by Mariah Himes, AmeriCorps VISTA Leader at Volunteer Iowa
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 headquarters is in Leon, Jesse works out of the offices in Lamoni, where he shares space with the local University. Jesse also works part-time with the 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. In order 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 organization 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 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 Bachelor’s 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.