As Virginia Mentoring Partnership’s 2018-2019 cohort of AmeriCorps VISTAs prepares to end service over the next couple of months, every member of the cohort came together to write a reflection of their experience with national service. This post documents their incredible stories of growth, hardship, and achievement, as well as the strength, love, and kinship they each found in their communities.

Azuree Bowman | MentorPrize

AzureeI was granted one of the greatest opportunities of a lifetime when I decided I wanted to become an AmeriCorps VISTA. Every single moment of my service year has taught me so many things about myself by pushing me out of my comfort zone and into the world, professionally and personally. Professionally, I have had the chance to meet and get to know a lot of people from different backgrounds, passions, and professions. From every day members in a community, to a newly elected mayor, I have met community leaders that are eager to bring positive change to youth and young adults in their communities. Most importantly though, I have had a chance to work alongside people who not only want to see change in their neighborhoods, but are working diligently and vigorously, day and night, to be that change and sustain that change. Personally, my service year has transitioned me out of the classroom and into the real world where I have experienced my own personal growth. While working for youth and young adults, I have realized that every single person I’ve met has a story. By taking on this position, I have toured neighborhoods, conducted site visits, and heard personal stories that allowed me, as an outsider, to get a glimpse into people’s lives. I truly believe my time as a VISTA has been nothing but an opportunity and privilege, and I am forever indebted to the communities that let an outsider in.

Katelyn Chau | MentorPrize

If you asked me what I planned to do post-grad, I would have said teaching English somewhere in South Korea. Yet here I am, almost exactly one year from undergraduate commencement, nowhere near northeast Asia. Instead, I’ve chosen to move to Northern Virginia to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA. My decision to volunteer with AmeriCorps has completely changed my life. I am twenty steps closer to really finding myself and figuring out what type of impact I want to make, and I am much more confident and enthusiastic about the future. I have grown professionally through attending board meetings and workshops, planning fundraisers, learning and maintaining systems, and much more. But more importantly, the personal growth I have seen throughout my service year has been rewarding. I am more courageous, empathetic, and straightforward. I learned to focus on my mental health as much as my physical health and to set boundaries and stick to them. I committed to a year of service to help make under-served communities stronger, but throughout my experience, the communities I’ve helped have helped me become the strong person I am today. I’ve gained far more than I could have imagined. National service has exposed me to so many opportunities and has provided a network of support I didn’t realize I needed. Saying that I’m thankful and grateful for the opportunity to serve isn’t enough to fully describe how I feel. I can’t wait to use all that I’ve learned through AmeriCorps in my future endeavors.

Morgan Cochran | Befriend-A-Child

Being a second year AmeriCorps volunteer for me is about making a difference for communities and individuals dealing with some of our Nation’s biggest challenges: poverty, inequity, homelessness, and lack of access to education. As a VISTA Member, I served in Fairfax County’s child abuse and prevention department as the assistant coordinator for Befriend-A-Child Mentoring Program. We provided opportunities for companionship, guidance and support to children who have been abused and neglected, or who are at risk of abuse and neglect. My first year serving, I served as an AmeriCorps State National Member. I provided intensive case-management for 30 at-risk youth in San Marcos Middle School. Students received academic tutoring/support, character development lessons, and service learning opportunities throughout the school year. Serving as a National and State and AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer has opened up my heart in amazing ways to so many incredible experiences. I have really enjoyed serving as a VISTA and I hope to use the experiences I have had in my third and final year of national service, serving as an NCCC FEMA Corps Team Leader. I’m beyond grateful for all that I’ve learned as an AmeriCorps volunteer.

Hope Davis | Germanna Community College

I applied to AmeriCorps VISTA because I was having difficulty finding a position that was fulfilling and allowed me to work with people. When I was sent the AmeriCorps VISTA opportunity listing for Germanna Community College by my two friends (now colleagues), it seemed like a perfect fit: I would be able to work with people, receive excellent training and support from Germanna and VMP, all while living in my hometown. Through my service, it has been the most pleasant of surprises to discover how dedicated my hometown is to serving its community. My site is a community college, so community is at the center of everything they do. The students I serve are considered to be in underserved populations, and receive benefits from the college not every traditional student receives. One of those benefits is mentoring. When I arrived, it was clear that the students felt supported in the classroom, but still struggled with support outside of it. Mentors have helped to boost not just the confidence of the student mentees, but have also strengthened the bond between the school and the community.  My time as a VISTA has allowed me to see how other people live in a place I love. It has reminded me that support is key to success and self esteem. Most importantly, it has let me improve a community I already loved so that others can love it as well.

Steve Decker | Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Central Blue Ridge

Steve DeckerPrior to starting this position, I served as an AmeriCorps State/National with a program in Nashville that helped resettled refugees acclimate to life in the US. It was my desire to continue working with that population that led me to another year of AmeriCorps service. I would not come to realize the full impact of my work until this past weekend, in a moment I will never forget. My role as a Program Specialist with Big Brothers Big Sisters in Charlottesville gave me the opportunity to co-lead an overnight camping trip for our Bigs and Littles to Shenandoah National Park. The trip involved a full day of activities, and so it was a weary group of people that made their way to the top of an overlook near our campsite at the end of the day. Yet what happened next was a moment beyond description: fourteen individuals, of all different backgrounds, age groups and worldviews, sharing a breathtaking view of the sunset, in silence yet solidarity. As I looked at my group I thought about my work to build a new mentoring program for refugee youth, and how a program like that involves bringing people together that might never interact in different circumstances. As I took in this powerful sight of our matches bonding with a shared sunset, a single thought crossed my mind: what mountain can’t we climb when we can still appreciate the value of a sunset shared with others? As a VISTA, I have the power to bring communities closer together and the means to help individual community members rediscover the power they have when they come together to guide their community beyond the sunset and into the future.

