• Alumni story
    Sherry Kotara 2014 2015 Waynesville, MO

    Life as a military spouse comes with a unique set of challenges- of which is the feeling career aspirations will remain unfulfilled. Receiving orders to move was initially devastating. I had to leave my clerical job for a job-deprived rural community in the mid-west. I started my job search long before I arrived, but it wasn’t long until I realized I was only one of hundreds scrambling for any job available. To fill what I thought would only be two years in this new community, I set out to finish my bachelors degree.

    During most of this time, I stayed rather unattached from the local community. I served with my spouse’s unit Family Readiness Group- organized events, helped with nonprofit and military affiliated fundraisers, and gathered resources to advocate for other spouses to expand their education. Still, I felt unfulfilled. I missed my home state dearly and was convinced this place would never feel like home. At the time, I didn’t see the struggle to find my place in the world as a shared experience. I saw it as an exclusively military spouse experience which kept me isolated.

    Then in August 2013, after nearly a year and a half, a devastating flash flood swept through the area. We saw nearly ten inches of rainfall in a matter of hours with no signs of slowing. In a state of emergency and mandatory evacuations, the unexpected event caused people to be stranded in their homes or cars with rescue missions all over the county, not to mention the horrible damage to property.

    The response of the community, both local and military, was inspiring. Military units gathered vehicles to pull people from unsafe roadways, strangers helped people reach higher ground, search parties were organized to find missing family members, donations poured in, and volunteers for every need were secured. Not knowing where to start, I gathered cleaning supplies and clothes and headed to the temporary Red Cross station. I expected to be one of few when I arrived but people were everywhere- some needing help but many there to volunteer. I have never experienced such an out pour of giving, especially giving of time. It was amazing. People, local and military, were coming together to serve the community, the shared community.

    That day, I helped sort supplies and helped the needy get the things they most direly needed. It was there I heard people organizing cleanups around the town to help citizens and businesses recover while we waited for the rain to stop. Over the following week, I helped a local and longstanding automotive company recover salvageable inventory and muck out offices. I met some local people and learned what they valued most about their home. They shared their love of their small town even in the wake of disaster, so much of what they said sounded like home.

    It was in this moment I realized, I didn’t feel at home here because I hadn’t invested in the community. Instead, I had merely expected to receive without service. I was a part of the problem, not the solution, and I realized I had the power to create change.

    Soon, I was looking for ways to contribute to the community more continuously. It wasn’t long until I discovered the AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program. In my area, we “fight poverty with passion,” specifically targeting ways to alleviate poverty through education programs and end the cycle of poverty. Eagerly, I committed to a full-time, 12-month term to serve as a VISTA, dedicating my new education and perspective to serving community needs as a whole. Half-way through my term I assumed team leader responsiblities mentoring other VISTA members in their community projects and working to build sustainability.

    I have been privileged to serve my new community in many capacities since my start with VISTA but none are as satisfying as my work with the Snack in a Pack program. Building on the work of a previous volunteer, the hunger relief program serves youth in our school district- both military and local alike- with supplemental food packs on weekends who experience food scarcity. Hunger, surprisingly, is a real, tangible issue even in our society.

    By building and strengthening community partnerships, I spearheaded the increase of funding resources- a necessary venture as our program saw a 13% increase in need within 6 months. My efforts, with the support of many volunteers and community partners, led to our ability to send meal packs home for over 315 students during both thanksgiving and winter extended breaks- the most the program has ever served.

    In recognition for my VISTA service, I was selected to participate as part of a 2014-2015 leadership academy-  a selective community-based leadership program with the Chamber of Commerce designed to identify, educate, and develop leaders. I was also elected Class President and influenced a class service project supporting Snack in a Pack. I designed the service project to build awareness for the issue of hunger in our area, in the presence of some of the community’s most committed members while inspiring career-minded individuals to give of their time in service.

    Everyone has a valuable currency, its really a matter of finding the appropriate way to spend that currency. If you are unsure of what you have to offer the world, start with your time. Time is an invaluable commodity when offered to others and is always accepted- worldwide (with no pesky exchange fees).

