A Septuagenarian’s Motivation & Experience

By Sharon Rebar, Administrative Systems Analyst, Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota

During the past eight years, I’ve been accepted by the Peace Corps three times! Each time fate intervened and I was unable to fulfill the 27-month commitment. I kept copies of 150 pages of information required by Peace Corps staff prior to departing for the Philippines two years ago July 1st.  It is solid reminder that I needed to give up my life-long dream of serving in the Peace Corps and move on with life.

Upon recovering my health after the month-long stint in the Philippines, I needed to decide what to move on to. I certainly didn’t want to continue a retirement that didn’t fulfill my need to make meaningful contributions to society. I became a professional social worker to serve other people. My career focused exclusively on working with some of the most disenfranchised children, adults and older people in our society, both in Alaska and Minnesota. I still had a burning desire to continue to make a positive difference in the lives of other people and to have these people make a difference in my life.  It seemed a logical step to apply to the domestic Peace Corps – AmeriCorps/VISTA. When I accidentally found that the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN) sponsored VISTA members to work in culturally specific nonprofits, I knew I had hit the jackpot!

I contacted Hannah VanSant-Oulette, VISTA Leader at MCN, to gather information about becoming a VISTA Volunteer. When I met Hannah, she must have been surprised to find I was old enough to be her grandmother. I limped into the interview since I was still recovering from a fractured pelvis. My age and temporary disability didn’t seem to affect Hannah’s upbeat attitude. After a lengthy interview, I decided to apply to become an MCN VISTA member.

After being accepted, I carefully examined all of the nonprofits that were seeking VISTAs. While my first choice didn’t offer me a position, I was offered a position at the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota (LACM). It was quickly clear in the interview that my 35+ years of experience working for and leading nonprofits in Alaska and Minnesota were just what Sunny Chanthanouvong, Executive Director of LACM, was looking for.  It seemed a perfect fit and it was. And what a year it has been!

The first day I reported to serve at LACM, there was only one person in the office. Despite some language differences, I swiftly grasped what she was trying to convey to me, when she handed me a dust cloth and pointed to the cubicle that was to serve as my work station. I dusted the cubicle and waited for the executive director to appear. We met for about three hours after I reported for service and I was introduced to the rest of the Lao staff. At the end of the day I wondered how I would ever fit into an organization where I was the only minority; deal with the language differences; and grasp the new nonprofit culture. It soon became clear to me that in order to make the placement work I would have to make some critical changes in my personality.

 I needed to scale back my A-type work style that worked so well in the main stream nonprofit world and move into a more relaxed way of working. For a former workaholic this was a tall order. I had to learn to be more patient, flexible and non-judgmental. Being patient, flexible and non-judgmental has been critical in forming positive working relationships with staff. It is clear that I’m the oldest person working in the office. Because the Lao culture does value older people, I find myself being treated very respectfully. And that compensates for some of the painful changes I’ve had to make in my personality this past year. That I have gained the trust of the staff is reflected in the fact the Executive Director and at least one other staff now call me “Grandma Sharon” and that I get invited to share lunch with staff. And my opinion is sought out as well by both staff and the capacity building consultant.

Working closely with the Executive Director and a capacity building consultant, it is clear that we are making progress. My 35+ years of nonprofit experience meant that I was able to handle most every task in my service description, in addition to higher-level responsibilities that were assigned to me as the year went on. One major indicator of progress happened recently, when a new position of Assistant Executive Director was created. The capacity building consultant wrote the proposal that funded the new position while I wrote the job description, assisted in recruitment and participated on the interview team. Our team effort resulted in the hiring of an experienced nonprofit professional. The most important factor in my decision to stay with LACM for a second year is the progress we’ve made increasing the capacity of the agency.

Being an older VISTA Volunteer has impacted me in so many positive ways. I have a renewed sense of self-worth and made new friends. I have also learned lots about current nonprofit practices (that have emerged since I retired eight years ago) because MCN provides many conferences and other training in the community that have added to my store of knowledge. At every conference I meet a diverse group of people who are fairly new to the nonprofit world. Life is good and I look forward to serving another year as a VISTA member. I certainly encourage older people to explore serving in AmeriCorps/VISTA. It may change their lives!

