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.