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Insider’s Guide to Americorps

Posted on 14 September 2008

When I graduated from college, I followed the same path as many of my classmates. I went to interviews with campus recruiters and found a pretty good match with a management consulting company. It was a great learning experience, and it gave me some real-life business experience with which to round out my degrees in economics and geography. But throughout my two years there, I felt that I was lacking something. I had always hoped for a job that would complement my life and vice versa. Something I could integrate into my life without sacrificing happiness or meaning. Of this I was certain: I didn’t want to put in my hours at work and then go home to actually start living my life.

So I began looking for an alternative that would fit these criteria. Setting out, I knew that I enjoyed helping people, wanted to be a part of a strong community and craved a challenge, so I began looking into various national service programs. The job that caught my eye was an Americorps*VISTA position in Burlington, Vermont. The VISTA program (Volunteers in Service to America) was started by Lyndon Johnson in the 60′s as a domestic equivalent to the Peace Corps. Volunteers commit to one year of service and are matched with a community somewhere in the United States. They are often assigned to existing non-profit organizations to work at “capacity-building” activities. This means that volunteers work to help the non-profits serve more people more efficiently and effectively. Often the work involves assessing community needs, providing education, and reaching out to groups that may have been overlooked. Since non-profits are often short-staffed, VISTA becomes a catalyst for new initiatives and improvements.

I arrived in Burlington to meet about 50 other VISTA volunteers who had come here for reasons similar to my own. We went through several days of training at a retreat center on Lake Champlain, listening to community presenters who covered a wide range of topics, from working with the media, to managing volunteers, to community organizing, to time management and so forth. We would be working at programs all over the city, teaching art classes for low-income kids or teaching computer classes for lower-income community groups. There was a great enthusiasm among this group, a galvanizing notion that we were freely giving of ourselves for the benefit of the disadvantaged.

I worked at a program that provided training and counseling for people starting their own businesses — people who needed to hone their business-management skills to better their chances at success. I helped these entrepreneurs set priorities and gauge their needs; I gave presentations around the community on the topics of self-employment, the local economy and available resources; and I worked with other non-profits to improve referrals and communication between organizations. I was absolutely thrilled to find a position that reflected my values — a job that I never wanted to leave at the end of the day.

Throughout my VISTA service I learned a lot about my community. As cliched as it may seem, I came away knowing that I gave something back. Unlike occasional volunteer work, committing to a year of service allows you to use your skills to do something valuable and permanent. And on top of all that, I made wonderful friends, many of them, like myself, opting to remain in Burlington’s non-profit sector.

Soon after I finished my service, I took a position at an organization that provides training for women in the midst of starting small businesses. I attribute my newfound direction and mental focus to my time spent in the VISTA program. I’ve always figured that it’s important that your work be a reflection of who you are. A year of service is an investment in yourself and your community, and a way to find some direction in what may be a confusing time. You may give up a year of a good salary, but the rewards are immeasurable.

To get more information about AmeriCorps, call (800) 942-2677 or visit their Web site.

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