Thursday, January 16, 2014

CEF VISTA empowers student volunteers to support community members

VISTA Sarah Cohn
August 9th, 2013 marked Sarah Cohn's first day of work as an official AmeriCorps VISTA at Community Empowerment Fund, but she was no stranger to CEF. In fact, when Sarah wasn't working toward her undergraduate degree in Biology from UNC-Chapel Hill, she was volunteering at CEF. Sarah first started working with CEF-Latino to keep up her Spanish fluency after studying abroad in Spain to complete coursework for her Spanish minor. She spent two years volunteering as a student Advocate, and once graduation rolled around, she couldn't pull herself away just yet. Lucky for her, two Americorps VISTA positions at CEF opened up during her last semester, so she applied for the Advocate Program Coordinator Position through North Carolina Campus Compact's VISTA program, and now has a hand in shaping CEF's future.

Initially founded as a project of UNC-Chapel Hill's Campus Y that connected students and local people experiencing homelessness, CEF is now a non-profit organization that still relies on student and community leadership. CEF offers a variety of opportunities to community members seeking a sustainable transition out of poverty through its financial education Member/Advocate pairing system. CEF pairs two volunteer Advocates with each Member (client) to work toward building assets and finding better housing and employment. Along with two volunteers, Sarah spends most of her time coordinating these pairings and continually checking in to provide support to both Members and Advocates as they work toward the Member’s goals. Not only is Sarah coordinating Advocate/Member pairs, she is also creating volunteer Advocate training, and updating CEF's Advocate/Member database. 

"I’m excited to have a part in building a Member-Advocate pairing system that runs smoothly and effectively," Sarah said. "I want to put processes in place that will allow the next Advocate Program Coordinators to be able to match Members and Advocates, follow up, and provide ongoing support to all pairings – without anyone falling through the cracks." 

CEF, founded in 2009, started off with only seven people and now that number is close to four-hundred! With its rapid growth, CEF needed a new pairing system. Before Sarah and her two volunteer recruits came on board, the Advocate Program Coordination  responsibilities were managed by one part-time volunteer!

"The VISTA program has been a great way for me to stay involved with CEF. I am so honored to have even a small part in building the infrastructure that will allow CEF to keep up with its growth in the future!" says Sarah."

Though Sarah spends much of her time and passion at CEF, outside of work she enjoys hiking, playing soccer, reading, cooking (and eating all those delicious things she whips up!) studying languages, and running around with her dogs. As for the future, Sarah doesn't yet have any steps set in stone, but she is considering what graduate school programs would be the best fit for her. In the meantime, Sarah hopes her position at CEF will help her develop professionally and learn more about social services and public policy.

"I have already learned a lot!" Sarah recounts enthusiastically. "No concrete plans yet. Maybe another VISTA term [with CEF, but] until [graduate school I] want to work in lots of different roles."

In the meantime, CEF, on the boundary of UNC's campus, is always looking for new volunteers. Approximately one-hundred and fifty students, as well as close to 40 community members from Durham, already volunteer, but new faces are always welcome. This Spring, the UNC Campus Y committee, Homeless Outreach Poverty Iradication (HOPE), from whom came the founding members of CEF, are hosting a fundraiser called "Box Out". People interested can get involved in several different ways. They can volunteer on the "Box Out" committee, sign up to be a program coordinator or team leader, or register as an individual!

"New volunteers are always welcome!" exclaims Sarah. "Being a CEF Advocate is the perfect way to spend one-on-one time serving fellow community members and, most importantly, getting to know people different from yourself. As an Advocate, I can say that working with CEF teaches many life-changing lessons, a big one being that the people you work with aren’t really different at all – we’re all in this together!"

CEF does not focus simply on serving needs; its Member/Advocate approach is about building community. Members and Advocates learn together, and Sarah learns along with them. Sarah focuses on making the best pairings possible, which requires getting to know a lot of faces. She attributes her ability to remember so many people to being a visual learner. In class, Sarah used to draw her notes out into pictures and diagrams to help her process the information, no matter what the class.

There is one big take-away for Sarah, though. "I am constantly moved by one aspect of my work at CEF above all others," Sarah says. "And that’s gratitude. Our clients express so much gratitude and positivity towards the work that we do, and volunteers are always grateful to be part of such an inspiring community."

With MLK Day right around the corner, North Carolina Campus Compact encourages everyone to find opportunities to engage with your own inspiring communities.