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A Day in the VISTA Life of Jesse Bolinger

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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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Professional Development: the Best Perk of Being an AmeriCorps VISTA

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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

Lanee and Emma

“Lanee started out really shy and quiet but as the year went on, she started talking to more kids.” When Emma met her mentee Laney, the 8 year old didn’t interact much with the other kids at Club M mentoring in Burlington. High school freshman Emma determined to help Lanee get out of her comfort zone and make friends. She got to know the shy girl during Club M doing school work or playing games outside. “We both like outdoors activities,” Emma tells me, listing hopscotch, chalk, foursquare, jump rope, and bubbles as some of their favorites.

Hoping to see Emma open up to other children in the mentoring program, Emma encouraged her to try new things. By the end of the year, Lanee was inviting other kids whose mentors hadn’t shown up or who didn’t have a mentor to join her and Emma in games and activities. “She’s very welcoming and inclusive and just really nice to the kids,” Emma tells me. “Even if they don’t play well or aren’t very nice, she’s nice to them.”

Near the end of the year, Club M Burlington director Cassie Gerst organized a trip for mentors and mentees to visit nearby schools and talk to children about mentoring. Cassie hoped to introduce the concept of mentoring to new schools, and get enough interest to start a Club M there. Lanee and Emma went on the trip with others from the program. Emma tells me how the once-shy Lanee talked with new children and encouraged them to get involved in mentoring. In terms of getting out of her comfort zone, Emma says, “it benefitted her a lot.” She adds that the two have kept in touch over the summer and still hang out, as Lanee is the younger sister of one of Emma’s friends.

Emma initially got involved in Club M after several of friends signed up, and especially because she enjoys working with children. After a year of getting to know Lanee and mentoring with Club M, Emma has begun to realize that she has passion for working with young children, especially in teaching them how to do things and encouraging them to try something new. “This is the first year the program was at our school,” Emma tells me. “Ms. Gerst was so positive and even though we didn’t have a lot of mentors, she always went around and talked to people to tell them what Club M is and get them interested.” When there weren’t enough mentors. Cassie hangs out with kids and gets to know them, encouraging them to keep coming until she can find a mentor for them. The director worked hard to get Club M to Burlington High School, and with the help of Lanee, Emma, and the other mentors and mentees, they are trying to bring Club M to other schools in their area.  Both girls are excited to do Club M again in the Fall of 2016 and look forward to at least another year of fun, making friends, and growing.

Knockout Mentoring

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The bet was that if Nick beat Adam one more time at knockout, Adam would buy his mentee a soda. It had been a pretty good day for Nick so far, but Adam thought he might still have a chance against his 8th grade competitor. Yet after several more basketball shots it was clear that Nick had creamed him, and Adam brought the victor his soda.

Nick and Adam met in fall of 2015 through the Independence Community Schools Mentoring Program (ICSM). Adam was engaged in the Silver Cord group at his high school for which he would do 200 hours of volunteering over the course of his four years there. Val, the program director for ICSM, encouraged Adam to participate in mentoring his senior year, and matched him with Nick. Nick had had a hard previous semester and found the opportunity to get a mentor.

I’m interviewing the two over the phone almost a year after they were matched for school-based mentoring and they talk like old friends. Val, the program director for ICSM, asks if they ended up studying together at all. The boys laugh and tell her no; they were too busy playing basketball. Between knockout and nitro ball, the two also enjoy playing Connect Four, eating ice cream, and just hanging out to talk.

And for both of them, that was exactly what they needed. In a paper he wrote for English class about someone he looks up to, Nick cited Adam as being a role model in terms of grades, sports, and friendliness.

“Adam has very good grades [and he] is a very hard worker…I got a 3.2 [last quarter] and it’s because I look up to him. Knowing that he’s so smart it makes me want to get good grades like him,” Nick writes. More importantly, Nick says that spending time with Adam regularly “helped me realize that I’m not very lonely.” He adds, “I like playing games with him; he’s a very good sport and he is very helpful.”

Adam is glad he got a chance to help someone else, saying that Nick “helped me, too.” During the stresses of senior year in high school, Adam found his time with Nick to be a good break from school and the opportunity to make a friend. “It was nice to just do something fun,” he says. “Nick is open to making new friends, is a good sport, and always had a good story to tell me.”

The two plan on keeping in touch through email and hanging out when Adam is home for college breaks. Nick attended Adam’s high school graduation and is excited to see his mentor start at the University of Iowa this fall, where he plans on majoring in Business with a certificate in business writing. Nick is now headed into his first year of high school where he looks forward to getting involved in sports like bowling as well as continuing in the mentoring program.

About fostering a positive and long lasting mentoring friendship, Adam tells me, “Be yourself around each other and be willing to earn more about each other.”

You can be a positive mentor for someone and have fun as well! Click here to become a mentor today.