On a more personal note, my grandson Dillon, who served last year in AmeriCorps/VISTA in Buffalo, NY is now serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand. He has been there for four months, loving it and is living out my dream.  I’m delighted.

A Volunteer in Service to America

By Kat McCaffery, Development Specialist, American Indian Family Center

On August 13, 2017, I moved to Saint Paul. I had never been to the Twin Cities and didn’t know a single person there. All I knew was that one of the women who worked at my service site offered a room in the house she was renting with her husband and daughter. It was an adorable house in a nice neighborhood where I could actually afford the rent. I got lucky.

The next day, I started as a VISTA at the American Indian Family Center in East Saint Paul. I was given a tour of the building, provided standard reading material for new employees, and was told some vague ideas of what staff wanted help with developing. I had an office job with regular hours. I thought, “I could get used to this.”

My first month was an adjustment to office life. I’d had an office job before, so I knew a little of what to expect. Every office is a little different. Race, age, culture, and even the physical space impact the office environment. Part of becoming an effective staff member is learning how to navigate power dynamics with the expectations and responsibilities of the assigned position.

I also knew that not having experience with the Native community would be a challenge, and one I would have to learn about quickly if I was going to be successful. Everything I knew about Indigenous peoples was from the perspective of the dominant culture. This meant information was either appropriated, watered down to filter out shame, or just plain false.

Adjusting to being a VISTA was a challenge too—VISTA’s only receive a living stipend of $878 a month after taxes. Living in a city, paying rent and other bills, and buying groceries on a stipend leaves little room for the regular life of a person in their 20’s. The philosophy of the VISTA program is to live in a similar situation as the people you serve; it’s a philosophy that VISTA’s embrace and use as an opportunity to enrich the experience of service. Simply put, we know what we’re signing up for.

There were a few bumps in the road as I was getting started, but things eventually started to become easier the more I became familiar with my coworkers and my fellow VISTA’s. I had a support network of newly found friends I could rely on for advice on development projects, navigating culture, and volunteering a year of my life to a nonprofit.

On September 29, my father died. In a single night, I lost my health insurance, car insurance, and the economic security I relied on in case of emergencies. Most of all, I lost my number one supporter—my number one fan.

I suddenly found myself thrown into crisis. True to my nature, I started formulating a plan to support myself for the next 10 months. I had $6,000 in my bank account, a car, student loans, bills, rent, and only $878 of income each month. There was no way I could do it on my own and not go entirely broke.

So, I resolved to do the one thing I found most difficult: I asked for help. I applied for SNAP so I wouldn’t starve. I found a navigator that signed me up for MNSure so I would have health insurance. I sat down with my AmeriCorps Coordinator to talk about how my year was going to change, how little I knew about life, and that I did not, in fact, realize what I signed up for.

Since then, I’ve learned to live on $52 of groceries a month, cried in my car after the pharmacist first told me there wasn’t a copay for my medication, learned to advocate for my emotional wellbeing, and have consistently been shown the heart of humanity.

Through living in crisis, through learning the truth of American history too shameful to be taught in schools, through marching for the justice and dignity of those forgotten, I have learned what it means to be in service to America.

It is the unspoken love strangers have toward each other. It is the grace of receiving as much as I am giving. It is the patience of understanding how much I have learned, how much I have yet to learn, and that there are certain things I will never be able to know.

 

TOP 5 Reasons I Joined and Stayed with MCN VISTA

By David Kraft, Marketing and Communications, MIGIZI

1.)   To Help Communities of Color! 

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Times are difficult for immigrant, refugee, and communities of color in the USA. Since the cities were first founded, the Twin Cities have been a major destination for immigrants. They also are home to strong-willed and organized, but marginalized urban American Indian communities.

2.)   Politics Can Only Do So Much!

