Q&A with Rachel Johnson

Alumni story
Rachel Johnson 2005 2006 Indianapolis
photo of Rachel Johnson, right
Rachel Johnson, right

Viewfinder: How did you first learn about VISTA?

Rachel: I was unemployed living in DC and couldn't find a job so I moved back home to Indianapolis. The only opportunities that fit my interests were VISTA positions. I applied for several positions. With my interests in education and kids, College Mentors for Kids was a good fit.

VF: What was your focus at College for Mentors for Kids?

Rachel: I was originally hired to do development work – grant writing and fundraising – but the organization realized they had a great need for communications and marketing so I switched my focus as soon as I returned from PSO.

VF: What types of projects did you accomplish as a VISTA?

Rachel: The organization never had anyone to focus on PR, marketing, and communications beyond volunteers. I went in and built a structure for them. I secured a donation from a firm that happened to be in our building and specialized in communications for nonprofits. They created a three-year communications plan.

We tried to work out a long-term plan for how we could make the communications position sustainable, as there were only four staff total.

I also conducted a series of general communications training for staff – how to write press releases, how to talk to the media, what are the basic design principles, and how to work with printers.

VF: That's great that you focused on creating a sustainable communications plan. What did it look like?

Rachel: Since I was in the first year of the organization's VISTA project, I did a lot of planning. I worked with college students and the chapters to improve their communications planning, volunteer recruitment, and media coverage. I started an enewsletter that they still publish. I also forged a partnership with a local printer that provided us with a regular discount and printed our annual report for free. I set-up a lot of pro bono services and in-kind gifts.

VF: How do you become interested in nutrition and food security?

Rachel: I came back to DC to get my Master's degree in Public Communication at American University. After I graduated, the State Office Director of VISTA in Indiana told me that the Corporation for National and Community Service was hiring. I didn't really want to go into government service, but it ended up working well for me.

I learned about my current position as a Program Analyst in the Office of Strategic Initiatives, Partnerships & Outreach at the USDA Food & Nutrition Service through my work as a VISTA Outreach Specialist while at the Corporation.

I like what I'm doing because it is cause-oriented work. I like knowing that the work that I'm doing is helping to feed kids, that I'm doing good…and helping to pay off my school loans.

VF: What are you doing now at the USDA?

Rachel: A little bit of everything. I support all the USDA programs with outreach and partnerships. The programs come to us and we support them by conducting webinars, developing outreach materials like brochures and web content. We basically have a client relationship with the 15 different programs.

VF: Can you give us some examples of the programs that you work with?

Rachel: Sure. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is the biggest program – it's formally the food stamp program but Congress renamed it to help with the stigma. The program is growing and the Recovery Act changed the eligibility requirements so now more people can benefit from the program.

In November of 2009, 32.8 million people received SNAP, and it's increasing by hundreds of thousands each month.

Since the Farm Bill Act changed the name from food stamps to SNAP, all of the materials need to be updated. We are also tailoring materials to reach seniors and the Hispanic population.

I'm also doing some work with WIC (Women, Infants, and Children). We're revising a brochure geared towards the parents of preschoolers and toddlers because many don't realize their children are eligible through the age of five.

The Summer Food Service Program is going to be important this summer given the economic downturn – it has also garnered the support of Vice President Biden. We are trying to recruit more sponsor organizations to set-up feeding sites that can operate in low-income neighborhoods while school is out

There's also the National Hunger Clearinghouse, (1-866-3 HUNGRY), which is a resource that VISTAs involved with food issues can use. It's a listing of local resources for food pantries and banks and is the federal government's only same day food assistance referral program..

VF: How do you see VISTAs helping with these food security issues?

Rachel: It depends on their situation and the VISTAs' sponsors. Catholic Charities does a lot of SNAP outreach. These programs are meant to be short-term help while people get back on their feet. They are also gateway programs for job training and other social services.

VF: Tell us how your son got involved with VISTA.

Rachel: My son, Chris, saw me at my lowest point. There were times when he had to take care of me emotionally. But last year I was recognized as being the “Outstanding VISTA” for the state of Indiana. He was so proud of me. That award was the pinnacle that mom was going to be okay. Because of my work at Bosma, it confirmed there are other people like his mom. He saw how VISTA had transformed me, which inspired him to get involved as well.

All of the outreach materials are free. VISTAs can download the brochures and print them out or order them free of cost. They can hand out these materials when they think someone could use the programs – when they need food immediately. SNAP Outreach (order free materials, outreach toolkits, etc.).

With the Summer Food Program, if an organization has a kitchen on site, is already feeding kids, or partners with organizations that do, they can apply to become a sponsor of the food program. Eighteen million children are eligible for this program, but only three million take advantage of it. So we could really use help in getting the word out

VF: What did you get out of serving as a VISTA?

Rachel: I definitely got a sense of accomplishment.

I worked with the college students that had chapters that were struggling. But we saw an impact that they were improving and mentoring more kids – the programs really turned around. I got just as much out of it as they did.

And I couldn't have been doing these tasks just a couple of years out of college – being a VISTA definitely jump started my career in communications.

And I made lots of friends! I'm still in touch with my roommate at PSO. Indiana has a very strong network of VISTAs. We were creative in our free time with no money. Many of us volunteered as ushers for a theatre so we could attend the performances.

VF: What advice do you have for current VISTAs?

Rachel: You can't fix it all but you can do a lot. Use the resources that VISTA has for you like VISTACampus.org, in-service trainings, and call other VISTAs.

As a VISTA, no matter what your project is, it's not an easy thing. You work hard for very little but hopefully most people can see some sort of impact that you're making.

Try to keep things in perspective. It helps to get out of the office and be with the people you're serving.

What you can do to help the community you're living and serving in is also affecting you. The more you put in, the more your community gets and the more you get as well.

Decade: 2000s