AmeriCorps VISTA’s. Who are they and what benefit do they bring us? What does a day in the life of an AmeriCorps VISTA look like? How are they combating the pressuring issues of poverty in our community? For those unfamiliar, the mission of the AmeriCorps VISTA program is to strengthen organizations that alleviate poverty and build the capacity of those organizations to make a real difference. Essentially, it is the stateside counterpart to the Peace Corps. United Way of Story County (UWSC) is lucky to have housed a handful of individuals over the past four years willing to dedicate a year of their life to volunteering for our community. Since partnering with the Corporation for National & Community Service and the AmeriCorps VISTA program in 2014, we have increased our capacity tenfold with the help of these full-time volunteers working through our office. But don’t take our word for it. Here is Bryann’s story of how her year of service pushed her to new heights all while making an impact on those living in Story County.
I first learned about the VISTA Income Specialist opportunity at UWSC after looking into service opportunities after graduating with my bachelors in Sociology. I found the VISTA opportunity to be very unique because it provided me the opportunity to sign on as a full time volunteer working in my field, and included a living stipend. I was eager to take on the challenges presented through the program and to expand my knowledge of financial stability work in Story County. Throughout the past year I have had the opportunity to develop skills in many areas including grant writing, volunteer recruitment, and program development. This has helped me grow both personally and professionally.
In the first few months of service there was a steep learning curve that I was not quite prepared for. I was tasked with mapping community assets and programs throughout the county that relate to financial literacy, free tax preparation, and job skills training. This was daunting as I entered a new community where I was not familiar with the geography, community organizations, or key stakeholders. Learning a new community took a lot more time and patience than I had anticipated.
After the first few months I felt somewhat equipped to take on my first big project, promoting an online free tax filing service developed by United Way and H&R Block called MyFreeTaxes. I stumbled upon the opportunity to apply for grant funds to increase our promotional efforts here in Story County. This helped me learn more about grant writing and managing grant funds. After being awarded the grant I was eager to kick up our promotional efforts. I was able to develop outreach materials and hosted an educational tax event to help raise awareness about online tax filing options. These efforts provided attendees with the tools they needed to feel confident in filing taxes on their own. The experience promoting MyFreeTaxes taught me a lot about the various facets to UWSC’s financial stability work, and how impactful an increased tax refund can be to a family living on a limited income.
My understanding of financial stability work in Story County continued to expand throughout the promotion of MyFreeTaxes, and I was eager to share this knowledge with other community members. I submitted a proposal to the Leadership Ames 2017-2018 class to plan a poverty simulation. Together, with a team of 5 individuals from unique backgrounds with differing skill sets, we planned the Story County Financial Stability Event. The event opened with a poverty simulation, included presentations from various agencies that provide services in our community, and closed with discussion on what participants in the event could do to help tackle barriers to financial stability throughout our county. Coordinating this event not only provided me the opportunity to work with a great group of individuals, but also share the knowledge I had gained this past year with other community members.
I believe the opportunity to work on a diverse range of projects has allowed me to have a greater understanding of the mission and vision of UWSC. The experiences I encountered over this past year have pushed me outside of my comfort zone at times and taught me several invaluable lessons. These experiences combined with new relationships has provided me with countless opportunities for growth and I am ready to embrace new opportunities as I move forward.