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By being in AmeriCorps, I am more limited in my ability to take political stances and actions, due to the Hatch Act, like with advocating for specific political candidates and making political social media posts at work. But I am more capable of effecting change as an individual. There’s more to creating change than feeding the poor or holding up signs and chanting. There are grants that need to get written. There are social media posts to make. There are volunteers to recruit. As a VISTA, we get to serve as a stimulant/boost to already awesome nonprofits, to make them even more awesome in a sustainable way.

3.)   Power to the Nonprofits!

Nonprofits hold a unique role in society, unlike the roles held by the private or public sectors. Private corporations may have foundations and make donations to charities, but their primary responsibility is to make money for their shareholders. That’s the whole point of the markets. Government’s goals change depending on the administration. Moreover, governments are much more limited in the way they solve problems. Governments can’t send all of the cancer kids to Disney World, but nonprofits can. Nonprofits are mission-driven. They are accountable to their board of directors, donors, and the foundations and agencies that give them grants.

4.)   Getting Myself Out of a Rut!

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Before I started AmeriCorps, I had a lib arts bach degree and was working as a bagger at a grocery store. I am on disability benefits and had reached the point where they wouldn’t let me work full-time and keep my benefits. In comes AmeriCorps. They let me build full-time, real-world experience and make connections with supervisors who write awesome recommendations! I am lucky enough to have my schooling paid off.

5.)   MCN’s the Best VISTA Cohort!

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I'm on the InterCorps Council, so I have friends in all of the other cohorts, so I’m not going to talk them down too much, but they ain’t got all we got! First off, you can’t beat the conferences that we get to go to for FREE! VISTAs from every other cohort need to use their Professional Development Funds to register for our conferences and go to our breakout sessions and listen to the keynote speakers and network with professionals. That is, if they even get professional development funds! And we do! Our sites pledge to give us each $300 to pursue training or send us to community education classes. Last year, I used mine to attend an out-of-town conference. On top of that, we have monthly professional development trainings where we learn everything from cultural and harassment training, to resume-building and networking, to leading meetings and presentations! On top of that, we have social events, (both officially and off-the-clock) to click with and support each other! On the InterCorps Council, even the VISTA leaders from the other cohorts admit that they are jealous!

 

Reflections of an Intercultural Experience

I joined AmeriCorps, and applied to work at the American Indian Family Center, because I wanted to have an intercultural experience. I studied history in college—I was excited to work for a community where history is very relevant. In both high school and college, I studied abroad three times and I wanted to have a similar experience of being immersed in another culture because being forced outside my comfort zone was challenging and empowering. When abroad, I was able to understand what it meant to be American through the eyes of non-Americans. But in this context, interacting with the Native community has given me a window into what it means to be American from the inside, but in a very different reality than my own. This experience has really given me more insight into who I am in the context of American history.

Finding Mental Health in Health Equity through the Community’s Words

By Jocelyn Leung, Community Engagement Program Associate, Nexus Community Partners

Mental illnesses are generally unspoken but remain pervasive. Just going off what is reported, around 1 in every 5 adult Americans will experience mental illness(es) in a given year (“Mental Health By,”2015). The probability of living with mental illness(es) increases when additional environmental factors are layered on top of the common stresses and disappointments associated with regular life.

“Winter Brain”: Dreaming of Healthy Futures

“Winter Brain”: Dreaming of Healthy Futures

By Maddie Hyde, Evaluation and Communication Specalist, Dream of Wild Health

A bit over a month ago, it was the beginning of November and I picked a full bouquet of marigolds from my front yard. Just a few weeks ago, crisp green kale was flourishing in my backyard. During this week of below freezing temperatures, I’m dreaming of such an experience!

When I started my VISTA year in August, we were in the heat of the summer, and I was thrown right into what the wonderful experience of our youth program and the farm, acclimating myself to the Dream of Wild Health “ecosystem,” an orientation for my tasks to come.

Our work at Dream of Wild Health is highly seasonal with summers filled with youth programs, farm maintenance, transporting produce to market, all on top of typical nonprofit work of fundraising, grantwriting, evaluating, and crafting educational programs to serve the community.

