Why I Chose to Become a VISTA:

Everyone who applies for Americorps VISTA has various reasons for applying: extra job skill growth, developing a different perspective on life, having the ability to see more states across America, and having the opportunity to help others all throughout the United States. My personal reasons for joining Americorps VISTA includes the above reasons but also includes a more important reason – a chance for my personal development.

When I was in the process of completing my BA in Religious Studies at the University of North Florida, I knew that I wanted to do two things in my life – teach religion at a university/college level and do nonprofit work. These two goals aren’t at all surprising if you know me in real-life! Ever since elementary school, I have joined countless community organizations and clubs that help my local community, back home, in Florida – I even became involved in seven clubs at a time in my senior year of high school! This dedication to service continued throughout my years in college; I felt like I had a purpose – goals that I can set for myself to determine who I am and my success. But, as usual, life gets in the way.

My last year at college, January to December 2015, was a very trying time for me. I had a stressful spring and fall semester completing all my requirements, finalizing my undergraduate capstone experience, managing my job and teacher assistant duties, and looking for jobs after college. However, all of that didn’t even shine a light on what happened in my personal relationships.

The story started in 2013 when I transferred to UNF, but it reached its climax in Fall 2015. My last semester of college was the worst semester I had in my whole college life. A guy that I used to date spread highly salacious and false rumors about me, not only to our mutual friends, but to anyone who would listen, including my professional relationships as I TA’ed in the Honors Department. Thirty to forty people ended up knowing explicit information and my deepest secrets, and there was nothing I could do about it. People began to avoid me. People began to shift their eyes and whisper within ear shot but never loud enough for me to know what they were talking about. People began to spread more rumors about me to people that were outside of the department. I felt anxious, paranoid, and unsafe everywhere I went. I felt like I could not talk to anyone about this for fear that more rumors would spread about how weak I was, and the mere notion of me discussing my problem would multiply the problem. I didn’t even tell my best and closest friends what was wrong with me and they didn’t know what was happening because the gossip, which artfully, never reached them. Those were the darkest three months of my entire life, but I made it to graduation.

I thought that after college graduation I could forget all about what happened, and for the most part, I began to recover from all the stress and negativity that surrounded me, but 2016 became a stressful extension of 2015. I was still hearing gossip spreading about me at UNF, but this time it hurt a lot more because some of my closest friends began to hang around those same people who hated me, but they did nothing to defend me. When I visited the three friends I had left at UNF, I still felt the paranoia, the anxiety, and the anger at the people who had wronged me. Lo and behold, it did not get any better after I graduated. As the months went by in 2016, I lost just about every friend I had made during college, some due to the rumors, some due to the fact that I graduated. But my best friend stayed by my side throughout all of it. He was the source of my strength, he helped me cope with my anxiety, he reassured me, he comforted me, and he pushed me to follow my dreams of national service. He knew that I wasn’t happy back home anymore, due to all of the drama that had followed me throughout the last couple of years of my college experience. He nudged me in the direction of applying for Americorps VISTA, and I did, that very same day. I had interviews a week or so later, and not even an hour after my interview I got the job at Americana. It was one of the best days of 2016 for me.

But, just like everyone else in college, he ultimately left me too.

It was three days before I was to come to Kentucky to serve at Americana World Community Center when we had a massive fight. He told me that we weren’t friends anymore, we haven’t been friends in a long time, I was too intense to be around, I was too socially draining to be around, and I was too much to be around. That was the last straw for me and I knew that there wasn’t anything left for me back home besides my family.

I went into service as a broken sort of person who had anxiety and depression, whose life seemed to have fallen apart, with her desperately trying to hold it together. I came to live in city and state where I knew absolutely no one, and had never been to in my life. But that is not where my story ends.

Serving at Americana World Community Center through Americorps VISTA has been the most life-changing program I have been in. Being a Community Liaison has helped me focus not only on the community I serve, but on myself. I have found out more about myself through all the hardships I have faced in the past and the obstacles that I face currently, and I am a better person for it. I have learned different self-care and coping mechanisms through my VISTA umbrella project members, I have found fantastic people and formed friendships with many people in Louisville, I have become finally happy with myself after these past couple of years of disliking myself because of other people. I found my old self-confidence and, believe it or not, I am thankful to the people who talked down about me, who spread rumors about me, and who generally disliked me as a human being, because I grew stronger, wiser, and more empathetic because of it. My job as a VISTA has dramatically changed my personality for the better and my family back home has noticed. I smile more, I laugh more, I joke more.

