Fighting Poverty with Passion
My routine as a VISTA Leader is quite different from the routine I set up when I served my first VISTA year. As a VISTA, the day varied between multiple projects and tasks. Some of these tasks included providing solid communication with partners about projects and long-term sustainability of non-profit involvement with service-learning students, as well as the daily tasks of communicating with individual students to ensure they found opportunities to serve the community. Although, most of my energy was spent on coordinating larger service days, like the freshman/returning student service day put on at the beginning of the school year or MLK Day of Service, my position was created to establish strategic initiatives that would position the organization to be a “volunteering clearinghouse” for the region. I had to understand the organization I was working with and the field I was working in to begin contributing to the organization, however. As many new individuals are coming into their first VISTA year with this program, I am reminded that my first VISTA supervisor provided me with many opportunities to grow professionally and learn about non-profit/project management, student/staff engagement, and leadership. What I learned in that first VISTA year, although I did not directly serve in a non-profit (or NGO as I have more recently heard them called), I worked to provide “human capital” to many non-profit organizations. This was a great experience because I had the opportunity to see the breadth of what non-profit leadership is all about, and of course, the organization I worked for had a full-time staff “volunteer” there to pick up the pieces that were lagging and bring new energy to the organization. This did not always mean that I was providing “direct service” (defined as planting trees or painting dilapidated houses), but instead providing the research needed for a long-range fundraising plan that the Executive Director very desperately needed but was too busy making other partnerships or ensuring that the daily tasks were accomplished, to ensure the “strategy” was in place.
With that said, much of my days now are spent very differently than this first year in VISTA. This year, when I am not working to create a “network” among the VISTAs in the TNVNet Project through conversations with individuals and then bringing everyone together as a group once a month in a “webinar,” and doing data collection for the project, I am researching topics of professional development to provide to VISTA members. The “education” of VISTA members is not new to me, as I facilitated topics among staff members as a graduate assistant, but really knowing what kind of information to present becomes challenging because these individuals are placed in different areas throughout the country (and different projects) so the topics need to be general enough that members can “glean” the information that is most relevant to their respective areas of work. Just as any VISTA experience will vary by individual; this is the case with VISTA Leaders as well. It definitely varies by the needs of the supervisor, but it will also vary based on the interests of the VISTA Leader and how that fits in with the overall direction of the program. Anytime a volunteer or staff member is new to an organization, some time is needed to build a certain amount of rapport and trust with colleagues, and that is why VISTA-sponsoring organizations really are working as a part of a network that is providing “human capital” as well. So, while many people ask what a VISTA Leader does, it varies by the day and needs of the organization, but it all takes initiative to move things forward.
On another note, this month included a few trips on the ferry and a few outings like karaoke, roller-skating, and a visit to the World War II Museum for the Smithsonian’s Annual “free museum day.” Exploration of New Orleans itself is a little more enjoyable now that it has cooled down quite a bit!
-Sara Weber, TNVNet VISTA Leader, Tulane University Center for Public Service