Dylan Fox | Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club

DylanBefore I joined AmeriCorps and made volunteering my full time job, I served as a mentor and tutor for students in Richmond’s East End. Working one-on-one or in small groups, I helped my mentees develop both academic and life skills. I focused on reading, writing, and math skills to help the students excel in school. We also worked to develop confidence, build character, realize the value of education, and form positive relationships with their teachers and peers. After graduating college, I wanted to continue serving my community through mentorship. I committed to a year of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA. Now I live and work in the East End, and serve as the Mentor Program Coordinator for the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club. With their resources, I am building a mentoring program from the ground up. Based around a STEAM curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math), I hope to give our club members the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. Although I miss working with my mentees, I take pride in knowing that my work as a VISTA allows me to help a greater number of youth than would be possible in a direct-service role.

Joy Gilchrist | Peter Paul Development Center

JoyUpon graduating, I knew I wanted to gain some experiences in the non-profit sector before I pursued a graduate degree. After researching a long list of opportunities, I found an AmeriCorps VISTA position that aligned with all the goals and experiences I hoped to gain during my service. Through AmeriCorps VISTA, I work as a Mentor Coordinator through the Peter Paul Development Center, a community center in the Richmond area. In this position I have had the opportunity to meet and speak with individuals who have had long careers in the non-profit and education sector and have been very open to sharing all they can during my time of service. In this position I have learned how important and valuable networking and relationship building is to not only my professional growth but also my personal development. At this stage in my life, I see every professional opportunity as a crucial step for the career I desire for myself. My service year has also allowed me to see and experience more of Richmond than I ever have before. By working and living on the opposite sides of town, I have been exposed to a different community that has forced me to step out of my comfort zone and challenged me to get more hands on in my service work and opportunities. Through national service, I have solidified my passion for service and social work and understand how important and impactful the work of social servants are to the communities I am to work with.

Brianna Harrison-Dunn | Befriend-A-Child

When the time came for me to re-enter the workforce after being a stay-at-home parent to my now 8- year-old son, I was riddled with uncertainty and doubt. I had a lot of gaps to fill having been out of the field for a decade, and had no idea where to start. I found volunteer opportunities at the Fairfax County Department of Family Services in the department of Foster Care and Adoption Services. After about a year of stuffing folders and answering phones, the Director of Volunteer Partner Services approached me about an opportunity with the Befriend-A-Child Mentor Program as an AmeriCorps VISTA; this was the prospect I had been waiting for. I attended my first cohort training in September 2018. Clearly the senior of the group, I met some remarkable people with ideas and ambition that were inspiring. I relished the chance to share my experience and wisdom to this group of individuals as I reveled in their knowledge and worldview. I have learned so much about myself during my year of service. I was given the chance to step into a leadership role where I discovered that I am capable of far more than I realized. I have learned to trust myself and gained confidence in my ability to make decisions. Being a member of AmeriCorps VISTA has changed the course of my life by opening doors to discovering my passion and achieving my dreams while doing work that I love and that serves others. I am immensely grateful. I am excited to continue my service for another year to gain even more experience and be of even greater service to the families and children of Befriend-A-Child.

Kelsey Veldhuizen | Abundant Life

KelseyA little over a year ago if you had asked me what an AmeriCorp VISTA was, I would have answered, “An ameri-what?” Originally I wanted my AmeriCorps position (Volunteer Coordinator at Abundant Life in Charlottesville, VA) only because of the placement site. I expected the “VISTA” part of my role would just be a side gig where I would have to check things off with in order to get my stipend. What I did not expect was the valuable training, new friends, and genuine care and support I would receive as a VISTA. While the title of VISTA implies you are the one giving, what I soon learned is that while I was serving, I was also receiving. I gained new job skills, valuable cultural experiences, meaningful relationships, and a more thorough understanding of service. I was supported and cared for in a way that made me feel valued and seen, the same emotions I was attempting to convey to the community through my national service. Although my VISTA year involved a lot of hard work and pouring out, I am leaving it with so much more than I came in with. I have direction in what I want to do next (pursuing my Master’s in School Counseling), a deeper empathy for those around me, confidence in the skills I am cultivating, and a desire to continue to move towards those who are not always seen. Not out of pity, but out of a knowledge of what it is like to be seen and a desire to give others that knowledge. I am incredibly grateful I fell into the role of AmeriCorps VISTA.

Sarah Wilkinson | VISTA Leader for Virginia Mentoring Partnership

Through national service, I accessed opportunities that I never would have been able to otherwise. During my first term of service, AmeriCorps VISTA enabled me to build a youth mentoring program from the ground up and see all my efforts come to life through a fourth-month pilot launch. I watched and listened to the impact I had on the youth served by the program through their smiles and laughter, which was the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had. In my second term of service as a VISTA Leader, I gained experience supporting other VISTA Members through training, resource development, one-to-one support, and team building. It was incredible to take the knowledge and lessons I learned during my first VISTA year and share those with others who were committed to the same work. After two years of  service, I know what I value, and what skills and strengths I bring to an organization. I have learned how to adapt, to be patient and persistent, to ask for what I need, and to step outside my comfort zone even if it means I could fail. I have newfound confidence in myself, and have built lifelong friends and an incredible network of support that I will carry forward with me. It is easy to forget that there are so many people out there who care about making the world better, and I’m grateful to have worked with some of the most dedicated among them over the past two years. Nothing could have prepared me for a career in service to others the way AmeriCorps VISTA has.