Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A VISTA in Haiti

The Friday after Thanksgiving, bloated from family dinners and pale from sitting in my windowless office all semester, I embarked on a week-long journey with over 600 new friends from around the world to Haiti. Our goal? To build 100 homes for Haitians displaced by the earthquake in the community of Santo in Leogane. We had been harassing our friends, relatives, and neighbors for months to raise funds for the build, and this would be our chance to finally see our money in action and get our own hands dirty.

International service is one area of community engagement that raises mixed feelings for me and many others. I have plenty of relatives who like to remind me of the adage "charity begins at home," and I wonder whether the thousands of dollars spent to transport volunteers to another country might be put to better use funding work for locals. Aid programs in developing nations are ripe for exploitation, and participants risk becoming disaster tourists with make-work projects. Yet in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I found myself desperately wanting to do something more than making a donation. When I'm upset and frustrated, either with personal or global issues, my first instinct is to go to work and find something to do to make things better. I wanted to wait, however, until I could find a volunteer opportunity with an organization that I trusted, that could make the best use of my skills and money, and that had already established relationships with communities in Haiti before the earthquake. I believe I found that through Habitat for Humanity.

In my first term as a VISTA, I had formed a partnership with our local Habitat affiliate while looking for service opportunities for students, and I had been impressed with their work in Durham. Habitat works worldwide to address the issue of poverty housing. In the United States, Habitat helps low-income families build, purchase, and repair their own homes. Homeowners, who apply and are selected by an advisory board of community members, provide sweat equity hours, helping to build their own homes and others in the community, and pay zero-interest mortgages. Funds are used to build more Habitat homes. The organization also provides financial education to new homeowners. Internationally, Habitat builds homes as well as providing disaster response and management and community training in construction techniques and business development. Volunteers have the opportunity to serve abroad with Habitat through the Global Village program, participating on international builds for 1-3 weeks and learning how to become advocates for affordable housing. Each year, two of Habitat for Humanity's most prominent supporters, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, serve for a week to bring attention to this critical need. Our trip marked the 29th annual Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project and was the second year the project took place in Haiti.

Teams from Houses 703-706, homeowners Hones Sainsulme and Katorsky Dupre, and President and Mrs. Carter.
 When we landed in Port-au-Prince, I was shocked by the state of the city. Even more shocking still were comments from returning volunteers, who assured me that conditions looked much improved. Homes, businesses, schools, and churches had been reassembled from crumbling walls, aid agency tarps, and pieces of tin. Waste is everywhere, as no facilities or services exist to deal with sanitation issues in most areas. During the day, most people sat outside along the streets to stay cool, as tents quickly reach over 100 degrees F after the sun rises. Leogane, the epicenter of the earthquake and the location of our camp and build site, lies approximately 25 miles from Port-au-Prince. My morning commute from Raleigh to Durham at a similar distance takes me about 30 minutes. In Haiti, this drive took three hours due to poor road conditions.

Housing by the bay, between Port-au-Prince and Leogane
A United Nations canal project, Port-au-Prince

The community of Santo, where we were building, was established by families who fled the city of Leogane and set up camp in an abandoned sugar cane field. Many were afraid to return to the city and what was left of their homes after the earthquake, fearing aftershocks and future tremors would cause what was left of buildings to crumble. Over the course of the week, volunteers worked side-by-side with these families, building 100 homes to add to the 155 constructed the previous year. Future homeowners were chosen by a community council, who selected those who were most in need. Like in the United States, these families will receive training in financial literacy and home maintenance, and they must provide sweat equity hours, however their homes were fully funded by donations and they will receive them at no cost. Habitat has worked with the Haitian government to secure a 100-year lease on the land where the community is being built, as property rights are often contentious due to a lack of proper documentation and an overabundance of corruption. The master plan for the community also includes a school, market, and activity field, which Habitat is seeking funding to complete.

Volunteers arrive at the build site, Santo
Although I went on the trip for a chance to give back, I found myself continually blessed with new knowledge gained, new Haitian friends, and a renewed drive for my work back home. Souvenirs also included a wicked sunburn, busted boots, and more bandanas and mosquito bites than I can count. This journey was perhaps once in a lifetime for me, as I'll never get rich on a non-profit salary and there's not a lot of fun in fundraising, but the renewed drive to fight poverty in all its forms is a gift that will sustain me through the rest of my term. For more information about Habitat's work in Haiti, and photos and video from the project, visit http://www.habitat.org/cwp/2012

Thursday, December 13, 2012


In this post Rachel, NC Campus Compact VISTA Leader , reflects on her experiences attending two consecutive Pre-Service Orientation events.

Every AmeriCorps volunteer goes through a week of off-site training called Pre-Service Orientation, or PSO. The Corporation sends you to a hotel where you spend twenty-four hours a day surrounded by fellow VISTAs.

In my case, I attended regular PSO and then VISTA Leader training. I spent two weeks in Lombard, IL (a suburb of Chicago) surrounded by some of the most dedicated, hardworking, selfless people I've ever met.

During PSO we talked about what it means to be a VISTA. What it looks and feels like to be on call as a volunteer 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We looked at what we’re giving up, what we’re gaining, and why we’re all taking a year (or more) of our lives to engage in service.

We discussed our projects, exchanged ideas, and connected with our fellow volunteers. Those of us doing a second, third, or even fourth year of service traded war stories, and passed along techniques for living on an extremely restricted budget.

We examined our privilege, our prejudices, and our biases. We had difficult conversations about race, gender, and poverty. We were honest. We learned and grew, and then we all went our separate ways.

