Thursday, September 11, 2014

VISTA Alumni Network Newsletter # 2

This page contains full text of features from our recent VISTA Alumni Network Newsletter. Scroll down to read the features listed below:

Blast from the Past photo slideshow
VISTA bloggers reflect on a year of service
Alumni Spotlight on Neil Hoefs (Duke VISTA, 2010-12)

View the complete newsletter here.


Blast from the Past! Photo Slideshow


VISTA bloggers reflect on a year of service

This summer, our VISTA VIEW blog published a series of member reflections. This project was the brainchild of our VISTA Leader Carla Davis, who solicited and edited the pieces. Each member's voice and story is distinct, but reading these reflections together reveals how much VISTA can be a year of challenge and growth.

The complete series:

Neil during his VISTA salad days in 2010.
Neil Hoefs (rhymes with “chafes”) came to Durham as an NC Campus Compact VISTA in 2010. By the time he'd finished his second VISTA term at Duke’s Community Service Center, Neil knew he wanted to stay. “I love Durham,” Neil explains. “It’s an incredibly friendly community, and it has small town feel.... I really felt there was a sense of community here.” As a program coordinator at the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, Neil helps others make those community connections to build a better Durham. In a recent conversation, Neil explains the power of “funfetti” cupcakes, why he loves meeting new Duke VISTAs, and how VISTA taught him to listen.

So Neil, what’s new with you?

I just got back from Seattle, Washington, where I was with a group of Duke undergrads who spent their summer in Seattle working at various non-profit community partner sites, volunteering 40 hours a week. I was an on-site coordinator for that program… a program called Duke Engage Seattle. And now I’m just starting my new position with the Duke Durham Neighborhood Partnership where I’ve been working as a fellow for the past 2 years. I’m actually now a program coordinator in this office.

I’ll continue some of the work I did as a fellow and as a VISTA, working with Duke undergraduates and connecting them with service opportunities and focusing my energies on connecting with the DDNP partners.

Can you tell me a little more about the Duke Durham Neighborhood Partnership?

The Duke Durham Neighborhood Partnership is a partnership between Duke University and some of the neighborhoods that are close by within walking or biking distance. We have a relationship with the neighborhood association presidents and stay in regular communication with them, and we are also in the position to leverage some of Duke’s resources, whether they’re monetary or volunteer resources. We’ll plug students into service opportunities with agencies in these neighborhoods, that includes schools and nonprofits. Our main focus is on affordable housing efforts and on youth mentorship. We have a great relationship with Durham Public Schools. 

I should also mention the DDNP is a unit of the Office of Durham and Regional Affairs (, and the Community Service Center, where I served as a VISTA, is our sister office.

You’ve told me often that you like living in Durham.

Oh, I love living in Durham!

What made you want to stay after you finished your VISTA term? What are some of the things you love about Durham?

It’s an incredibly friendly community, and it has small town feel.... I really felt there was a sense of community here.  And I was coming in at an interesting time because - even within the past four years I’ve seen tremendous growth and influx and flow of people into downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. So there just seems to be a lot of energy right now, especially among the small business community, a lot of social entrepreneurial efforts, and Durham can kind of be seen as an incubator for innovation. So it’s just an exciting place.

So now do you consider yourself a “Dookie”?

Oh boy… I would consider myself a Dookie as far as basketball is concerned. But -- and this is off the record -- I’m definitely still an Ohio State football fan. I guess that doesn’t have to be off the record. Yes, I’m still very much a fan of The Ohio State University.

You grew up and went to school in Ohio. How did you decide to come down to North Carolina as a VISTA?

Well, VISTA was always something that had been on my mind since I graduated from Ohio State in 2008. I had interviewed with NC Campus Compact when I was looking for employment and I was being considered for a position at a site, but for whatever reason, funding was cut to that program. The same day I found that out, I got a call from the American Cancer Society in Columbus in their Ohio division offering me a job and that was a wonderful thing too. So I had VISTA in the back of my mind while I worked for ACS for 2 years. Then, I decided I wanted to go a different direction. At ACS I had worked with a couple of Relay of Life events and I really enjoyed working with college students, so I came back to my idea of NC Campus Compact, and when I pursued it, I had the chance to come and be a VISTA at Duke. And I thought, “Wow, how great would this be!” and sure enough I got hired, and it really opened up a lot of doors that wouldn’t have been opened otherwise.

What some of your best memories or projects you are proud of from your VISTA years? Don’t make me look through your old reports.

Oh, do not do that! I would say planning some of the service events, especially the MLK Million Meals event. It was a challenging experience but it was also really motivating and I got to see the event grow over time and engage more students.

But a huge highlight was communicating with some of the other VISTAs and hearing about their work. It was really inspiring and also generated a lot of ideas about how we could improve the things we were doing at Duke, hearing from VISTAs all across the state, and there was a sense of camaraderie too. It could have been that we were also in the same position in that weird gray area, kind of bizarre place working in the university offices but still be considered just an affiliate. It’s kind of an odd role because you’re somewhere in between.

Since you’ve stayed on at Duke, you’ve always been willing to be an alumni contact for your VISTA successors. Thanks for that. Why do you do it? What advice do you share with them?

The most important thing you can bring to that role is excitement about the position. I am always really excited when I meet with the VISTA volunteers who are coming in at Duke, just describing the city. Durham is an awesome place and I was really pumped to connect them to resources in the area, send along links to housing or ways to do things cheaply, because that can be potentially intimidating. It’s an opportunity to connect them to community partners who are doing great things and to other departments and administrators at the university.

So how are you going to celebrate AmeriCorps 20th Anniversary on Friday?
I didn’t even know that AmeriCorps was celebrating its… 20th Anniversary? Oh man, well, I’m probably going to bake a funfetti cake.

Did you say a “funfetti” cake? What is that?

Oh, you’ve been deprived! It’s a box cake with those little rainbow flakes. Most people have fond memories. Actually, my first year as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, during volunteer appreciation week, I baked like 250 funfetti cupcakes and distributed them on Duke’s West Campus on the plaza. Just as a blanket thank you to our volunteers.

So, this Friday I’ll celebrate the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps by baking an imaginary funfetti cake to be distributed to all AmeriCorps members, past, present, and future, and saying, “Thank you for your service.”

So besides cupcake distribution, we are trying to do more to help current VISTA members develop “career-ready skills.” What about your VISTA experience helped you move forward professionally?

Well, this sounds really basic but I think: listening. We have such a natural instinct to just talk or worry about how you’re going to respond to something. So I think the greatest bit of knowledge I gained is the fact you need to slow down, you need to listen and understand that every conversation is a learning opportunity.

I know that’s not exactly what you’re going for. You want some kind of turn-key, like, oh if I plug into this, it will be a game changer. But if you’re just mindful and aware of your surroundings that could open up all kinds of avenues.

Even to have some creativity in your role. The VISTA Assignment Description… it is black and white, but it’s not at the same time. There are still opportunities for you to take what’s on that page and fulfill your responsibilities while still considering your interests as well. I think each person brings unique talents to the table and you can have an opportunity to have those bloom if you’re just mindful.