    Since beginning my service journey, I learned community service is not just giving of your time but rather an investment in our future. Impacting change does not, as they say, just happen with time but rather occurs when people come together to put change into action. The inspiration from my new community led me to service, and I only hope I can be that catalyst for others.

  • Alumni story
    John Brice 2013 2014 Spartanburg

    I arrived in Spartanburg, SC in August of 2013 after serving for 10 month in the AmeriCorps State/National program in Jacksonville, FL and I was uncertain as to what VISTA's actually did! I knew that VISTA's did something involving "capacity building," but I didnt exactly know what that entailed. What exactly was a grant and how would I write one? Would I be good at it? Would I get one? My host site was The Haven Shelter for Families in Spartanburg and it was affiliated through The United Way of the Piedmont. My Executive Director, along with the site staff, was very welcoming and accomodating of the fact that I had very little experience in fundraising and social media. I was, however, very enthusiastic about changing the course of The Haven's Facebook and Twitter campaign about creating a "Dine to Donate" fundraising project that would allow friends and fans to pick a place to eat once a month and in return for that eatery hosting us, they would allow a portion of the proceeds to go directly back to The Haven! It was a project that I helped grow through Facebook and through networking opportunities with partners in the community, I was able to attend various grant writing seminars as well to sharpen my writing skills. I actually wrote several grants and received one in particular that focused on summer school activities for our children to use for science and recreation day camps in the amount of $2500! It was a huge accomplishment for me and allowed me to secure a second term as a VISTA in North Carolina at another site!


    Thank You Haven!

  • Alumni story
    Gretchen Chomas 2012 2014 San Diego

    Native communities are the forgotten lands of America.  It was an honor to serve the Tribes of Southern California for two years.  I was tasked with solving the problem of feeding the youth at championships for our sports leagues.  The curent protocol was to hire out a fast food truck which provided burgers and fries.  Seeing this as problematic, we brainstormed and used trial and error over the course of the next year.  The end result was Rez Dogg's Refreshments, a program that gained over $125,000 in support to continue health efforts for SoCal Native youth.  I am very grateful for the opportunity.

  • Alumni story
    Carol Thornton 2012 2013 Tuscumbia

    When I first came to volunteer with Miller County Emergency Management it was something I had experience with from being a US military veteran.  When I was asked to volunteer as an AmeriCorps VISTA  member I did not know what they meant.  It has been a wonderful experience this past year finding out what it means.

    The community I serve is comprised of many towns and we are in the rural area of Missouri.  There are extremes beyond belief from flash flooding to ice storms.  My mission of service is to assist as the local emergency response committee and serve along side of our local emergency director here in the county.  

    The opportunities I have been given for education while servicing have been fantastic.  They are directly related to the service and assist in providing emergency preparedness through a program called "Community Emergency Response Team"  or CERT, a 20-hour local program that promotes collaboration within our community through teams that come to the aid of the people during incidents.

    I look forward to continuing another year and am grateful to be able to serve our local community.  The friends and fellow service members of PAVE AmeriCorps that I have made along the way are numerous and will be with me forever.


  • Alumni story
    Chad Toland 2012 2013 Joplin

    My journey as a VISTA? That is a very interesting question and one I have had the pleasure to experience. The journey started after my family and I survived the F-5 Tornado in Joplin, MO on 5/22/11. I have two sons: Seth now 20,and Tanin now 17; a Neapolitan Mastiff named Grendel the Grand; and a beautiful wife of 23 years. At the time of the Tornado, I was on another journey, which included getting a Bachelors degree in Health Promotion and Wellness with a minor in Business Management. I had two semesters left after the Tornado and I plugged on through with the completion and graduation in May of 2012.

    Well like most recent grads, I was wondering in what direction to go so my first mission was to obtain references. I had been an active volunteer for the Special Olympics for more than ten years, and an active Red Cross volunteer for almost three years. I felt that stopping by the Red Cross and asking for a reference was as good a place as any to get the references I needed, so I went by there and spoke with Emergency Director. I was amazed to find the Emergency Director for the Joplin office was Julie Stolting, who was originally the Health and Safety Director. I explained to Mrs. Stolting that i wished to use her as a reference for my resume and job search. Mrs. Stolting was more than happy to help, but also divulged new information to me about a program called AmeriCorps. Mrs. Stolting went on to explain how the program worked and the skills required, so I researched it a little more and applied.

