Q&A with Ericka Zdenek

Alumni story
Ericka Zdenek 1999 2000
Photo of Ericka Zdenek (left)
Ericka Zdenek, left

Viewfinder: What was it like for you to live on the VISTA living allowance?

Ericka: Coming directly from the Peace Corps in El Salvador, I felt very "rich" because I'd been living amongst people that didn't even have a home.

I view the world as being resource rich. I've never made a ton of money but no matter what the amount, I've always felt like it was an honor to serve. The living allowance and resources provided was enough to survive on.

VF: Why did you choose to serve?

Ericka: It was a part personal – part philosophical decision. I was transitioning from Peace Corps and had just given birth to my daughter. I was looking for something that could contribute to my family but also had flexibility. My daughter was one when she first participated in a service event – I was excited to instill this in her from such an early age.

I also felt it was a natural evolution for the path I'm on. I really believe in community change work – seeing the resources that are available and inspiring others to engage in the important work that VISTAs do every day. I wanted to be a connector and VISTA helps build communities. VISTA definitely aligns with my personal beliefs.

VF: Would you say your perspective on poverty changed throughout your year of service? If yes, how?

Ericka: Poverty is in the eye of the beholder. My service helped peel away the layers of societal stigmas and gross generalizations about those in poverty. Yes, there are certainly several obstacles a person in poverty has to overcome, but there is the x-factor- human potential. I gained a new found respect for the people that I served. In many ways, I would call them magicians. They were resourceful, determined, and had dreams. VISTA helped me find ways to empower others into writing a new chapter in their lives.

VF: What are you doing now?

Ericka: I'm a program consultant for Volunteer Florida. I mentor/coach ten AmeriCorps programs across the state. Instead of working directly with members, I'm working with the managers and supervisors of AmeriCorps programs. VISTA has helped prepare me for this job in many ways – what does it take to make sustainable change – and inspiring program directors and local leaders to make change in their communities. One of the best parts of my job is to go out and visit the sites. I have the opportunity to talk with members, which is very nostalgic. Even though it's not AmeriCorps VISTA, there is a sisterhood – I know what they're going through.

VF: Do you think VISTAs should be allowed to work part-time?

Ericka: No. It is an opportunity to immerse yourself in service and community. VISTA service demands a complete commitment. A job would distract and complicate the VISTA experience.

VF: What is your advice for VISTA's on how to make the most out of the living allowance?

Ericka: If possible, I would recommend having a roommate or living with family. There are harsh realities that you have to deal with. I had a daughter but was able to utilize the VISTA childcare benefits. It's important to know what resources are available to you – what the Corporation and what the community provides.

I made sure that I had my networks of support in place prior to deciding to take on the challenge of being an AmeriCorps VISTA

VF: What is your advice for VISTA's on how to make the most out of the living allowance?

Ericka: Get to know people in your organization and the environment you're working with – this can lead to people taking you out to lunch! Meet people in the community and explain what VISTA is along with your story. They will want to help you out.

I made sure that I had my networks of support in place prior to deciding to take on the challenge of being an AmeriCorps VISTA.

VF: Any final words?

Ericka: VISTA was the culminating service event for me. I had served in several other programs from the AmeriCorps NCCC to Peace Corps. VISTA gave me the opportunity to hone my skills as a community change agent and instilled the belief that change is possible.

Decade: 1990s