Monday, May 13, 2013

LRU VISTA continues serving Hickory community

As a Hickory native, Ariel Mitchell has always been part of the community surrounding Lenoir-Rhyne University. But now, after three years as a student at LRU and another nine months as an AmeriCorps VISTA working with Centro Latino of Hickory, Ariel is finally feeling she's making a difference in her hometown; and she doesn't want to move on just yet.

"There are a lot of things we've started this year," she explains, "and I want to see them through. Now that my relationships with Centro Latino and the ladies who work there are strong, I feel my work isn't done."

Ariel's passion for the university's new partnership with Centro Latino of Hickory led to her decision to continue as a VISTA at LRU. She'll start a second term of service in August.

Her initial work with Centro Latino - which provides English language and adult skills classes, immigration services, an after-school program, and other services to Latino residents - was challenging due to language barriers, scheduling issues, and financial constraints. But Ariel was able to spend time at the agency learning about its work and the growing Latino community it serves; and she had some early successes last fall, organizing a Centro Latino fundraising event at an LRU soccer game and creating a community work study position at the site.

In recent months, she has helped the agency develop plans for a new "Adopto un Abuelito" (Adopt a Grandparent) program that will pair women in the agency's health group with older Latino residents to deliver food assistance and serve as companion/advocates. She helped shape the program through discussions with Centro's executive director and with women in the group, and she connected Centro leaders with other local food assistance programs to learn best practices and get advice on program design. A parallel effort to create an emergency food pantry at Centro is also underway.

As these programs expand in the coming months, Ariel looks forward to connecting students, faculty and staff at LRU with Centro to support these and existing projects like the after-school program. She has already created a volunteer manual and application process for the agency to better manage student and community volunteers.

First year LRU students at Hands on Hickory last fall.
 In addition to her work building a partnership with Centro Latino, Ariel helps LRU students engage with the Hickory community in other ways. She organized the university's Hands on Hickory event for first year students and coordinated community service sites for the MLK Day of Service in January. She has spoken to a number of LRU's "first year experience" classes about local service opportunities, and she brought a number of community agencies onto campus for a service fair.

Even before she became a VISTA, Ariel's own educational experience played a part in broadening her vision beyond the campus. Before transferring to LRU as a sophomore, Ariel attended a state school, then took classes at Catawba Valley Community College. Her studies as a human and community services major at LR helped prepare her for her VISTA role. This year, building relationships with LR student leaders and volunteers has been another positive for Ariel. She hopes to take advantage of all these relationships to help more people connect with Hickory the way she has.

"With those relationships, and another year of service, I think we can make our volunteer involvement grow immensely," she says.