I am thankful to those who pushed me out and away, because I they pushed me back to myself. So, yeah, these past couple of years have been tough and exhausting for countless reasons, but I found myself again through Americorps VISTA service and I now know that I want to continue helping others in my life.

Bourbon and Brick, Chicken and Sirens: A Transplant’s Take on Life in “Looavul”

By Rachel Petek

I could care less about a lot of “American” things, like having a lawn to mow, scaling the corporate ladder, apple pie, or college sports (I am totally still fun, and American, I swear!). I’m more interested in rock n’ roll, impractical old cars, bison burgers, state and national parks, and interacting with the people and places that make up this gorgeous, bizarre country.

Pushing thirty years young, I have been in college on and off long enough to be a doctor, kind of like Tommy Boy. But I’ve lived, baby! You better believe it! That’s why it took me awhile to earn that overly-glorified piece of paper, and I did it in a mighty beautiful place. I finally graduated with my BA in Art last May from the University of Montana. The only thing I’ve paused at a notable length to consider career-wise is teaching creative writing, but I needed some time away from academia to refresh my perspective by doing something crazy… so I joined AmeriCorps! I figured, since I was already buried in college debt and used to swallowing my pride, that I should try for the gold medal. What I really wanted to do was something outside myself after being in university land. No outstanding jobs had fallen from the sky, and I was anxious to wear out my shoes somewhere new.

Moving against the grain from west to east was one of the coolest, most foolish things I’ve ever done, but I did it with an incredible man by my side. We were both at transitional points in our lives, and ready to shake things up by experiencing a completely unfamiliar part of the United States, so we packed up our earthly possessions and hit the highway. I’ll never forget the glow of those mountains in the rearview mirror. Though I was ready as could be for adventure, it killed me to leave Montana. I could write another essay entirely on that.

After many Red Bulls, hotel hot tubs, and belly laughs with Van’s relatives in Iowa, we reached our new city: Louisville, Kentucky. Upon arrival, we were swindled our rental deposit by a dirtbag of a landlord in Old Lou, ticked off some cops when our Penske truck got stuck in the midst of the St. James Art Fair traffic, and had to post up in a hotel for our first few days in order to find a new place to live. Needless to say, our introduction to Kentucky was a bit rough. We got a bad taste in our mouths that we try to wash down with bourbon and chicken on a regular basis.

Each time we tell a local Louisvillian where we’re from, whether a barista, mechanic, receptionist, you name it, we get the same dazzled reaction. It’s not the naturally inquisitive look one is inclined to give someone so far from home, but more of a “Why would you move here?!” It doesn’t exactly give us the warm and fuzzies. More than once, we’ve been told nonchalantly that, “people in Louisville are as bi-polar as the weather!” (a direct quote). Before we even moved, we were somewhat aware of that schism, having been given explicit advice from a co-worker to avoid any apartments on the west side of town. In December, a church in our neighborhood installed crosses in the yard in memoriam of over one hundred homicides from the past year, a stark reminder that this city has serious issues beyond Mother Nature’s mood swings.

While I believe that it takes a couple years to really know a place, I also think several months is plenty of time to get a sense of what it’s about. I don’t regret living in Louisville; I’m simply unsure that I have the energy, or understanding, to learn to love it. Shortly after we relocated, our country experienced a major political shift that no one could have known how to prepare for. We felt it more acutely here, without the comfort of friends and family, than we perhaps would have back home. Adjusting to palpable societal changes on an almost daily basis doesn’t make anything easier.

There’s such benevolence in this city, but such recklessness too. For better or worse, Louisville is now part of my life, and I am going to do the good I can until my service is up in roughly seven months (not that I’m counting…). I hope to make clear that I don’t carelessly dislike Louisville; I desperately want to see the good in it, because I know it’s there, and because I’ve got no choice. The amazing work people do locally, especially with refugees, is what compelled me to move here in the first place. I chose to come here. I wasn’t forced to leave my home, nor did I have anything to escape from. I am reminded of that when I see mothers and their kids holding hands while walking out of Kentucky Refugee Ministries, clad in Goodwill coats and traditional dress.