    I was fortunate enough to get a position as a Disaster Preparedness Assistant for the American Red Cross in Joplin, MO. I was encouraged by the Pre-Service Orientation (PSO) in Denver, CO where I was able to meet fellow members of VISTA and new as well as tenured VISTAs. I consider myself a nerd so I was eager to go and learn more and see more. It was a great experience and I made amazing new friends at the PSO.

    The first few months at the program site were quick paced and everything went very well in terms of making contacts. In the first month of service, I designed our first Community Preparedness and Safety Expo with the help of another AmeriCorps member. The event was great we were able to get 32 volunteers to help man the event and 12 vendors to attend. I was off and running and I felt pretty confident. Within the first two months, I was able to build capacity with new volunteers by attending events at local colleges and Universities.

    Once my year was in full swing, I focused on getting more classes through the Red Cross. I became an Instructor of CPR/FA/AED for humans and dogs and cats. I also taught Disaster classes such as Disaster Service Overview, Sheltering Fundamentals, Disaster Action Team Assessment and field Operations, trained new volunteers how to use CAS (client case management program) to enter legal documents from disaster events.

    I was lucky enough to give presentations on preparedness and safety for several organizations and local clubs, but the highlight for me was when I got the chance to help design the catalog for a Disaster Academy from the American Red Cross at MSSU, the very University I had graduated from a year prior. The designing process was impressive to say the least and we all pulled together to send out a complete and informative catalog of classes and registration forms. The Disaster Academy was held in May 2013 and I was lucky once again to get the opportunity to teach classes at the Disaster Academy,  a challenge I humbly and eagerly accepted.

    I could spend hours relating every little detail of my year as a VISTA, but I feel that the most important thing that needs to be conveyed at this point is that I was (and continue to be) enriched by the people I met during disasters, as well as the individuals I met that make up so many volunteer groups and community partners. I will say this for the AmeriCorps VISTA program, it was an honor and privilege to be a part of this great and amazing program! I was able to teach and reach people that I would never have had the chance to without this humbling experience as a VISTA. Being a VISTA will continue to journey with me through  new adventures after this year of service. It will help guide me and remind me of how great we all are.

    In Service,

    Chad Toland

    Disaster Preparedness Assistant

    PAVE AmeriCorps VISTA 

    American Red Cross

  • Alumni story
    Britney Compton 2012 2013 Kansas City

    The five of us AmeriCorps VISTAs started the first day at Turn the Page KC with an understanding that we were to set the standard of Turn the Page KC.  It was a new initiative, and we were playing a vital role in how it would turn out.  We recruited, spoke about, and developed tools to aid early literacy in Kansas City.  We faced difficulties, timelines and many "no"s, but we persevered.  It is exciting to know that from this year forward, Turn the Page KC is what it is because we were there.  I am excited to hear about the accomplishments of the VISTAs taking our places; I am excited to see Turn the Page KC flourish in the community.  I take with me friendships, mentors, and knowledge that I would not have been given had I not become an AmeriCorps VISTA.  I leave this year and enter an AmeriCorps SN position; I cannot express the experience gained from these commitments.

  • Alumni story
    Dora Viramontes 2008 2010 Albuquerque

    For me, being a VISTA volunteer was a wonderful experience. I spent time guiding parents, supporting teachers in different activities for children at Wilson Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I learned a lot from them. 

    For the parents, I helped by filling out different papers since I spoke Spanish. About 60% of the population only spoke Spanish, so I had to help out a lot. I was always helping them resolve problems since the teachers didn’t speak much English, sometimes making phone calls for the parents.  I’m so proud for all that. Thank you.


  • Alumni story
    Rebecca Dasco 2010 Columbus

    My year as an Americorps VISTA has been a truly life changing experience. I have spent most of my life seeing things in society that needed to be changed or improved, but never feeling as though I had the tools or wherewithal to do so. For the first time I feel as though I have a voice and can actually take actions that will provide visible results. I’ve become more self-reliant and learned how to take the lead on projects rather than waiting for someone to tell me what to do. 

