Ashley Elizabeth Sheriff – EACS Strategic Initiatives Coordinator

Ashley

Immediately after graduating from a dual Master’s program in African Studies and Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, I was certain that I’d dive headfirst into Africana librarianship. As I sat refining my curriculum vitae and searching for jobs that practically peppered the breadth of the continental United States, I questioned my impact on some of the very problems that led me to such a specialized discipline in the first place. As a graduate student I was attentive to barriers that stifled African researchers’ contributions to the world’s body of academic scholarship – but how could I affect real change as a newly minted information specialist?

On a whim I ‘Googled’ agencies that have a focus on preparing African youth for post-secondary scholarship, and serendipity led me right to East African Community Services’ (EACS) web site.  New to the non-profit sector, EACS is my crash-course introduction to the barriers that prevent African youth from successfully matriculating and thriving in institutions of higher education.  This grassroots organization has been firmly rooted in Seattle’s New Holly neighborhood since the year 2000, and has become a trusted community resource for naturalization services and educational enrichment programs designed for low-income immigrant and refugee families in Washington State’s King County.

Back at my computer desk I poured over EACS’ annual reports and program listings, and it was love at first sight. I intended to apply for any capacity building opportunities this agency could offer – that could be accomplished remotely, of course.  I reached out to EACS staff that day for a part-time grant writing internship, but was immediately encouraged to apply for the on-site Strategic Initiatives Coordinator AmeriCorps VISTA position. As fate would have it, my husband, who’d been applying to jobs in nearly every major city received an offer in Redmond, located about 18 miles northeast of Seattle. I applied in November, and set off for my new life, and renewed sense of purpose by the year’s end.

Just four months into my service term I’ve already made a tangible impact by raising EACS’ financial capacity to deliver educational enrichment programs. I’ve helped develop, and am now implementing this fiscal year’s resource development plan and grant application schedule. And my work as a grant-writing project lead has directly led to more than $29,399.00 in winning grant proposals and over $3,129.00 in corporate cash and in-kind donations, and the returns from an online giving campaign. Notwithstanding my accomplishments, my experience as a VISTA is by no means a cake walk; I am fully immersed in the unglamorous work of helping to sustain and scale up programs within a lean organization. Yet, I finally feel the satisfaction that comes with impacting real change by helping to ensure that EACS can continue to meet the needs of low-income, and especially African youth in King County.

Anya Gedrath-Smith – IRC Community Engagement Coordinator

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Let me begin by saying that my VISTA year has not been without its challenges. Living on an AmeriCorps stipend for a second year has been an unexpected wake-up all as I’ve found myself in the “low-income” category, grateful for food stamps, and enrolled in Medicaid. My VISTA identity also certainly sets me apart from my colleagues. I live in a limbo where I question how I fit into my workplace; at times I feel more like an employee than a volunteer, while in plenty of other instances I fall into the volunteer category and carry “the VISTA” label. My VISTA career is short-lived, with a definite start and end date; professionals I have worked with have reminded me of this ‘problem’ as I aspire towards sustainability in my projects. Friends and family members, too, have questioned what inspired me to sacrifice another year to community service and accept a pittance of a paycheck. I defend myself endlessly, but I can’t honestly say that I don’t question myself, too.

So now let me say this: what this all means in the grand scheme of things is that I am in a minority to have had the ability to accept a volunteer service position. Despite appearances, AmeriCorps is an opportunity not readily available to job-seekers looking to move forward in their career and bound by a host of financial obligations and commitments. I am lucky enough to have a support system that has allowed me to accept such a position, giving me a portal into an impressive international NGO and local refugee resettlement agency. Before even moving to Seattle, I had visualized myself here at the IRC, devoting my time to refugee resettlement and sustainable agriculture projects. To have realized that dream is HUGE. How often are we able to take a step back and say we reached our goals – to say that we set an intention and met it? I feel proud of myself in this regard, and I remind myself of the implications of this success for my future. I cherish the experiences I have had at the International Rescue Committee that have challenged, shaped, and humbled me. I have grown both professionally and personally, and will carry these lessons and memories with me, wherever I go.

