Friday, December 13, 2013

For two VISTA sites in Chapel Hill, building capacity is about building relationships

Last week, NC Campus Compact visited two of our "community-based" VISTA host sites in Chapel Hill, NC: the Marion Cheek Jackson Center and the Community Empowerment Fund. Both sites are intimately connected with the university, but both engage students in new and exciting ways as they tackle tough community issues.
VISTAs Jacob and Sarah work at community agencies in Chapel Hill.

The Jackson Center grew out of oral history projects started in 2005 by UNC Communications Professor Della Pollack in the historically African-American Northside neighborhood. Today, the Center is an independent 501c3 "public history and community development center" that works to preserve affordable housing and family-owned housing in the neighborhood, empower residents and youth, and build community among traditional residents and resident students.

Working closely with the historic St. Joseph C.M.E. church next door, Jackson Center staff and volunteers support a variety of projects and partnerships that improve the quality of life in the neighborhood, including the Heavenly Groceries food pantry, which serves residents in need 5 days a week, and A Brush with Kindness, a partnership with Habitat for Humanity that provides exterior improvements to local homes. The Center also distributes a monthly neighborhood newsletter, organizes community events, and continues to collect and share local history through projects like Fusion Youth Radio.

Jacob in the festive office of the Jackson Center
Jackson Center VISTA Jacob Lerner is working to develop administrative systems, including a contact management database, that support all this work. He works with other Jackson Center staff to streamline the oversight of 9 UNC Bonner interns, and he continues to support the operations of the food pantry. But he is also laying the groundwork for new programs, including a partnership with the university's Good Neighbor Initiative (a project of the Office of Greek Life) which supports students living off-campus. The Jackson Center will help develop an orientation for off campus students to the neighborhood's history, help train a team of "off-campus RAs," and create opportunities for students and long-time residents to meet and convene. He is also helping to develop an "early alert" system which helps the Center stay informed of local and individual issues that impact housing. At the heart of Jacob's work is his efforts to develop relationships with and between neighbors and students. This has been the part of his VISTA work he likes best so far: facilitating introductions between students and community residents and seeing community and university volunteers work together to address hunger and improve housing. Read Jacob's recent update on his work in the Northside News here.

Just down Franklin Street at the center of downtown, the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) provides savings opportunities, small loans, workforce development, and relational support to unemployed and underemployed individuals. CEF began on campus as a project of UNC's Campus Y. Today, the student-run organization is a 501c3 non-profit that recruits, trains, and coordinates about 150 undergrad and graduate student volunteer "advocates" who work every week as "case managers" for the organization's 400 or so member clients.

VISTA Sarah and Supervisor Maggie West.
Sarah Cohn worked with the organization as a volunteer when she was a student at UNC; now that she is a VISTA, she is working to improve the structure and coordination of volunteers, as well as the volunteer intake process. Sarah has helped refine the team structure and develop more robust orientation and continuing education for advocates and team leaders. The volunteers meet weekly for training, reflection, and collaborative problem-solving, sharing information that can help address specific issues their member clients are facing. In the months ahead, Sarah will also help CEF analyze its member intake process and the system for matching members and volunteers. Like Jacob at the Jackson Center, the systems, processes, and trainings Sarah develops are all in the service of creating strong and beneficial relationships between members and advocates. Read Sarah's profile on the CEF blog!

One of the benefits of pairing student volunteers with members is that they learn to navigate complex social service networks and financial issues together. Though the students have some training, they are learning alongside members about how to access services, seek job-training, and develop financial stability. In this sense, advocates and members are very much partners, rather than "provider" and "client."

CEF co-founder and director Maggie West told us she wishes social service organizations in the area had the money and staff to meet the need with professional case management, but local agencies are in fact cutting back rather than expanding. In such an environment, the student advocates can make a difference for people who otherwise wouldn't get the kind of individualized attention and regular check-ins CEF provides.

Building capacity to build relationships that strengthen communities. That's VISTA impact!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

VISTA Camille Smith reaches out at Raleigh College Center

VISTA Camille Smith shares info about area colleges.
While a student at NC State University, Camille Smith often found herself working in the Raleigh community. The Anderson, SC native led her alternative break team in monthly pre-trip service with Habitat for Humanity of Wake County, interned with Stop Hunger Now, and organized campus-wide service events as co-chair of the Student Government's Community Service Commission. But since becoming the Raleigh College Center VISTA in August, Camille is reaching out to new people and organizations, and learning about the city along the way.

"One of the highlights for me so far was the 75th Anniversary of the John Chavis Memorial Park, which served as a meeting place for segregated blacks leading up to the Civil Rights movement, and a gateway for community involvement for students of local HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities)," Camille explains. "I represented the Raleigh College Center, handing out brochures and our event calendar. It was a great chance to learn the history of the area and get to know the people the John Chavis Community Center serves. It is definitely one big happy family!"

As a VISTA, Camille supports the development of the Raleigh College Center (RCC), an effort hosted by the John Chavis Community Center in southeast Raleigh. The College Center opened in 2012 as part of the Raleigh Promise. The Promise is a collaboration among local higher education institutions, philanthropies, non-profits, businesses, and the City of Raleigh. The group's goal: double the number of low-income youth in Raleigh who earn a post-secondary credential and living wage employment by 2025. As a hub of college information for youth and families, the Raleigh College Center is a key part of the effort.

During her first few months in the VISTA role, Camille has started a weekly newsletter to share RCC events and keep the Promise partners informed. She has also helped coordinate college fairs and financial aid information sessions at Chavis, and worked with the Parks & Recreation Department's Teen Outreach Program (TOPs) to coordinate college visits for groups of local teens. The College Center also offers free SAT prep courses for community youth and has laptops available on site to turn the space into a computer lab.

Camille spends several days a week at Chavis, coordinating RCC programming and collaborating with community center staff. She also works out of NC State's Career Development Center, one of the lead administrative offices for the RCC. Dr. Kelly Laraway of the Career Development Center is Project Coordinator for the Raleigh Promise and Camille's VISTA supervisor.

"I'm thrilled with the College Center, seeing how it's going in a quality direction," says Dr. Laraway. "Camille is doing great. She's innovative, focused, and brings a new perspective to the project."

Major funding for The Raleigh Promise project was provided by a grant from the Gates Foundation. Since the grant period ended last summer, the collaborative has been planning next steps for the Promise project and for the College Center in order to sustain momentum toward its 2025 goal.

Camille looks forward to increasing the College Center's outreach and program offerings in the months ahead, to creating a way to evaluate participant satisfaction, and to streamlining the coordination and tracking of College Center presenters and participants.

Though she now loves living in Raleigh, Camille took some time finding her way to NC State. After high school, she attended Virginia Union University to play volleyball, but she realized it wasn't the right fit. After transferring to State as a sophomore, she became involved in Student Government and in programs organized by the Center for Student Leadership, Ethics, and Public Service, including several alternative break experiences. Camille led two trips to the Dominican Republic during her time at State, and she credits these experiences with cementing her desire to focus on community building. After she graduated in December 2012 with a BA in Political Science and minor in Nonprofit Studies, she learned of the NC Campus Compact VISTA program and the placement at the Raleigh College Center.

In her spare time, Camille enjoys running, attending Wolfpack sporting events, and taking advantage of the many festivals and special events in the state capital. She also volunteers her community relations skills as she spends time with friends who've started a local "community conscious design and apparel company" called Boss Manatee.

To learn more about the Raleigh College Center and receive the weekly newsletter, email Camille at casmit21(@)