When a Community Unites, Hope Is Instilled

When a Community Unites, Hope Is Instilled

By Rebekah Jacobson, Community Engagement Coordinator, Karen Organization of Minneosta

Last year when I began my AmeriCorps VISTA year at the Karen Organization of Minnesota I was thrown into the fire. My supervisor assigned me with the daunting task of planning our organization’s largest fundraiser – the Annual Gala. And I only had two months to do it.

Thankfully, and surprisingly, the event turned out to be very successful. A few months later, I committed to a second year of AmeriCorps VISTA at the same site because I felt a deep connection to the community we serve – Karen and other refugees from Burma in Minnesota. Upon this decision, I knew I would have a chance to plan the Annual Gala once more.

Inclusion and Engagement

By Edita Sabovic, Inclusion and Engagement Specialist, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits

I attended the Inclusion and Equity Forum at Hamline University in September where I was able to hear different perspectives on I & E from individuals who work in the nonprofit and government sector. The event had a panel of distinguished community and professional leaders from the Twin Cities that gave their perspectives on the importance of I & E in order to build a more inclusive community.  The panel had attendees form into groups and talk about implicit bias and what changes we could make in our communities and organizations. It was a great event to attend because it provided resources on I & E and how to tackle obstacles that arise in the workplace. Back in the office, MCN provided an HR network lunch and invited nonprofit professionals to talk about I & E and how to create a more welcoming environment at conferences and in the office.  As part of the internal I & E committee at MCN I hope to use the resources I’ve learned at different workshops and events to generate more ideas for MCN and changes it can implement for its internal staff.

Two Months In: what I’m learning about volunteer strength

By Marissa Kurtz, Volunteer Program Specialist, Casa de Esperanza

I spend most of my working hours analyzing and developing Casa de Esperanza’s volunteer and intern program. This perspective gave me the opportunity to deepen my respect and appreciation for those who offer up their free time and services to causes they believe in.

Every volunteer I have met and worked with is extremely proud of the work Casa does for the Latin@ community. They are happy to support Casa in the organization’s mission to “mobilize Latinas and Latin@ communities to end domestic violence.”

This level of volunteer dedication became even more apparent to me as I began assisting in the planning process of our event, Honoring Latina Leadership.

9/11 Day of Service at Dream of Wild Health Farm

On Friday, September 9 the VISTA Cohort 2016-2017 along with MCN VISTA's program coordinator and program manager participated in a service day at the Dream of Wild Health Farm (one of MCN VISTA's host site) where Maddie Hyde is serving. When our group arrived at the Farm, we immediately got welcomed in and given a tour of the Farm. 

Throughout the day VISTAs were busy helping the farmers while learning about farming and hearing stories from the elders and those in the community. 

Reflection on Service Year

By Catherine Dahlberg, MCN VISTA 2015-2016 Alumna

The one-year work experience at MCN's AmeriCorps VISTA program is very rewarding for me. I took free training with senior consultants such as Leah Moses and Andre Koen, and got to meet a number of nonprofit leaders face to face at VISTA retreats. Looking back at this experience, I find three things very important during my VISTA work.

Where does a person of color encounter racism?

by Catherine Dahlberg

I am a minority member of the society. Having lived in both California and Minnesota, I have encountered racism in both states.

Identity – Foreigner in their own Land

Once someone that I do not know much asked me this question: “You have an English name, but you don’t have an American face. Where did you get this name?” 

I do not perceive a conflict between my name and my face. Aren’t they both a small part of the sum of me? But this person does. A few repeated incidents later, I come to the conclusion that being questioned about my name will just be a life experience for the rest of my life. It is time for me to plan on how to live with this reality.

Facing barriers in transportation

By Catherine Dahlberg

If you are like me, someone not born and raised in Minnesota, then you may understand why I call it a barrier getting around in the Twin Cities.

I moved to the Twin Cities in 2015, without any knowledge of the roads around. In February, 2016, I took public transport to a training. I got lost on U of M campus. It took me almost a whole hour navigating the area before arriving at the transfer stop, only to find out that I had missed the last bus serving that station. Then I had to take an alternative route to the training. I was late for that, of course. The whole experience was terrible for me.

