summer learning opportunities (Fairchild, 2008).This means that 43 million children in the U.S. are at risk for summer learning loss or are at risk for falling behind in school.

This reality is especially true for low-income families.  An analysis from an early childhood longitudinal study found that 46% of low-income children visited a library over the summer months compared to the 80% of their high-income peers who visited a library. 20% of low-income children visited an art, science or discovery museum over the summer while 62% of high-income children visited a museum.  Lastly, 43% of high-income children attended a camp over the summer while only 5% of low-income students attended a camp  (Blazer, 2011).

The disparities are great and the learning stakes are high, so what do we do about summer learning loss?

I am part of a VISTA Summer Associate program sponsored by AmeriCorps and North Carolina Campus Compact. Several of my fellow Summer Associates are supporting great summer learning programs. Here in Alamance County, Anna Lewis is supporting the Elon Academy which is a college access and success program for academically promising high school students with a financial need and/or no family history of college.  This summer the 69 scholars will spend a month on Elon University's campus taking college planning classes and academic enrichment courses in addition to participating in leadership development community service activities. Additionally, Jenna Nelson is supporting a program at the Boys and Girls Club that provides educational and leisure activities for kids in grades K-12.

In Madison County, NC, four Summer Associates are supporting the PAGE summer program. The Partnership for Appalachian Girls Education (PAGE) offers two, 3-week sessions for local adolescent girls from low-income families. The program focuses on digital literacy, college access, and literature while building on girls' critical thinking and leadership skills.

Other Summer Associates are supporting hunger-related projects that include nutrition education, which creates opportunities for summer learning on topics related to science and health. In addition to these programs, many other campus- and community-based programs across our state and nation are working to prevent summer learning loss.

If you care about summer learning loss, please join us in celebrating Summer Learning Day this Friday, June 20th! 

Summer Learning Day is a national advocacy day, sponsored by the National Summer Learning Association, that promotes the importance of summer learning.

There are many ways that you can celebrate Summer Learning Day!

For example, you can:
  • Celebrate Summer Learning Day with children you work with by: 
    • Reflecting with kids about what they want to learn this summer and help them form summer learning goals.
    • Creating a way to celebrate kids’ summer learning. For example, you could display kids' summer learning work around the room.
    • Implementing a long-term summer learning challenge. For example, you could challenge kids to read for a certain amount of minutes by the end of the summer. 
  • Spread awareness about the importance of summer learning in your community by sharing the Achievement Gap Info Graphic or Summer Learning Day Key Messages.
  • Spread awareness about Summer Learning Day through social media  by: 
For more ideas, check out the National Summer Learning Association’s suggestions here.

So, on Friday, June 20th, highlight the importance of summer learning in your community by celebrating Summer Learning Day and remember…

“You're never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read to a child.”- Dr. Seuss

Works Cited
Blazer, C. (2011). Summer Learning Loss: Why its Effect is Strongest Among Low-income Students and  How it can be  Combated. Information Capsule , 1011.  
Fairchild, R. (2008). Summer: A Season When Learning is Essential. Afterschool Alliance Issue Briefs (33).
"Summer Learning Day." National Summer Learning Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 June 2014.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Looking Back while Moving Forward: Reflections from an "organized" VISTA

Throughout the month of June, North Carolina Campus Compact will be publishing articles written by our VISTA members. These pieces give readers access to first-hand experiences and reflections of VISTAs serving throughout the state. We are excited for them to share their perspectives on community and service with us! 

Please note: Any opinions expressed on the VISTA VIEW blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions, or policies of North Carolina Campus Compact, the AmeriCorps VISTA program or the Corporation for National and Community Service.

By Devin Corrigan, NC Campus Compact VISTA at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the Interactive Resource Center

Hello from Greensboro!  As I wind down my service, I am reflecting on this year and some of the things I’ve learned.  I figured to share a few in my blog post.

1. Get Uncomfortable
Prior to my year as a VISTA, most of my interactions with “homeless people” were confined to my own silent deliberations about whether to part with spare change as I passed them on the streets.  So weak.  Since working at the Interactive Resource Center, I have gotten much more close and personal with homelessness.  I have been privileged to have raw, vulnerable conversations about HIV, domestic violence, addiction, incarceration, and poverty.  These conversations have completely changed my views.  Homelessness is truly something that happens to someone, not something someone is born with.

2. Service is chaos
Service is an odd stew of people with different motivations, intentions, goals, skills, and passions coming together to achieve the loose end of “doing good.”  It is not linear.  It is not cause and effect.  It doesn’t lend itself to check-boxes.  As someone who loves order, structure, and writing blog posts in list form, this was originally pretty disconcerting for me.  Being highly organized (see also rigid) works for me and was not necessarily something I wanted to give up.  I adapted by structuring my to-do lists with more “relationship-oriented” rather than results-oriented tasks.  Instead of organizing myself to “accomplish x, y, and z,”  I started framing my days around “reach out to a new IRC guest” or “get this student’s input about MLK Day marketing.”  I got a lot more accomplished and was able to build more of the relationships that make service rewarding.  At the end of the day, “doing good” happens even if it doesn’t look like what you anticipated.

3. Ask for help
For someone who is driven to “help” others, I have a pretty big aversion to asking for help myself.  It feels uncomfortable (see #1) and screams “I can’t do something.”  (God-forbid!)  However, this year has made me realize how willing people are to help when asked.  For example, very early on in the year we contacted dentists’ offices to donate toothbrushes for care packages for our IRC guests.  I didn’t think anyone would donate, but we were able to fill more than 60 care bags.  Since then I have tried asking for help more, whether that means saying “I don’t know how to handle this situation.  Can you help?” or “Can you show me how you design those fancy flyers?”  Asking for help usually says “I want to learn” and not “I can’t.”

4.  Figure out your outlets before you need them
Bad days will happen.  Things go wrong.  Buses cancel two days before the big event.  You drop the ball on a project. It’s important to build your safety net before you are falling.  Some things that I have found particularly cathartic are weekly “family” dinners with co-workers, running along the lake, and baking pies while blasting Marilyn Manson.  It’s comforting to know when you are feeling yucky, that a few things will make you feel better, even if the situation doesn’t change.

5. Laugh
A lot of awkward, random stuff is going to happen.  And it’s going to be pretty hilarious.  Seriously, all of my funniest stories are IRC stories.  Embrace it.