    The two activities that have probably had the greatest influence on me are enrolling people into the plan and the creation of the pediatric reading program. When enrolling people, I was able to see and speak to the people I wanted to help. Poverty suddenly had a face and a voice. Creating the volunteer program showed me that it was possible for me to take an active role in improving the living conditions of those living around me. 

  • Alumni story
    Tyrel Nelson St. Paul

    “This is my last day!” I spun away from my laptop to see a frustrated coed stomp through the door. “What happened?” I asked her. “They just couldn’t stay on task!” “That’s too bad.” “It is. I’m going to borrow a pen.” She darted to my desk and snatched a ballpoint. She hustled to the three-ring binder atop the file cabinet on the other side of my office, furiously flipped through its pages, and hastily recorded her final hours as an English tutor. Then she looked at me. “Is this your ONLY job?” she inquired before abruptly turning her back to me. With her question still registering, I leaned back in my rolling office chair. I bit my tongue while she walked out the door.

    I spent the next several minutes thinking about what she had said. I reflected upon all of the hard work I had put in to start the program she had just quit. I was a little upset. But I soon shook it off—it wasn’t about me. I refocused on the almost 20,000 students in St. Paul who were not proficient in math or reading. They deserved my attention. They were the reason for my job.

    Serving on behalf of the Saint Paul Public Schools Foundation, my position was created to implement a tutoring program with the goal of increasing proficiency in math, science, and literacy at Humboldt Secondary (one of thirteen schools participating in the SPPS Foundation’s Tutoring Partnership for Academic Excellence); a very diverse, 7-12 institution located in Minnesota’s capital city. The tutors would be required to volunteer for at least one hour per week. And due to lack of space, I was asked by the principal to use the “push in” tutoring model. In other words, the volunteers were to act as “floats”—assist the teacher by moving around the classroom to help struggling students.

    Starting my VISTA year at the end of November wasn’t ideal. The Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks were huge recruiting roadblocks; people were focused on the holidays, not tutoring. No one seemed willing to brave the biting winter to offer their time at Humboldt to boot. So 2010 got off to a slothful start. Zero volunteers had shown up through January. In February, I did a handful of orientations, but still no tutoring had occurred.

    I remained persistent though. My steadfast recruiting—countless emails, phone calls, and meetings—eventually paid off. At the end of March, I had four; thirteen more were added to the roster in April; and by June 30, as many as twenty-three people had consistently tutored in Humboldt math, science, and/or literacy classes. Despite those first dismal months, I had managed to get a program up and running after all. Other people had noticed too. On the last day of summer school, I was approached by one of the English teachers. “I can’t tell you how much your tutor has helped me,” he said. “Thank you very much.” He shook my hand. I smiled. Although it was a small gesture, the handshake reminded me of why I wanted to be a VISTA in the first place: to make a difference. Is this my only job? Yes, and I’m very proud of it. 

  • Alumni story
    Lawrence Mitts 2007 2010 Tangipahoa Parish

    I retired from Shell Oil Company in 2003 and as circumstances developed I needed to continue working so this opportunity became the job I needed and the work I love.

    In August of 2007, I contacted United Way (UW) because I needed help to keep my wife and me from becoming homeless. UW worked with me and got my mortgage company to hold off eviction to allow us to sell our home. As a result, we did not become homeless, even though it took 7 months for the house to sell. In the interview process with UW, I was introduced to the VISTA Rep. and invited to apply. I did. I was accepted and actually took over the job of the woman that helped me at UW. Three years and a million and a half dollars later, I was hired by UW to continue the program I worked on. Now, every day, I continue to fight poverty by helping to bring in the funds to keep programs alive and running which affect the daily lives of my friends and neighbors. In this manner, I have begun a new opportunity for myself.

    I have served 3 years in the capacity of Resource Development with United Way of Greater New Orleans serving Tangipahoa. In this job, I have been involved in all phases of fund raising for a non-profit. The experience was exceptional to say the least.


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