Rebecca Craig – JFS Employment Services Coordinator

Rebecca

According a Brookings Institute analysis of the most recent census data, 30% of working-age immigrants have at least a bachelor degree. This is a significant jump from the 19% of highly educated immigrants in 1980. While this statistic is a snapshot of all immigrants in the US, the trend is also reflective of refugee populations in the Puget Sound region, especially since the US started resettling refugees from Iraq. It is likely that we will continue to see this trend as we start resettling more refugees from Syria in the coming years as well. Yet, most refugee resettlement agencies have had difficulty finding the advancement opportunities that these highly educated individuals seek. The reason for this is that most agencies are structured and funded to find entry-level employment opportunities quickly. This is where capacity building becomes important.

As an AmeriCorps Vista I have been working with Jewish Family Service in order to build their capacity to meet the specific needs of refugee professionals. JFS had been dreaming about creating Tatweer – a mentor program for highly skilled refugees – for over a year before I came on-board. The groundwork had been laid, but designing a program to build around mentorship was a challenge all its own. The first step was a needs assessment. I facilitated one-on-one interviews and small focus groups with over a dozen highly skilled refugees and asked them a series of questions.

How difficult has it been for you to find work?

What services do you wish were available to you?

What do you feel are the biggest barriers to reentering your field of expertise?

What I learned from these meetings helped me to design Tatweer in a way that addressed their main concerns.

Building Tatweer from the ground up has been an exhilarating process. With each step the focus has had to shift from one outcome to the next and each moving target comes with its own unique challenges. For instance, the initial program design, participant recruiting, and curriculum development phase, begot the new process of program implementation and two long months of mentor recruiting. On top of all this there are constant behind the scenes tasks like the creation and upkeep of tracking systems, copy writing for and design of flyers and websites, and building connections within the community. I bet you can gather from this list that I am slowly becoming an expert juggler. Throughout this process I have learned that collaboration and relationship building are key to getting anything done.

Today the Tatweer program is serving our first cohort of 10 clients with professional backgrounds in mechanical engineering, civil engineering, dentistry public relations, human resources, business administration and IT. Each field has its own barriers to entry and each participant a personal guide to industry integration in the form of a mentor. Participants are working on building their professional tools like resume, LinkedIn profiles, and cover letters. They are also working on expanding their professional networks with the help of their mentors. The Tatweer program is just about half way through the pilot round and our goal is to provide participants with the tools to start rebuilding their professional careers by the time they have completed the program in December.

Source:http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2011/6/immigrants-singer/06_immigrants_singer.pdf

Kelli Schlegelmilch – CRB Youth Program Coordinator

Kelli

My passion for working with refugees first developed in Portland, Oregon where I volunteered for two years as a Youth & Family Mentor with a Karen refugee family. I will be forever grateful for my experience with this family, as their spirit and resiliency inspired me to want to make a career out of assisting newly-arrived refugees.

As a way to begin exploring this new career path, I joined Coalition for Refugees from Burma as a VISTA in November 2014. As Youth Program Coordinator, I assist with most aspects of the organization’s Youth Programs for refugee youth – including volunteer recruitment, outreach, resource development, and program facilitation.

Most recently, I developed a large portion of the curriculum for CRB’s 5-week summer program for high school-aged refugee participants. Each of the five weeks was designed to identify a global challenge and explore ways students can work toward solving the challenge. The 47 student participants represented a large variety of cultural backgrounds, ages (grades 9-12), and English levels. This variety adds a wonderful array of diversity to the classroom, yet poses a challenge in developing curriculum that can sufficiently reach out to all participants. There is a constant need to find a balance in creating material that isn’t too difficult for the lower English-level students, yet challenges the higher-level students.

During the third week of the program, I gathered my notes after seeing what had and had not worked in the first two weeks to create a week of lessons, activities, and discussions based on environmental challenges. Students were exposed to two major environmental challenges (loss of biodiversity and pollution), and within the lesson learned a variety of vocabulary words to strengthen their understanding of the content.

After identifying various environmental challenges, students worked together to build models of parks that were eco-friendly and reflected the needs of their community. Emphasis was put on using recycled materials and sustainable design, while students also had to interview a community member to see what he or she most desired in a local park. The project offered an effective hands-on way for all students to synthesize the new content and vocabulary, and the results were extremely creative!

