Monday, May 6, 2013

Mary Baldwin VISTA cultivates new projects

Leah Pallant likes to make things. She bakes sourdough bread, brews her own kombucha (a fermented, sweetened tea), and she's recently gotten back into amateur bookbinding. She also likes to help things grow and spent the winter nudging new life into a few seedlings in her room. She's excited to give them a new home in her yard when the weather gets warm enough.

Leah is the VISTA working out of the Spencer Center for Civic and Global Engagement at Mary Baldwin College, a small, liberal arts school in Staunton, VA. Mary Baldwin has just under 800 residential students which can make the volunteer pool seem dauntingly small. But Leah praises the culture of service at the school and highlights their big push toward service learning for their residential students. Back in October she had great participation at the Food Day events she organized and more recently she lead a group of students on an alternative break experience.

When she's not at Mary Baldwin, Leah spends her time with Project GROWS. Project GROWS is a nonprofit community farm that helps educate the population on nutrition and food security. Leah has established a relationship between the organization and the college that she is confident will continue to flourish after her VISTA term is done in August. Currently, she's working with them to develop a manual on volunteer best practices. She's also connected more than 40 students with volunteer opportunities at Project GROWS. That's 5% of the Mary Baldwin student body!

Leah describes her life so far as a VISTA as both a challenge and a joy. She says she didn't know what to expect when she joined and remembers talking with former VISTAs who told her to get used to ramen noodles and late nights. Others praised the experience. Eight months in Leah says VISTA is what she hoped it would be: "I am autonomous and my coworkers respect me, but I am also getting better at asking for help. Money is tight, but it's nothing a good budget (and a lot of wishing that my car won't break down) can't deal with."

Leah grew up in a small town in North Western Pennsylvania called Meadville. She shares her hometown with Talon Zippers, Dad's Dog Food, and Allegheny College. She did her undergraduate work at Oberlin College and Conservatory and graduated in May of 2012. While there she focused on environmental studies and waste-water treatment and spent all four years working at (and eventually running) the Living Machine.

VISTA was another opportunity for Leah to get creative, get her hands dirty, and give back. Forty percent of the Meadville population lives below the poverty line. Looking back at her experience growing up she says, "Knowing so many people who do so much with so little, I can't imagine doing anything with my life other than giving back everything I can to the people around me." It is this sentiment which reflects what she describes as the driving force behind her service: Tikkun Olam, which translates from Hebrew to 'healing the world' or 'repairing the world.' Leah describes what it means to her:

"The underlying concept is that, though no one person is expected to fix everything, everyone is expected to contribute. I'm not sure what exactly my parents did to make tikkun olam so central to my life, but they did a good job of whatever it was, and I've always known that I want to spend my life working towards social justice. When it came time to graduate college, becoming a VISTA seemed like the perfect next move: a chance to get my hands dirty and build skills that would help me towards my future career while also helping a community."

Leah's dedication to her work, her community, and her drive to serve embodies the VISTA spirit. She brings life to new projects and encourages growth in the partnership between Mary Baldwin and ProjectGROW. It's no wonder then, given the opportunity to have any superpower, Leah choose not flight or telepathy, but to have a real life green thumb so she could coax plants into growing even in rooms without windows.