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Jesse Bolinger has spent the last 10 years living and working in Leon, so it was a perfect place for him to begin his service as an AmeriCorps VISTA member. During his pre-service orientation, Jesse learned that many VISTAs who serve in their home communities are less likely to complete their service term. “That’s not going to be me,” was his immediate response.
“A typical day for me is, there is no typical day,” Jesse says. Though the Decatur County Development Corporation (DCDC) headquarters is in Leon, Jesse works out of the satellite office in Lamoni, where he shares space with Graceland University. “It’s not uncommon for students to walk in and sit down and visit,” he says. “I get to talk to college kids about their careers. It also helps me connect with local high school students who I can connect with some of my programs.”
Part of Jesse’s assigned VAD has been to develop a financial literacy course to be offered to low-income individuals and families at the local libraries. Jesse tells me that, through conversations with community members, he learned that there was more of a lack of knowledge about poverty than there was a lack of information on managing finances. A common myth about poverty is that people ‘just need to manage their money better’. Jesse has been talking with his supervisor about starting with educating the community about poverty before jumping into the financial literacy courses, and has already been able to educate some individuals and organizations.
In addition, Jesse has noticed that his host site doesn’t have a volunteer management program for organizing volunteers, nor do they have a process to manage and process in-kind donations. To better complete the other projects on his VAD, Jesse has been working to develop these processes for Decatur County Development Corporation. Jesse has also been able to connect his site supervisors to valuable local individuals and organizations who have much to offer the work DCDC is doing for the community.
“There is a variety of elements I’m tackling,” Jesse says. “It’s not hard to remember I’m fighting poverty. That isn’t going to be me [quitting]. Decatur may be the poorest town in Iowa and have the highest percentage of ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) families, but that’s not what we should be known for.” Jesse is determined to change his community for the better while recognizing and emphasizing its strengths. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people, especially those who others wouldn’t necessarily talk to.” He tells me how he recently spent 45 minutes talking with a severely mentally ill homeless woman about community challenges and potential solutions. He just listened and asked questions. “She’s dirt poor and hard to understand because of her illness, but I learned a LOT.” Jesse is hopeful that his VISTA work in economic and rural development will impact people like her and make the community a better place for those struggling with homelessness and poverty.
Amidst all his hard work and accomplishments, Jesse shared a vulnerable conversation he had with his supervisor recently where he wondered what many VISTAs wonder at some point during their service, ‘am I doing ok? I feel like I haven’t accomplished a lot.’ His site supervisor responded with positive feedback. “You’ve accomplished so much, and you come into this position with so much knowledge and experience.” Many VISTA projects take time to get off the ground and running, and many VISTAs may not see the direct results of their work during their term of service. But putting processes in place, developing programs, and building community relationships are all ways through which host sites like Decatur County Development Corporation will grow and serve the community more sustainably.
As he builds on important community relationships, Jesse has already started a financial literacy course at a local library as per his VAD. “I LOVE building new programs, creating things, Jesse says. “AmeriCorps VISTA is giving me a way to explore things I want to be more familiar with—like poverty.” In his work, Jesse has been able to combine many of his skills and use them in different ways. Jesse holds a PhD in Public Service Leadership, a Masters in Nonprofit Management, and a Bachelors in Communications. In his VISTA service, he is getting to reignite previously dormant skills like grant writing. “I’m honestly probably the last person you’d expect, one of the strangest VISTA applicants—with a PhD and taking at $12,000 stipend.” But, says Jesse, “I’m really open to doing this again! It’s been really valuable.”
“I think for people my age, who are working on or who have an advanced degree, in public service—it’s a really good fit. Being able to use my education has been a really good thing for me.”
Jesse continues to work hard and has considered doing a second year with AmeriCorps VISTA, potentially as a leader or even moving somewhere new and exciting to serve.
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By Kay Wolfkill
Most employees would tell you that their position with their current employer comes with some perks. For example – Facebook provides healthcare coverage and free housing for its interns, Starbucks provides full tuition reimbursement for its employees, and Microsoft offers an annual $800 “Stay Fit” reimbursement program to cover the cost of employees’ gym or fitness dues[i]. If you asked me what the perk of my position as an AmeriCorps VISTA Service member is, I would tell you this: The countless Professional Development opportunities available to me. While the phrase “Professional Development” may illicit memories of stuffy conference rooms and boring presentations for some, I associate it with the privilege of being able to grow and learn about the world around me.
The Oxford Dictionary defines Professional Development as “The development of competence or expertise in one’s profession; or the process of acquiring the skills needed to improve performance in a job.” As a VISTA, such opportunities abound. If you’re familiar with AmeriCorps VISTA you will probably know that members receive a Living Allowance while serving, as well as Non-Competitive Eligibility (NCE) and an Education Award upon finishing their year of national service. All of those are great perks – but not as great as the opportunity to gain hands on experience in the industry I aspire to find a career in, network with local professionals, and learn from experts in their fields that Professional Development makes available to me during my VISTA year.
So far, in my six short months of national service I have had access to eight free webinars on topics that range from Grant Writing 101 to Planning a Productive Meeting, an online course on Volunteer Management and a course on Resource Development (both of which can count for college credit), an Adobe Digital Marketing Accreditation, and the privilege of attending the Iowa Nonprofit Summit free of charge!
If that list wasn’t impressive, consider these additional examples of Professional Development that I have been exposed to in the past six months:
- Opportunities to meet movers and shakers in Des Moines such as Iowa State Representative Ako Abdul Samad
- Discounted membership in networking groups such as Young Professionals Connection
- Invites to various receptions, focus groups, career fairs, cultural/neighborhood gatherings, and other free events
- Insider status with nonprofits and volunteer associations city-wide
When you live on a VISTA Budget like I do, these opportunities for networking, education and growth are priceless!
Think of it this way: The average cost of an online college course ranges between $300-$400, the Adobe Digital Marketing Accreditation course I mentioned earlier costs about $750, and attendance to both days the Iowa Nonprofit Summit would have cost me $175. All of these fall under the category of Professional Development – and all of these were provided to me at no cost due to my position as an AmeriCorps VISTA service member.
When I was growing up, my father would always encourage me to keep an eye open for the next big thing. He instilled in me a constant search for opportunities to learn, grow and become a better version of myself. The Professional Development opportunities available to me as an AmeriCorps VISTA allow me to do exactly that – and I invite you to take advantage of them as well!
Thanks for reading my blog post about how valuable Professional Development is to me. In closure, I’d like to leave you with this quote about Professional Development by Dan McCabe (@danieldmccabe) that really resonates with me: “To develop professionally: Adopt a beginner’s mindset, stay teachable, seek feedback, teach others, and embrace teamwork.”
Kay Wolfkill is an AmeriCorps VISTA service member, working on community engagement at United Ways of Iowa. She is a proud Simpson College Alumna, book lover, and an avid volunteer who aspires to land a career in the Des Moines Nonprofit Industry upon completion of her year of service.
[i] Glassdoor Team. (2017, February 08). Glassdoor’s Top 20 Employee Benefits & Perks for 2017. Retrieved November 01, 2017
Guest Blog Submission by Matt McGarvey, Executive Director, Telligen Community Initiative I had the honor of being a presenter at the Iowa Nonprofit Summit this past week. I spoke on approaches of using data and organizational performance metrics to build at-a-glance dashboards for use with … Continue reading Nonprofit Professionals are gifted people – a reflection from a presenter at the 2017 Iowa Nonprofit Summit