The week, and the entire summer program, was a huge success and proved that I am learning just as much as these students during my year as a VISTA. I have been able to build upon my previous international and cross-cultural experiences to further develop and fine-tune skills that will help me as I continue to pursue opportunities for assisting refugees. I look forward to what the remaining months as a VISTA, and the path beyond, have to offer!

Kelli in classroom

Chelsea Carlson – RSN VISTA Leader 2014-2015

chelsea

In August 2014, I completed my first successful year of AmeriCorps VISTA.There I served as the Marketing and Multicultural Outreach Coordinator for Adult Basic Education (ABE) in my home state of Minnesota. This year opened my eyes to many bitter realities faced daily by those affected by poverty. I had studied many of these issues at length throughout my time in University, but that did little to grow my understanding of the true, human experience behind it. I still have a monumental amount left to learn. I also witnessed the incredible resilience of my community, which I believe was essential for sparking my passion for public service.

Following my year at ABE, I moved to Seattle to become a VISTA Leader with the RSN. The experiences of a VISTA Leader are definitely very different than those of a VISTA. As a VL, I have seen the work done by the entire cohort from a unique angle. I have seen a wide range of conflicts and barriers that can arise in service organizations and have grown to more thoroughly understand why some mechanisms move quickly while others seem to face a constant uphill battle. VISTA Leadership has certainly given me more insight into the inner workings of non-profit organizations, big and small.

It has been exciting and inspiring to watch the progress of so many amazing projects. To say that this year has been eye-opening would be an understatement. In the end, I believe that the combination of my VISTA project and my year as a VISTA Leader ended up being the perfect education I needed to prepare me for the career that follows.

Hannah Hollmann – Asian Counseling and Referral Service Resource Development AmeriCorps*VISTA

hannah

As a second-term VISTA at Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), I’ve had the pleasure of really getting to know the people and communities I work with. I started as a VISTA in ACRS’ Volunteer Program which provided a number of opportunities to engage with staff members, volunteers and clients from a variety of ACRS’ 13 departments. From line dancing with seniors clients to celebrating volunteers at the ACRS Food Bank, I was touched by the dedication and generosity of spirit so many of our volunteers have. My first year as a VISTA provided me with the honor of meeting and developing strong connections with so many different aspects of ACRS and the work we do. 

 

Now, as a VISTA with ACRS’ Development program I am engaged in a different capacity, with a focus on grant writing, communications and the two ACRS annual fundraisers. I’ve really enjoyed learning about the programs from this perspective, and have grown leaps and bounds professionally under the leadership of my coworkers.  

 

These past two years have been hard, but also incredibly rewarding. I’ve struggled with insecure housing, finances, and other personal challenges. That said, I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to learn from so many people. I have changed significantly in the duration of this program, and remain motivated by a desire to help others however I am able.    

Margaret Major- Project Feast Program Coordinator

MargaretM

Gari niam. Lekkel. Mangez. Kay lanu an. Eat. Eat. Come, we’re eating lunch. Calls to food, calls to family. Invitations- in a myriad of languages- to be together, work together, eat together. This is what I remember from my family and teachers in Senegal. A year full of days living with these words and greetings and values was enough to convince me of the power of food, importance of family, and value of patience in making sustainable, positive change in the world and in myself.

 

I was drawn to AmeriCorps VISTA for all of the practical reasons: recent college graduate tired of making lattés, in search of professional development opportunities, and faced with encroaching loan payments. But what really convinced me that this position was right for me was that it was a platform for me to engage with so many of my passions and interests – food, women’s empowerment, cultural exchange, community, language, fighting poverty- all in the breathtaking northwest- doesn’t get much better than that.

 

Project Feast is unique. We are a nonprofit/ social enterprise hybrid, we are a start-up, and we are a four-person team. We work in a community center and in a co working space, in a cubicle and in a commercial kitchen. I’m bouncing around doing different projects all the time like creating outreach materials and going to career fairs for Tukwila parents, editing commercial kitchen skills curriculum to better suite adult English language learners, reading about how to use instagram effectively to promote a catering business, and teaching myself the language of customer relationship management software. It’s a whirlwind! While it is exhilarating to create things from scratch, take personal initiative, and have a say in the direction and vision of an organization, it is also at times scary and challenging to thrive with little direction, be assigned a task I really don’t know how to do, and work with people from around the world with different backgrounds, experiences, communication styles, and needs. But so is life, and so is the life of an AmeriCorps VISTA. Sometimes moving forward, often questioning my next and last move, always learning.

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

anya

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

personal photo

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

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