From the Navy to VISTA to a career

Alumni story
Leon Howard III Muskegon

AmeriCorps VISTA was a transformative experience that changed how I see the world and myself. After graduating high school, attending college wasn’t an option for me due to poor grades, lack of positive male role models, and my socioeconomic status. So I enlisted and served four years in the Navy as a cook. My military experience was unfulfilling and I decided there had to be more in this world for me. A few months after leaving the Navy, I lost my younger brother while we were swimming together in Lake Michigan. I sunk into depression, unsure of how to make sense of my role in society and my future. 

I applied for an AmeriCorps position at the Muskegon Community Foundation. To be honest, I wasn’t the most qualified, but I was the person who needed this experience the most. My site supervisor became my first mentor in life. During my term of service, I worked with the Muskegon Family Coordinating Council, which provided community-based grants to community-based organizations doing grassroots programming. I also worked with service-learning projects in public schools. 
It was through AmeriCorps VISTA and serving others that I found my mission in life. I developed self-esteem. I learned I had skills and aptitudes in areas of value. I learned that I could be of service to my community. 
The pinnacle of my experience was developing and implementing my idea of an African-American Expo in Muskegon Mall. The Expo addressed health issues in the African-American community and included health screenings, a talent and fashion show, cultural performances, and local vendors and exhibitors. A decade later, I transformed the idea that had begun in my VISTA year into an annual non-profit event called Muskegon’s Multicultural Beach Festival. 
After my term ended, I earned a community responsibility scholarship to attend Olivet College, because of my VISTA service. As a student, I served as President of the Black Student Union, as a student coordinator for the Upward Bound program, and developed service-learning activities for local public schoolchildren. I went on to earn a Masters degree in Student Affairs. 
Today, I work at the University of Michigan where I continue to serve by helping students transform how they see themselves. What once seemed impossible became possible through the growth and transformation that I experienced as a VISTA volunteer.

Decade: 1990s