To describe that experience in full, I wrote this blog in an imaginative TV setting:

Research matters

By Jenna YanishDevelopment Outreach SpecialistHACER

Recently, my organization was rejected from a foundation, because that foundation 'doesn't fund research.'  At first, I shrugged it off- nothing weathers you against rejection like grant writing does. But it's been almost a month, and I'm not over it. 
 
So, to every foundation that doesn't support research, this blog is for you. Research matters.
 
I understand it's your prerogative  you get to choose where you give your money. Health programs? Recreational spaces? The arts? That's awesome, those things are so vital in our society. Before I called you, I did my, ahem, research, and you give to a lot of great organizations in all of those areas.  

An education on health equity and transit

By Jocelyn LeungCommunity Engagement Program Associate, Nexus Community Partners

I joined AmeriCorps VISTA during a real turning point in my life. I had been in 3 graduate programs for the past 6 years. One of them I had the foresight to leave when I knew it wasn’t right; another I stayed for too long.  Making the transition from a perpetual student to a member of the workforce was hard, and my confidence was low after months of unsuccessful job-searching. I’m very grateful to now be serving at Nexus Community Partners as the Community Engagement Program Associate through VISTA.

The goal of ‘making poverty history’ can be daunting and abstract, but the work I share with community based organizations in making sure that community members have a say in how the light rail can help them lead healthier and better lives is very real and moving. These voices come from communities of color, immigrants and refugees, migrants, people living with disabilities, low-income communities, and other transit dependent populations. It’s our responsibility to make sure their voices change policies and light rail development throughout a long-term public works project. 

Systems Change + Input =

By Andrew BocherEmerging Nonprofit SpecialistMinnesota Council of Nonprofits

SYSTEMS CHANGE

At the last Organizer Roundtable put on by the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, someone asked how we (organizers, in this context) can start seeing past single issues to face the larger systemic issues before us. The examples given for these larger problems were patriarchy and capitalism. Now that’s a loaded question…

I would love to chat with this person sometime to try and unpack what they were asking, but I didn’t bring this question up to analyze it – I brought it up because I think it strikes a chord in a lot of social justice workers. Even if it’s sort of an unanswerable, rhetorical question, it still resonates strongly with me on an emotional level. I don’t have the answer, but I get it. When I think about all of the injustice that exists today – whether it’s the increasing racial disparities in Minnesota, the continuous theft of Indigenous land for profit throughout the world, or the fact that confirmed homicides of transgender women have nearly doubled in the past year within the U.S. – I begin to feel paralyzed. I wonder the same thing as the person who asked this question.

The importance of being flexible

By Michael PrideauxNonprofit Outreach SpecialistNonprofits Assistance Fund

For many, the combination of graduate school deadlines, year-end reports, finals, and more brings about a feeling of being simultaneously forward and backward looking. And with this comes the need to be flexible when outcomes are not as planned. 

I remember in high school we had to attend a “career day” with a person from a temp firm telling us how to get entry level positions. While none of the actual content of the workshop was impactful, one thing the presenter said definitely resonates with me. She had mentioned how she has worked at least six other jobs in her relatively young adulthood and said she foresaw many more. This uncertainty in the eyes of a high school senior is terrifying, but I am learning more and more that to stay together mentally, emotionally, and even in your career, you have to embrace unpredictability. 

Beyond the office walls

By Rebekah JacobsonCommunity Engagement Specialist,  Karen Organization of Minnesota

If you walk into the Karen Organization of Minnesota’s (KOM) office on a normal day, you will be greeted with a warm Ghaw luh a ghay (hello) by our receptionist. As you walk down the hallway, you may walk past children running around and be offered a cup of hot water with a Birdy instant coffee packet on the side.

Welcome to my AmeriCorps VISTA site, where I am delighted to serve as a community engagement specialist.

Three reasons HAFA is awesome

By Winnie ZwickCommunications SpecialistHmong American Farmers Association

What have I learned in my first 3 months as an MCN VISTA? 

Many of the trainings, workshops and events I’ve been able to attend for free through MCN have helped me see why the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) is where it’s at. Here’s why:

1.    Community engagement is in HAFA’s DNA