Monthly Archives: June 2015

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.

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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

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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