Someday, Louisville will be dear to me, in a funny, sad way. We make it fun where we can. We go on hikes, to concerts, and out to dinner. Since Van works from home, he combs through record stores in his spare time, goes to hockey skating lessons, and sometimes meets up with other musicians in hopes of possible collaboration. We laugh and say, “Spread ‘em for Sanders” when we’re at the downtown YMCA, since the hip adductor machine looks straight out at the four-story portrait of Kentucky’s Colonel. Someday, I will shudder to remember the woefully erratic driving (having never seen such accepted prevalence of busted-up fenders and tailgating in my life, and I’ve experienced NYC and LA), and how no one got out of the way for ambulances, of which there were many.
I’ll remember Van being coined the nickname “Van Baby” by the cashier when we were buying furniture, wandering through Cherokee park, and the butter-yellow magnolias on the way to St. Matthews. I’ll think back to our pilgrimage to Buffalo Trace, the first bourbon I ever enjoyed, back when I was a more resilient, but just as sarcastic, version of me. My mind will conjure images of the strikingly grand houses of brick- some with flood lines on them, the hum of strange insects at night, and the occasional reek of sewage emanating from the gutters on neighborhood walks. I will long for beloved chicken wings from the Back Door, and being caught in torrential downpours. I’ll remember when I saw a cardinal for the first time out the window of our cute apartment with its high ceilings, and the street art mural on Fourth Street that was clearly made by someone who loves this city. I will be grateful for the people doing great things in Louisville, even though I probably won’t be here long enough to know them as well as I’d like.
Humanity alone, in my experience, is not enough to bridge regional and cultural gaps on top of starting such a bizarre new occupation. I thought it would be enough. That’s one thing AmeriCorps has taught me. One of the greatest difficulties of my life has been attempting connect to a brand-new city, so far from anything dear or familiar to me. Even the humor is different from the perverse western wit I’m used to, and people here are often reticent to interact with someone new.

After giving my first AmeriCorps site, Beaded Treasures Project, four months of my time and dedication, I pursued options elsewhere. I decided that although the organization had admirable intentions for disadvantaged women in the city, it was not a healthy work environment for me for various reasons. With the support of the Americana and the State Office, I recently started a new gig at Jefferson Memorial Forest that I have a great feeling about. Spring is in the air, and I’m open to having my world rocked.

I am mystified constantly that despite how painfully disorganized and convoluted AmeriCorps can be, that it not only still functions, but facilitates great things. I’m amazed that every year it is still able to sucker so many bright, awesome people- sometimes from significant geographical distances- into heeding its call. I would recommend AmeriCorps VISTA to a very narrow range of folks, particularly relatively local singles, who are somehow unencumbered by college debt and need the raw, humbling experience of scraping the bottom of the barrel. I would never advise anyone to relocate from such a great distance for this kind of service. So far, it has barely been worth the strain on finances, relationships, and sanity. I paid a great price to learn that I don’t have to be so drastic to be a good person, but that’s something I had to do. Taking chances is a tough love.

The combination of the insatiable, and often chaotic or misplaced, requirements of my energy (from both my original site and AmeriCorps in general) have brought me dangerously close to resentment of my decision to do this, but I refuse to go there. It’s not who I want to be. I still get a little bitter that I could afford to take better care of myself in my early twenties, before college, than I can now. I try, in those dark moments, to instead think of the awesome people and VISTAs I’ve met along the way, and how the admirable folks at Americana have been in my corner since the beginning. I think of the fun I’ve had with Van, from kicking his buns at cards to making weird videos at Dinosaur World, and how our humor has made us closer in spite of everything.

Although AmeriCorps, and the Louisville it brought us to, haven’t quite panned out the way we’d hoped up to this point, the whole experience was a catalyst for some needed change our lives. We learned a great deal, like never, ever, to rent an apartment sight-unseen, and I confirmed my suspicion that I am not wired to stare at a screen all day, no matter how noble the cause may be. Whatever happens next, I’m glad we tried it out, as I would have always wondered what life was like on the other side of the country. A friend told me years ago that the grass isn’t greener on the other side; it’s just different grass. I’m looking for grass that’s a little less arduous next time. If I’m a horse in the next life, maybe- just maybe, I’ll come back to Kentucky for one more round.