In reflecting on this past year, I owe the greatest thanks to my colleagues at the IRC. From the first time I met this multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-talented staff, I was so impressed by their commitment, perseverance, and uplifting presence in the office. These individuals work so incredibly hard at their jobs, and many have endured similar trials and tribulations as refugees themselves – just like our participants journeying from harm to home. Each one of them deserves the utmost recognition and praise. With this perspective in mind, my VISTA experience can be seen as incredible gift- an experience that barely mirrors the longstanding contributions of my IRC peers.

McKenzie Wright – Refugee Orientation Services VISTA

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What is AmeriCorps? Why am I here? What am I actually going to do? Why JFS? These are some of the common questions all VISTAS ask themselves. I definitely asked myself these questions for months before and after I started. Needless to say, I have been able to find some kind of answer in the wild year it has been, usually over lunch.

That’s kind of a funny thing, but seriously food is the best way to connect. I learned so much by just sitting down with families and talking with them. My first meal with a family I had only met them once, in the office.  I was so nervous; I had no idea what to say. (Granted it was my second week and I had never worked with refugees before). As the [obviously delicious] food came out and we started eating, we began sharing stories and connecting in more ways than I thought. I realized you can learn more about people if you sit at the table and share, not only food but about yourself.

For the last 9 months I have been able to have some amazing experiences, many of which involved meals. Throughout this time AmeriCorps and JFS have helped me reach personal and professional goals as well as develop tools and skills I might not have been able to learn elsewhere. I not only taught refugees and developed sustainable curriculum, but through these experiences I learned from people and built relationships.

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” – Neale Donald Walsch

Presentation for New Site Supervisors

Are you new to supervising a VISTA project? If so, check out this Prezi Presentation created by the RSN for new site supervisors: http://prezi.com/c5ni8re-ireg/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share

Changes to AmeriCorps VISTA Health Care Benefits

This is a Prezi Presentation created to help you understand the 2015 changes to VISTA Health Care Benefits.

http://prezi.com/l-mqz8kypa8-/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share

For more information, visit the following pages:

http://www.vistacampus.gov/resources/vista-healthcare-options-0

https://www.healthcare.gov/

https://americorpsvista.imglobal.com/Americorps/healthcare-allowance/about/index.aspx

If you still have questions, contact your VISTA Leader or the VISTA Member Support Unit at this number 800-942-2677.

For New VISTA Members Moving to Seattle

If you are a new VISTA member with the RSN and you are moving to Seattle from elsewhere in the country, this Prezi Presentation may be useful to you. Check it out here: http://prezi.com/odxzox5g6svn/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share

Guide to AmeriCorps VISTA Quarterly Reporting

As a new VISTA member, you may be curious about what the quarterly reports are for and how to complete them. This Prezi Presentation was created to help RSN VISTA members navigate their first reporting period.

http://prezi.com/mcmb_iaar0wh/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share

More information about quarterly reports can be found on the vista campus, here: http://www.vistacampus.gov/resources/blank-vista-project-progress-report-0

Information about the AmeriCorps VISTA Impact App mentioned in the presentation can be found here: http://www.vistacampus.gov/americorps-vista-impact-app

Katrina – School’s Out Washington

On the morning of December 7, 2013, twelve youth participants demonstrated that young people occupy a leading role in the efforts to support racial equity in this country. Toward the beginning of the For Youth, By Youth Structural Racism 101 training at School’s Out Washington, participants developed group agreements envisioning a space for openness, respect, honesty, anger and risk-taking, which were not forgotten over the course of the day. This air of productivity touched on various questions and topics, laced together by a common thread: change needs to happen.

With a range of perspectives coming into the training, the modest number of attendees provided an intimate atmosphere to effectively discuss the topic of structural racism. Four prepared youth trainers facilitated the 4.5 hour session, and engaged participants through small group discussions, self-reflection pieces, video clips and role playing. Some participants expressed feelings of pain and were overwhelmed by the complex topic, while many were surprised to hear the differences and similarities between personal experiences in different local Seattle neighborhoods. Several had not realized how or if race had ever affected them.

Prior to the training, the youth trainers identified topics that explore these perceptions of race, which would be most applicable to this group. Privilege and disadvantage are firmly entrenched in the job market, schools, social media and communities, where young people are so impacted today. The youth trainers chose these spaces to explore and dissect relevant issues of race. 

