Thursday, July 24, 2014

Moving Forward Looking Back: the 2013-14 Cohort

As the close of the 2013-2014 VISTA term fast approaches, 17 North Carolina Campus Compact VISTAs spread across the state each work diligently to leave their projects on the firmest of footings. Under their watch, programs have flourished, resources have been gathered, and volunteers have been mobilized to fight poverty with the power of higher education! Now, they are sharing capstone presentations, writing final reports, reflecting back on their year, and looking ahead to the next one.

As part of the close of their year, the 2013-14 VISTA cohort gathered together for a day of service and reflection on July 11. The group began at the Greensboro Children’s Museum clearing weeds, raking, mulching and chicken wrangling in the Edible Schoolyard. Under the expert tutelage of Edible Schoolyard Manager, Justin, the VISTAs had the Schoolyard looking much more presentable by noon.

We then traveled to the campus of UNC Greensboro, where the Office of Leadership and Service Learning provided us a delicious Chipotle lunch and space in the Faculty Center to spend the afternoon looking back at our year. We started off with a slideshow, and moved on to talk about lessons learned from the year. Many expressed the desire to learn more about political systems and policies that engender poverty, while others shared a new understanding about the importance money and access to it, plays in creating pathways out of poverty. Another popular theme of the VISTAs’ age, real or perceived, and how it influenced other peoples’ opinions of VISTA-led programming, also surfaced.

The loudest and most heartily felt reflection though, was that their year was worth it. No matter how many obstacles lay in their path, they overcame them one by one, and they did it by strengthening communities.

A prime example of triumph in the face of adversity is VISTA Brittany Johnson's experience. Brittany was promised a building to begin a Thrift Store Enterprise program for the Hospitality House of Boone at the beginning of her year, but after the building deal fell through, she spent most of her year fundraising, getting the word out, and writing a Thrift Store business plan. Along the way, she met every single resident who came through the building, and made tons of community connections. After a year of uphill work, Brittany finally secured a building, but also secured many new Hospitality House allies. The Thrift Store is now scheduled to open this weekend!

Brittany’s story is just one of seventeen, but each VISTA will tell you the same thing. The work was hard and the salary wasn’t great, but the lessons learned, the programs created, and the people met along they way, made each VISTA’s year an invaluable experience.

Five VISTAs enjoyed their VISTA year so much, they plan to stay on for a second term! Jess-Mara Jordan will return to UNC Asheville’s Key Center to continue developing a mentoring program. Will Jones at Western Carolina University will put his green thumb back to work revitalizing not only WCU’s community garden, but it’s volunteer base to maintain, harvest, and distribute food to local food pantries and soup kitchens. Brittany Johnson at Hospitality House of Boone will dive head-first into the new Thrift Store to design job and volunteer training programs for sustainable management of the store. Elizabeth McIntosh will begin her second term as she finishes up the PAGE (Partnership For Appalachian Girls’ Education) summer camp program. Elizabeth continues to build the organization by creating supplemental year-round programming, building strong partnerships in the region, and continuing the process for PAGE to become an independent 501c (3). Last but not least, Anna Mahathey will be joined by two new VISTAs at High Point University. Anna will work with senior Bonner Leader Students and begin to develop food security programming at West End Ministries. If history is any indicator of the future, we can also expect an MLK Day extravaganza next year!

As for the rest of the cohort, several are still deciding their next steps. However, the successes of their VISTA year are strong evidence that they will succeed at anything. Even without the final Quarter's numbers, the VISTA impact is clear:

$77,512 - in cash/grant resources generated
$46,789 - in non-cash resources raised
3,685 - volunteers mobilized  
23,681 - hours of service performed by volunteers

Christina Hunter will finish her second VISTA year at Queens University of Charlotte, but will stay on as the Assistant Director for the Center for Active Citizenship. She also hopes to attend graduate school for a Professional Masters of Business Administration at Queens.

Dalton Hoffer will wrap up his service term at UNC Pembroke but will stay in the Office of Community and Civic Engagement as the new Assistant Director.

Takira Dale, currently at Duke University, will stay in Durham and work for Teach for America's Eastern North Carolina region. She will act as Coordinator of Special Events and Donor Engagement.

Jacob Lerner, currently at the Marion Cheek Jackson Center, will also be close at hand working as a field organizer with Aim Higher Now NC in Wake County. He will be educating people about the current climate of Public Education in the state legislature.

Camille Smith, currently at NC State, will travel slightly further afield to work with Stop Hunger Now, an international hunger relief organization, as the Assistant Program Manager at the National Capital site in the Washington, D.C. metro area. This new position allows her to combine passions in education and world hunger!

Devin Corrigan, currently at UNC Greensboro, will enroll in a second term of VISTA service as the Development and Communications Coordinator at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation. She will also be holding lots of babies, as she will be much closer to her family in NYC!

Perhaps the furthest flung traveler will be Shifra Sered, currently at East Carolina University. She will be a Shatil Social Justice Fellow with the New Israel Fund, an organization that safeguards human rights in Israel.

In the next few months Sarah Cohn, currently at the Community Empowerment Fund, will be working on a science outreach project with the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) in Durham. She will also continue working on a bilingual curriculum for elementary-aged students of all backgrounds to learn more about evolutionary biology and related sciences.

Ariel Mitchell, currently at Lenoir-Rhyne University, plans to attend graduate school out West. She is scheduled to take the GRE at the end of the summer.

Bevelyn Ukah will move back to her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia to continue the righteous grassroots activism she took part in at Guilford College with the Elimu Empowerment network.

Anna Donze, currently at Wake Forest University, will begin working as the Volunteer Coordinator at Samaritan Ministries on August 11th.

All of our VISTAs worked tirelessly to fulfill the North Carolina Campus Compact mission to fight poverty with the power of higher education. They planned Hunger and Homelessness Awareness events, MLK Days of service, met NC mayors, and led ASB trips near and far. So many of their successes can't be measured, but by reviewing quarterly increases in volunteers recruited and resources secured, we can see a sliver of their huge accomplishments. It is clear that they will continue to live lives of service in whatever endeavors they pursue.

As they move on to the next step in their careers and lives, we wish them great and humbling adventures!

Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
-- Maya Angelou, excerpted from "On the Pulse of the Morning"