 

Embracing Refugees

Imagine that you just received an acceptance letter to Harvard, a prestigious university that people all over the world are hoping to go to. If you work hard at Harvard, you will be rich and able to provide for your family for the rest of your life. This is how refugees around the world escaping persecution see the United States: a place where endless opportunities are available if they can be resettled. Refugees undergo an 18-24 months screening process to enter the U.S., with an acceptance rate lower than Harvard’s. In fact, according to Embrace Refugees, “an individual is 13 times more likely to gain admission to Harvard than to the US as a refugee.”

As an AmeriCorps VISTA, I help serve the refugee community through my service at Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM), a nonprofit refugee resettlement agency. On January 27, Trump signed an executive order suspending the U.S. refugee resettlement program for 120 days, indefinitely banning Syrian refugees and reducing the fiscal year’s arrivals from 110,000 to 50,000 people, among other measures. On the same day that the orders were signed, there was a social justice benefit concert that helped raise money for KRM and Americana Community Center, another organization that serves immigrants and refugees in Louisville. At the concert, performers from all over the world as well as Louisville natives got together to show their support for refugees living in the U.S. At the start of the following week, we had a massive influx of volunteers wanting to know what they can do to support refugee resettlement.

KRM used this opportunity to help the community understand the executive order and how it will affect refugees and immigrants around the world. The first step of civic engagement was to advocate through social media and contact our nation’s government. Tweets to Trump, Facebook messages to the White House, local and national petitions, and calls to Congress were all made to express how important resettlement is. Some people who had never volunteered began to build relationships with refugees and attend advocacy training that would help when attending community events. The biggest event was put on by a coalition KRM is a part of that organized a statewide meeting called “Refugee and Immigrant Day at the Capitol” in Frankfort, Kentucky.

I was able to spend a full day in support of “Refugee and Immigrant Day at the Capitol.” Riding up to Frankfort with a bus full of KRM clients was very rewarding for me to be a part of and witness their excitement. When we arrived everyone instantly wanted a picture in front of all of the buildings. It was like a field trip and reminded me of my first time visiting the Capitol. Before the event started everyone in the crowd was handed small American flags while others had even brought their own signs with clever sayings, scriptures, and words of encouragement and support. Everyone from singers to religious leaders were on the podium to speak on why refugees are welcome in Kentucky. My favorite speeches were from two women who would have been impacted by the ban if they were not already living in the US. They spoke very encouraging words that showed they disapproved of how their families and others were being denied the right to be in the US.

KRM has issued a statement saying “the executive order’s suspension of new families arriving will not stop us from providing high-quality services to refugee and immigrant communities already in Louisville and Lexington.” Refugees are resilient, still fighting and believing that they will be resettled to make a better life for their family here. If you think about it, the United States is like a university that leads to endless, unimaginable possibilities. We are anticipating the day that refugees will begin receiving the “acceptance letter” into the country once again.

 

By Sean Hardiman, Community Connector VISTA at Kentucky Refugee Ministries

Free Tax Help You Can “Account” On

My name is Nic Langford and I’m the Economic Development and Financial Literacy AmeriCorps VISTA at Americana Community Center in Louisville, KY. Americana annually serves more than 5,000 refugees, immigrants, and underserved individuals through English as a Second Language courses, youth programs, and family education and coaching.

On January 20th, Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer held a press conference at Americana to announce the opening of VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) throughout the city. VITA is a tax-prep system conducted by volunteers to do taxes for low- and moderate-income individuals. The point of VITA is to curb tax confusion and the need for pay-sites.

Tens of millions of dollars have been foregone by Louisville taxpayers over the years simply due to misinformation. Refugees and immigrants are hit the worst. Most work full-time and pay federal and state income taxes throughout the year, and yet many do not know they are entitled to a refund, especially those with a questionable working status. This means they pay-in all year and get nothing back.

Overall it is hard for the masses to navigate tax laws. Tax laws are proposed by politicians, implemented by economists, and vigorously debated in court by tax lawyers. They are dense at best, intentionally misleading at their worst, and just to make things worse, they are forever changing. In order to counteract a confusing process, the IRS has started funding and supporting VITA tax sites so people can get good advice and service for free. VITA is rewarding because it helps keep money in Louisville by ensuring VITA clients get back what they earned.

VITA also serves as an educational tool. After coming to a VITA tax site, students know how to keep track of their school bills, teachers know to record anything they purchase for their classrooms, and parents start keeping diligent records of childcare.

