Friday, February 28, 2014

WCU VISTA cultivates community, gardens, future

VISTA Willie Jones
VISTA Willie Jones hasn't had a life that most people would call traditional or easy, growing up in foster care and periodically experiencing homelessness throughout his adolescence. However, despite a hard road to college, Willie has not only flourished personally, but found he has a knack for helping others grow as well.

Willie serves at Western Carolina University as the AmeriCorps VISTA Community Outreach Coordinator for the Center of Service Learning. In this role, Willie coordinates gleans and is the glean leader for the Jackson County Glean Team, a group which he created. Gleaning, in this sense, means to gather excess crops from local farmers and distribute it throughout the community to those in need. You can get Willie's insider perspective on gleaning from this documentary he put together!

Currently, Willie is spending the majority of his time revitalizing WCU’s Campus Kitchen Garden, which is maintained primarily by students, staff, and volunteers, who then distribute the produce to local agencies that combat food insecurity. Though there are many moving variables in this project, Willie is excited to see how it will turn out, because through all of these partnerships, there is room for a really creative and collaborative venture that, in Willie's words, "will create a more environmentally aware, and sustained community through incorporating organic farming techniques and gleaning. When it's all set in place, we will have a constantly evolving program that is sustainable, educational, and will actually strengthen and be beneficial for the community!"

Willie recalls his first glean at Ms. Bonnie's garden picking apples. "It all started when she came into the office and gave us 10 gigantic jars of apple sauce."

Jackson County Glean Team
It turned out Ms. Bonnie had an apple tree in her garden, and she had more apples than she knew what to do with, so Willie convened some gleaners to give Ms. Bonnie a hand. "As I climbed Ms. Bonnie's apple tree and we exchanged life stories and experiences, I was reminded of my life being homeless, [and] it reminded me of something that was embedded into my mind at a young age: everyone is a person, everyone has a message, and everyone has something to teach you, whether you [think] the information [is] valuable [at the time] or not...and this has made a world of difference in my VISTA year." This reaffirmed for Willie the importance of sharing stories and connecting with these community members in a more meaningful way.

The way Willie learns has helped him shape this shared-story approach to recruiting and training volunteers as well. "In some cases I have to teach myself how something should be done or learned...This...allows me to gain a better connection with not only myself, but [also] my volunteers. It allows me to see things from different perspectives: my struggles, strengths and weakness...I know the struggle of trying to learn the information or method, so that personal experience [helps] me to relate to them on a personal level when I’m teaching them."

Pumpkin gleaning with the Jackson County Team
Eventually, Willie hopes to have local growers and farmers, the Cullowhee Community Garden, the Campus Kitchen Garden, the food pantries at Community Table, The Market, and United Christian Ministries, and educational institutions and programs like Western Carolina University, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Program, and the Dietetics and Nutrition Program at WCU, all working together. Willie notes however, that the most important group to engage is the community.

His biggest hurdle so far has been creating a gleaning calendar so that he can send out a notice to recruit volunteers a couple weeks before (as opposed to a day or two) farmers need their crops gleaned. Coordinating schedules is easier said than done, but ultimately will benefit the community with more fresh, organic produce, and benefit the farmers with a bigger tax deduction.

Revamping the Community Kitchen and gleaning the fields of local farmers is hard work. If you're interested in volunteering, and you are a WCU student, join the Campus Kitchen Garden list serve by either emailing or calling Willie. If you don't go to Western, but are interested in volunteering, join the Jackson County Glean Team Facebook page! By joining either of these groups, you will have access to weekly garden and glean reports. As soon as Willie's gleaning calendar is ready to roll, he will also be placing that information in the local paper. Make sure to read about Willie's Homecoming Food Drive and MLK Day of Service event successes too!

Willie embarked on his journey as an NC Campus Compact AmeriCorps VISTA back in August, and has been working on Campus Kitchen's organic farming part of the program since January, but Willie isn't new to the environmental or community engagement scene. In fact, his undergraduate degree from Brevard College is in Environmental Science, with a concentration in Environmental Science, and while at school, was the service coordinator for the Multicultural Center. It was here that he met and worked with several AmeriCorps VISTA members, through whom he first learned about AmeriCorps. Immediately he noticed that as an AmeriCorps VISTA, he could combine his degree with two of his other passions; higher education and service, all the while gaining valuable skills, paying off student loans, and staying in touch with his community, family, and friends.

Willie volunteering for MLK Day of Service
Outside of the office (and the garden!), Willie lists some of his favorite past times as working out, backpacking, bouldering, rock climbing, and gardening. Originally hailing from the very flat Cincinnati, Ohio, it sounds like Western North Carolina may be the perfect place for Willie! Apart from all the fun in the sun, Willie also enjoys playing with animals, taking pictures, watching Netflix and HGTV, hanging out with his girlfriend, and "EATING."

"I think my girlfriend and I spend a lot of our time, and a lot of my VISTA stipend, eating!" Willie says enthusiastically.

After completing his VISTA years, he will have the skills and tools to conquer his next challenge; graduate school. Willie plans to attend graduate school for Higher Education and Sustainability, so that he can continue helping communities grow, develop, and become sustainable. Willie Jones is taking his growth and his story with him and he has a clear vision for his future.

"I’m striving for creating highly educated and environmentally aware communities throughout the world."