Being a VISTA

100_3129CIS has three AmeriCorps VISTA workers who are wrapping up their time with us this week. VISTA stands for Volunteers In Service To America. VISTAs commit to a full-time year of service and receive a stipend which is set just above the poverty level. In addition to the stipend, VISTAs are eligible to receive an educational award at the completion of their year of service. Communities In Schools currently has seven VISTAs who work to build capacity in our community. Each VISTA is assigned to work as part of a CIS site team in two schools.

We are so grateful for their service. When the government shut down, our AmeriCorps VISTAs didn’t miss a beat. They continued their commitment with us. Thank you Courtney, Peggy, and Shereen for your dedication and  service! As our Director of Volunteer Services, Abby Nappier says, “They have made such a profound impact on our schools, supporting students with services provided through the community while actively promoting a College Going Culture.” It is only fitting, then, that our guest blogger today is Peggy Korpela.

I became a VISTA with CIS because I wanted to do community building while gaining work experience. I believe helping children is one of the biggest ways we can improve our community. Children are, after all, the future.

Peggy with some of the College Club students at 5th grade graduation last year.
Peggy with some of the College Club students at 5th grade graduation last year.

A typical day as a VISTA starts off with assisting my site coordinator with student and volunteer data. On Mondays, I meet with my fifth graders who are in the College Club. Our social work intern Jaime and I teamed up for this project. We discuss various topics, such as the Kalamazoo Promise® and the schools they can go to with it. As part of my VISTA project, I created a reference notebook of Kalamazoo Promise® information. The students use this as a reference to work on developing a profile of colleges they’re interested in. They write a formal letter to the college(s), asking for more information. I also help them navigate college websites and career websites. I developed lesson plans for the club specifically so Jaime and others could continue to support these students after my VISTA service ends and I leave Spring Valley.

Bulletin board created by Peggy
Bulletin board created by Peggy

I’ve learned a lot about myself through my VISTA service. Before my term began I wasn’t especially good at problem solving in a time crunch or thinking fast on my feet.  I’m much better at it now. I felt I had a good understanding of kids before, but I know I have deepened my understanding this year.  I am also more confident in my ability to manage a project on my own. For example, I supported dental services at both KPS elementary summer school sites and it went really well. Communities In Schools partners with the Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services throughout the year to assure students receive the dental care they need. The County’s mobile Smiles to Go dental van has two dental chairs inside of what looks like a large camper van with a smiling tooth on the side. At Northeastern and Milwood Elementary Schools I assisted with the infrastructure for the program, ensuring enrollment forms were correct, communicating with parents, scheduling with school staff, and escorting students to their dental appointments. Working with the dental team, I managed to get about 92 students in for dental cleanings.  If you had asked me before VISTA started if I thought I could do that, I’m not sure I’d say yes. The VISTA experience has given me confidence in my abilities and a lot of pride in the fact that I have been able to have a direct impact on children.After lunch, my activities range from entering data in the computer to obtaining clothes for kids who need them.

Teachers often come in to ask questions about various resources for their students. On Fridays, the 5th graders who help us with food packs will come back to our office to pick a prize out of our prize box. At the end of the day, I connect with some of our CIS students to find out how their day went. After the students leave, it’s usually more data entry or other projects that require more uninterrupted time.