Here’s the truth: if you went to school, worked a single day during the tax year or qualify for any of the tax credits such as earned income, child, or education (or just want to know if you qualify), you should come to a VITA site. The volunteers genuinely care and they will take care of you.
And best of all, it’s free.

For more information about the press conference and about how you can get free tax help in Louisville, check out WAVE3’s coverage of the event.

Raison d’être une VISTA

This time last year, I was working as a substitute teacher, planning my wedding, and anxiously waiting to hear back from the graduate programs I had applied to. Every day between class periods as students passed through my room, I would take my phone out of my bag and refresh my email to see if any school had contacted me with an offer of admission. One by one, I received emails with ominous titles like “A decision on your application has been made.” Heart pounding, I would open them up to read something to the effect of “Thank you for your interest in our program. Unfortunately…” or “Due to a high volume of applications…”. I ended up receiving only one acceptance, but the school could not offer me any funding. My fiancé and I were hoping to move out of our small town, and it was looking like graduate school would not be our ticket.

When I told a former professor about my unsuccessful application season, he told me that the same thing had happened to him, 15 years earlier. He and his wife had both joined AmeriCorps for a year while he worked on revising his graduate applications. He suggested that I create an account on the VISTA portal and see if there were any positions I would be interested in. I didn’t know anything about AmeriCorps or VISTA, but after some research I began to get excited about the possibility of service. I created an account and for a few weeks scrolled through open positions, looking for something I was qualified for.

A month or two later, I received an unsolicited email from someone at the American Printing House for the Blind about a VISTA position they were looking to fill. The VISTA would coordinate and write grants for a braille literacy program for blind preschool children. With my background in English, I applied, and was invited down to Louisville for an interview. I obviously ended up being offered and accepting the position, and the week before our wedding, my fiancé and I packed up all of our things and moved three hours south to our new apartment in Old Louisville, hoping we could hold out on my VISTA stipend and wedding money until he found a job. A few weeks later, he was hired as an after school teacher at Americana. Moving to Louisville has been challenging, but we are both grateful for the opportunity to work for organizations that advocate for inclusion and access to education.

It’s February again and I am waiting to hear back from the graduate programs I applied to for next fall. Right now I am working on a couple of grants for the literacy program, and I’ve told myself that I can only check my personal email at the end of the day. So far that has not been a successful strategy. Regardless of if/where I am accepted next fall, I have learned so much about accessibility and have grown as a writer and communicator in my term as a VISTA. I look forward to my final six months of service.

Written by Hannah Ozmun, VISTA – American Printing House for the Blind
February 2, 2017

Sailing in Service

The soothing energy of Sylvan Esso wraps around us, and we settle into it, consuming a donated lunch and each other’s company with gentle gratitude and fierce friendship. Dark skies begin to fall upon us; our commitment remains impervious to dampness.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy radiates through the streets of Louisville – each of our 30 volunteers a beacon of peaceful activism. We will spend this day engaged in service to our neighbors for whom equality has been elusive. We will spend this day on with Kentucky Refugee Ministries.

Each group delves into an assignment, united behind reducing the many barriers refugees face as they adapt to a new community. Carts fill with essentials; trunks fill with deliveries. Sweat chases down the backs of those organizing in the basement – 100 book bags packed, 100 hygiene kits assembled.

We do what we can with what we have, supporting pillars of integration and self-efficiency. Our newest residents are met by citizens who have taken an oath to end poverty, cultivating a mutual appreciation for genuine human connection. We immerse ourselves in the multidimensional platform of refugee resettlement, establishing stronger ties to the mission of VISTA, deepening our respect of the fortitude refugees possess, and gaining a lucid understanding of the synergy behind community engagement.


“We may all have come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”


Within this past year, KRM resettled over 1,500 refugees in Louisville. Although many of their journeys involved ships in a literal sense, their experiences are as unique as the individuals. 1,500 people from islands, from mountains, from deserts. 1,500 people from the sunshine of Cuba, from the dry winters of Afghanistan,  from the heavy rains of Bhutan. 1,500 people from the world we share, and Louisville reaches out a hand to greet them.

1,500 opportunities for our city to listen, to learn, to love.
To give, to grow, to gain.
1,500 lives with whom we now set sail.

Written by Alexis Faller, VISTA Leader
1/16/2017