The participants demonstrated self-awareness and the fearless acknowledgement that Race and Racism are multifarious topics. This should not be overlooked. This self-awareness then translated into self-advocacy. Near the end of the session the adults left the room and together, the youth articulated what they can do to address racism, and what adults should know and do in tandem with these goals.  For example, a snippet of their discussion reveals propositions such as implementing workshops for youth and adults in the school and work settings according to the group. Arguably, this is a common suggestion amongst adults when talking about racism and youth development.

Another challenge is that youth do notice when and how adults and other authority figures use prejudice or stereotypes, whether this is identified as racism or not. And they are aware that it is often a struggle to get adults to listen. This training was one important step toward embracing the indispensable voice of youth in current racial equity discourse. I am personally very grateful that this was one of the first events I had to opportunity to be involved with as a VISTA at SOWA.  As I step further into the field of youth development, my perspectives on YD and Youth Empowerment will be flexible and challenged. 

Siobhan – Coalition for Refugees from Burma

In August, I celebrated the end of my first year of service with the National Corporation for Community Service as well as my one year anniversary working with Coalition for Refugees from Burma and this beautiful community. I commemorated this occasion by returning to the Annual Karen Wrist Tying Ceremony, the same ceremony I had met the community one year prior. When I walked into the Jefferson Community Center I was no longer surrounded by strangers. The students and families I have worked with for the last year smiled warmly and waved as I took my seat beside a lovely young mother named Doh Doh Paw. Her son has been working with an In-Home Tutor that I placed him with many months ago.

The youth led portion of the ceremony was just winding down when I arrived and youth were inviting the broader community up to the long white table where community elders sat at the front of the gymnasium.

      I stood from my seat and walked toward a community elder who I have grown very fond of in my year with CRB and NCCS. I worked closely with her eldest son during his senior year of high school. He graduated last spring and now attends a community college where he takes ESL classes to improve his English. She smiled as she saw me take a place at the end of her line. I waited anxiously as she performed the wrist tying rights for her daughter and granddaughter.

      When it was my turn, I stood with my right hand outstretched to her, open for the sweets and blessings she would bestow upon me for the New Year in the community. I was silent and reflexive as she spoke softly in Karen. I thought back to all I had accomplished in my year of service, all of the students that graduated high school, the youth who had improved their English reading and speaking, and the parents who had gained the confidence to meet their children’s teachers for the first time. I also thought to the future, the challenges I would face working with newly arrived families struggling to understand a new education system, the triumphs of High School Proficiency Exams passed, and finally to families smiling at their children’s graduation from high school. As Annie finished tying the simple red string around my wrist I felt newly fortified to complete my second year of service supporting this community and my country.

The string Annie tied recently fell off. I shed the tattered red thread like a snake does its skin. At first I was devastated, I thought all of the magic Annie had spun with her Karen prayer would disappear but then I realized “No matter what the future may bring I know these amazing young women and women have changed my life and that will never leave me.”

Erika

“Oh my God, it’s been so busy.” If you work in an American office, you probably hear this – and its companions: “I’m so stressed,” “I only slept for X number of hours last night“ and “I’m just so slammed with work” -a lot, from your colleagues, your boss, and even yourself. Our workplace culture tends to place a premium on stress and busyness, but at what cost to employee effectiveness, happiness, and sustainability? As a VISTA contemplating my future career path, I’ve become aware of the office culture surrounding working overtime and always being ‘so busy.’

According to the Center for Disease Control, stress-related illnesses and disabilities cost employers millions of dollars each year. Stress and overwork make you more susceptible to illness, less likely to have a healthy work-life balance, and more likely to make mistakes on the job. Many of us do important work, and sometimes you’ll be stressed because there’s a lot going on, or you’re on a tricky project, or something has gone awry in your personal life, and there’s no shame in that. What I’d like to move away from is the wide-held belief that if you aren’t stressed and aren’t complaining about how busy you are, you aren’t doing enough. Instead, let’s focus on doing our jobs well and efficiently and letting others do theirs.

So, yes, we’re all busy. But maybe we should be a little less busy, and my New Year’s resolution? To never again tell someone I’m so busy.

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