Posted September 3, 2017
By Olivia Neeley, email@example.com | 252-265-7879
5 AmeriCorps members starting service year with local agencies
Tatiana Cleveland has worked with a chainsaw. She’s worked with Habitat for Humanity installing windows in the middle of winter. She’s worked on a STEM initiative for low-income minorities and female students. And she’s helped children in literacy programs by tutoring and training volunteers.
While Cleveland is only 25 years old, she’s got passion to make a difference in the lives of others and their communities through service.
And that’s why Cleveland, originally from Charlotte, is now in Wilson serving as the AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America supervisor through the United Way of Wilson County.
“I feel like I’m at the right place at the right time,” she said.
Wilson was recently selected as one of four communities for the Service Year NC Initiative by the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University. A service year is a paid, full-time position for those who want to make a lasting impact in communities across the country through programs such as AmeriCorps, which is a national service program with three branches, including VISTA — Volunteers in Service to America.
Wilson was approved over the summer by the Corporation for National and Community Service to host five AmeriCorps VISTAs — for a three-year service project that will focus on healthy futures for lower income areas of Wilson. These young adults, who just graduated college, have been assigned to partner agencies in Wilson and will each have a project to work on.
The five VISTA volunteers, two of whom are Barton College graduates, are now in their second week here in Wilson and have been placed with their respective agencies — Barton College, the city of Wilson, the Wilson County Health Department, Wilson Family YMCA and the United Way of Wilson County.
The goal for each volunteer will be expanding the capacity of those agencies’ existing programs and building project sustainability.
Those projects will work to increase volunteerism to address health and wellness, help to expand local community gardens to provide access to healthful foods, increase awareness of the NC 2-1-1 program, work with health educators within the county to promote programs and enhance youth programs in schools and community programs within housing projects.
Cleveland said this program is more powerful than an internship after college. Not only do the VISTA volunteers experience hands-on, project-oriented initiatives, but they are also mentored by site supervisors and will work to make a difference in Wilson while they are here.
“They are people who really care and who really want to make a difference,” Cleveland said.
She said the VISTAs are also here to be a resource for the year and really build the sustainability and the capacity of programs and opportunities that already exist in Wilson.
“They are given a specific task to focus on for a year of service,” she said. “All of their VISTA assignment descriptions have a health care initiative focus.”
RELATING TO THOSE THEY SERVE
Thanks to funding from the Healthcare Foundation of Wilson, each VISTA has been placed at those partner agencies. The foundation’s funding also supports Cleveland’s job where she will oversee the volunteers and their projects.
“Our funding for the VISTA coordinator position and other components of this project will help support its collective impact and continue the great, collaborative approach in our community to improve the health and well-being of the people of greater Wilson,” said Denise O’Hara, executive director of Healthcare Foundation of Wilson.
The VISTA members also live at the poverty level while they are here working in the community. Barton College has also helped in providing the five members housing at no cost as well as a meal plan.
Cleveland said the members have to be prepared to walk the walk along with community members who are living in poverty.
“We don’t want them to come into the community as outsiders, but we want them to be able to relate,” Cleveland said, adding that it’s about them having a genuine experience and understanding the population they will work with on a day-to-day basis.
Cleveland said in communities like Wilson, young people learn a sense of community and how that coincides with making a difference in the lives of those most vulnerable.
“I really care about the people and what they are experiencing,” she said.
Cleveland said she left college her junior year because she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. She then joined AmeriCorps and has served in multiple capacities in three of its branches over the past 2 ½ years. In addition to supervising the five VISTA members, she’s finishing up her degree at UNC Pembroke.
“I found myself through the program,” Cleveland said. “I really want to spend my life helping others. I think the program helped me figure out who I was and what I wanted to do. I feel indebted to it.”
Cleveland said VISTA members are supposed to eventually work themselves out of a job.
“The VISTA should help build the capacity of the community they are serving and the organization so that when they leave, their community is able to carry on that work without them and sustain it,” she said.
PARTNERS ARE EAGER
In 2015, the Institute of Emerging Issues named Wilson as one of five communities in its InnovateNC initiative, and in 2017, the institute named Wilson one of four Service Year NC communities, said Paula Benson, Wilson 20/20 Community Vision executive director.
“Wilson 20/20 is always eager to identify and participate in partnerships that improve our community, and the success of our application to become a Service Year NC community demonstrated, again, the ongoing commitment of our many local partners to work together. I believe the impact of this project will be significant, and these first five VISTA placements have already established an exciting pathway for us to be a model of excellence in the expansion of service year placements in North Carolina.”
Jessica Bailey, Wilson 20/20 Community Vision project manager, said local organizers could not be any more excited about the bringing this project to Wilson.
“Wilson 20/20 is optimistic about the placements and the work they will do this year addressing access to healthy food and care,” she said.
Judi Thurston, United Way of Wilson County executive director, said organizers are also grateful for the support they received from the Healthcare Foundation of Wilson, which awarded a two-year grant to the United Way to implement the AmeriCorps program.
“The United Way, Wilson 20/20 Community Vision and the Healthcare Foundation and our host agencies look at this opportunity as a way to continue our existing collaborative efforts and to move forward in building a strong foundation toward new efforts that will provide resources and opportunities to our citizens.”