Quentin, the Harlem Globetrotters and Me

The following is a heartwarming story written up by mentor DJ after an outing with mentee Quentin to see the Globetrotters. Quentin and DJ are matched through Mentoring Affects Youth (M.A.Y.) in Shenandoah.

“Yesterday I had the joy of taking Quentin to see The Harlem Globetrotters in Omaha at Century-Link Center.  Quentin has never seen them and prior to this didn’t know a whole lot about them.  I purchased what I believed would be very good seats for his first time.

We arrived at the arena and I could tell he was immediately taken back by the size of the facility.  In normal Q style he posed with one of the statues out front of the arena.

We got inside the arena and before we even sat in our seats, bought a single souvenir or snack we walked around and all he could do was grin.  He said “I’ve got this tingly feeling in my stomach because I’m so happy.”

We found where the memorabilia was being sold (on the floor next to the court) and we made our way down.  A boy has to have proper memorabilia to remember the first time he saw The Harlem Globetrotters!

Q decided he would like some cotton candy so our next stop was the concession stand.  Now loaded with merchandise, drinks, popcorn and cotton candy we searched for our seats.  We found section 120 and asked the attendant where we could find 120C.  She had no idea what C meant but I was certainly in the right spot!  Section 120 was right above us, row BB seats 19 and 20.  We walked up a short flight of stairs and there we were seated.  Not bad seats but not as good as I had hope or even thought I purchased.  We had a rail somewhat blocking our view but Q didn’t let that discourage him.  He made sure to once again let me know he was feeling happy.  He thanked me on several occasions.  I honestly got a little overwhelmed just by being there with him and feeling his energy and excitement.  (Not an easy task when you have 1000 kids with basketballs bouncing them wildly everywhere haha)

I admit I was a bit disappointed in our seats but was still bound and determined to have a great time.

A few moments later the attendant showed back up with two other spectators and asked us for our tickets.  Couldn’t help but wonder why! She just saw them 2 minutes ago AND she sat us there.  Well apparently we were in someone else’s seats.  Not good.  The attendant directed us down to see yet another attendant.  That attendant passed us off to yet a third attendant who happened to know the seating chart for the game.  We were then escorted to our actual seats “Courtside Center Court!”  The look on Q’s face was priceless!!

Ok I was a little excited too!

The game started and from the very beginning it seemed as if we were part the action.  Q just watched in amazement as the team made dunk after dunk, half court shots and passed the ball faster than your eyes could watch.  He laughed, we laughed so hard.

Little did I know that I may have wanted to stay seated in my original location because my involvement in the game became well… embarrassing!

I was pulled onto the court initially because the star of the show “Big Easy” was seeking a female to dance with.  He turned, saw me and proclaimed I was the ugliest woman he had ever seen!  I was escorted back to my seat.  They then grabbed a lovely lady seated next to me and drug her to the court and made her dance.  I was so relieved that wasn’t me!  She returned to her seat laughing hysterically. One of the teammates informed Big Easy I was VERY upset and  jealous for dancing with her.  Big Easy told them to get me back to the court.  YIKES!

Big Easy stated he knew I was jealous and was gonna make it right!

The lights went dim, Big Easy told everyone to light up the room with their cell phones, spot light came down and Big Easy began to sing Adele’s “Hello.”  If that wasn’t enough to embarrass me to death, he began to romance me, stroke my hair, dance with me and yes… pick me up and swirl me around.  Q had managed to catch the majority of it on video.

Best part of the video is Q screaming “That’s DJ!”

I came back to my seat and Q said he wanted to get on the court.  I could only hope.  After moments of being drenched with a bucket of water, harassed by the opposing team coach and just all around fully engaged in the show, his moment came!  He was so excited to make it to the court and perform Y.M.C.A.

The boy was having the time of his life and all I could do was laugh and smile.  We finished off the event with a couple well earned autographs.  I was even able to give him the game used wrist band from my new found love Big Easy.

On the drive home he continued to share his gratitude.  We talked about how far he has come since we first met.  In November he would have had a difficult time being away from Grandma for such a long period.  We talked about how his relationship with his Mother has improved.

He had a difficult day prior to the game when his Mother had a meltdown and was unavailable to him mentally and emotionally.  They had hoped to go do fun things that day but wound up doing nothing. The day was a huge let down and just another example of how he faces disappointment when all he wants is the love of his Mother. Quentin still manages to find strength and courage and with the help of Grandma and God he copes extremely well.

Mentoring Quentin has brought me so much more than I could ever write an a single email.  Quentin himself is a blessing and a gift.  He rewards me with his kind heart and good nature.  His potential is limitless.

However at the moment in the car when he turned to me and began to sing Adele’s “Hello” I did threaten to throw him out of the car without slowing down.”

 

To see the videos mentioned in the story, please visit DJ’s YouTube channel here.

To read more stories about mentors, click here.