I came back the next week for VISTA Leader Orientation. The group was smaller this time, 40 people instead of the almost 200 of the previous training. Most of the leaders I met had already started their service, many had already encountered some of the challenges we would later discuss in small groups. It was a quieter session, less like a pep rally and more like being part of a highly motivated think tank.

Sessions were dedicated to problem solving, mediating conflict, and addressing specific scenarios common to the VISTA Leader experience. In one group we spent several hours constructing a year-long communications plan to be used by leaders who worked with VISTAs at a distance (much like the Campus Compact model).

Once again, on a chilly Friday afternoon, we all went our separate ways. Then, a few days later I was reading the enthusiastic tweets and facebook status messages from my new friends and one of them posted simply, “#cultureshock.”

That’s when I realized how hard it can be coming back to the “real world” after a week or two of AmeriCorps immersion. The world we come back to is full of the very real, seemingly insurmountable problems we discussed at training. It’s uncomfortable. But that feeling of discomfort is important. It is that feeling which pushes us to make change. It motivates us to serve.

I came away from training with new friends, new resources, and a renewed sense of purpose. Training reminded me why I’m doing this and that I’m not alone. I’m ready to work. I’m ready to serve.

Three new VISTAs join NC Campus Compact team!

On the fateful date of 12/12/12, three new NC Campus Compact VISTAs and their site supervisors attended an orientation meeting hosted by NC Campus Compact at Wake Technical Community College. We discussed the history and mission of NC Campus Compact and AmeriCorps VISTA, principles of VISTA service, and the different ways these projects will structure their VISTA's work with key community partners. VISTAs and their supervisors also had a chance to discuss their communication preferences and work styles, and took some time to dig into their VAD, picturing long-term success and clarifying capacity-building activities.
The 12/12/12 group - won't happen again for another 100 years!

VISTA Member Jennifer Evans (Wake Tech), Erin O'Donnell (Feast Down East/UNCW), and Bevelyn Ukah (Guilford College) had met at the November PSO in Atlanta, but they were happy to come together again and to have time to talk with VISTA Leader Rachel Rogers. Check the blog in the new year for an update on these VISTAs' exploits. Thanks to all who attended, and good luck as you "fight poverty with the power of higher education" this year!
VISTA Jenn Evans with Leader Rachel Rogers
Evans and supervisor Melody Wiggins organized Wake Tech's
toy drive to benefit Helping Hand Mission.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Warren Wilson VISTA welcomes Asheville homeless home

Jacqui Trillo came to Asheville for "the sunshine," but she stayed at Warren Wilson College for the service. Now a NC Campus Compact VISTA at her alma mater, the Washington state native helps others make a home in Asheville through her work with Homeward Bound. In her role as a VISTA with Warren Wilson's Service Program, Jacqui is deepening a partnership with Homeward Bound by supporting the agency's new Welcome Home Project.

The project supports homeless people's transition to permanent housing by providing donations of furniture and household goods - everything from beds to dish towels - along with move-in assistance from student volunteers. "The reason this project is important," Jacqui says, "is it helps people get into the mentality of living in a home, rather than viewing it as a place to set up a temporary camp. The Welcome Home Project can start to give clients that sense of permanence."

Jacqui is creating and implementing systems and procedures to organize donation collections, volunteer coordination, and neighborhood outreach; and she acts as a liaison between college student leaders and the agency's case managers. She's created donation lists for the organization to post on its website and a system of online Google documents that students and agency staff use to manage donation inventory and volunteer scheduling. She is also found unused space on campus to hold excess donations for the agency, and she's organized student teams to conduct neighborhood outreach and collections each week. She's even connected volunteers from the local Junior League and nearby Mars Hill College to Homeward Bound activities.

One of the project's biggest challenges so far has been the lack of public housing units available for move-in's, as several complexes underwent renovations in September and October. But now that repairs are complete, move-in's have picked up. The project has accomplished three move-in's so far, including two last week. "It is so nice to meet the people who are moving in," she says. Jacqui expects the pace will pick up in the coming months. "We've been trying to do these all semester, and now the week before finals we are just getting going!" she laughs.

During her student days at Warren Wilson, Jacqui spent a lot of time doing community service. The college's service ethic and the "amazing, active non-profit community of Asheville" drew her to school as a transfer before her junior year. When the Dean of Service, Cathy Kramer, asked Jacqui last spring if she'd be interested in the VISTA position, the former Girl Scout didn't hesitate: "I'd been doing service for so long, it made total sense." Asked what it's like to serve at her alma mater, she replies, "It's funny. I thought it would be more of a challenge than it turned out to be. My prior connections with staff and faculty have been really helpful to build trust quickly. And even though I'm still a recent grad, the students honor that distinction. I don't feel like a student at all - it's really different working full-time."

Jacqui still finds time for some fun, usually involving Netflix or eating. "Mela's Indian buffet on Saturday is one of my favorite things in Asheville," she says. "So good, pretty cheap, and lots of vegetarian food!" Over the holidays, Jacqui will be heading home herself, traveling back to her hometown of Burien, Washington to spend time with her family. She's looking forward to her favorite holiday desert, her mom's "Mexican Wedding Cake" cookies.

In the spring, Jacqui is looking forward to more move-in's, to learning more about public policy related to Asheville's 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, and to facilitating new campus and community connections with Homeward Bound. "My goal," Jacqui says, "is to leave behind a system where no VISTA is needed to connect Warren Wilson students with Homeward Bound, and student volunteers and case managers sustain the relationship."