Passing the Baton: VISTA Leaders Reflect on the Past Year and Look Forward to the Next

http://cedam.info/2017/08/passing-the-baton-vista-leaders-reflect-on-the-past-year-and-look-forward-to-the-next/

Before Stevie Chilcote started her year of Service as a VISTA Leader, CEDAM’s sole AmeriCorps program was the Michigan Financial Opportunity Corps (MFOC), run by Rachel Diskin.

From running the MFOC and working closely with the Michigan Rural Council, it was realized that there was a need for capacity building in rural nonprofit organizations. In an effort to support nonprofits serving rural communities, CEDAM applied and was awarded to host the Rural Opportunity VISTA program.

That’s when Chilcote, CEDAM’s first VISTA Leader, came in to support Diskin’s work and manage CEDAM’s new VISTA program.

Diskin asked Chilcote to revamp many of CEDAM’s processes, such as the member and supervisor handbooks, monthly report and timesheet tracking and to improve CEDAM’s recruitment and retention skills. Where Chilcote really excelled this past year, Diskin noted, was in her relationships with VISTA Members.

“It can be difficult to build relationships across the state, but I could tell that the VISTA Members relied on Stevie and trusted her to support them when needed,” said Diskin.

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Stevie Chilcote on her last day of service

This year Chilcote oversaw seven members, all of whom were placed in Main Street communities or community foundations across the state of Michigan. Her goal? To ensure that her members had whatever they needed to have a successful VISTA year.

Members themselves can be successful at their host-sites in many ways. An easy, measurable metric we can look at is the amount of money raised for their communities and organizations over the past year. Host-sites pay a fee of $6,000 to have a VISTA member, and in return they get to onboard a full-time VISTA volunteer. Between the seven VISTAs, over $90,000 was raised in grants and contributions for their sites.

“For every site, for a $6,000 investment, our VISTAs raised that much,” said Chilcote. “And that’s not including in-kind donations or volunteer hours they managed. It was just grants and contributions. That was exciting to see.”

Prior to being a VISTA Leader, Chilcote’s experience in the nonprofit world focused on direct service and programming. Professionally, being a VISTA leader allowed her to develop a different set of skills.  

“As a VISTA Leader I got to see what happens behind the scenes. I got to plan conferences, apply for grants, see what compliance grant work looks like, [oversee] recruitment and hiring processes and see the process that goes into running a nonprofit,” said Chilcote.

Being a VISTA Leader was both a professional and practical decision. Stevie knew Lansing was where she wanted to be, but after serving in the Peace Corps for two years and then working in Detroit, she was looking for the best way to make the move. It turns out, she said “VISTA is a great way to transition into a new town if you don’t have a lot of contacts there.”

While she doesn’t quite know yet where she’s headed next, Chilcote does know that she would like to stay in the nonprofit world.

“I really enjoy the people I get to work with and I enjoy knowing that my work is making a difference.”

And now, Ryan Verstraete has the opportunity to continue to build the Rural Opportunity VISTA program at CEDAM. Verstraete has two years of serving through the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) under their belt, and they’ve previously interned at CEDAM.

“We’re only a week in, and I’m already impressed with Ryan’s ability to ask questions that I didn’t think to ask,” said Diskin. “I think that will transfer into a lot of tightening up of our policies and procedures throughout the year. That’s exactly what I was looking for in year two of the program!”

Verstraete’s high school interest in biology and life sciences was reinforced when they served their first AmeriCorps year in California and had the opportunity to work on environment-based projects.

At the end of that year they realized how important having an approach that focused on human-based needs is. In their second year of service through NCCC, the stars aligned and they happened to be placed on projects that focused on just that. Verstraete worked in schools, disaster recovery, economic development in rural Arizona and worked for an organization fighting generational poverty in Houston.

“My two gap years were super beneficial. I gained a lot of direction and opportunities and I’m confident in my ability to go back to school,” said Verstraete. “Jumping right into college and getting invested in that part of your life right off the bat out of high school, when you’re already tired of school — I feel like that is enough of a selling point to take a gap. But doing a gap year with AmeriCorps — I mean you’re traveling, seeing other parts of the country, you’re being paid to help our country’s communities and meeting other people who are interested in that — it’s  incredible.” 

Ryan Verstraete (Left) and Stevie Chilcote (Right)

Ryan Verstraete (Left) and Stevie Chilcote (Right)

Much like Chilcote, being a VISTA Leader is as much practical as it is driven by passion. “I’ve got an Associate’s degree, no debt, and more than $10,000 to use for school,” said Verstrate.

As a VISTA Leader Verstraete is excited to continue working in the community economic development field.

“In the support position of being a VISTA Leader I am very dedicated and excited to work in this field and I am hoping I can share that with my VISTA Members, and then they can go on to do the same,” said Verstraete.

In addition to igniting positive energy around service, Verstraete is keen on learning how different organizations and areas meet needs that they have through administration and not direct service. Gaining insight on strategies for addressing these issues is an important piece they hope to take out of their service as a VISTA Leader.

At the end of the day, serving as a VISTA Leader is about the members.

“When you’re a VISTA Member you get so into it you don’t realize the impact you’re having,” said Chilcote. “For them to go in and choose to either serve the community they live in or come in from an outside world is amazing. You have to constantly tell the VISTAs that their work is amazing.”

Learn more about CEDAM’s AmeriCorps programs here.

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