VISTA Success Stories
Formerly the Manchester VISTA Project (MVP), the Families in Transition VISTA Program is now the largest network of AmeriCorps*VISTAs (Volunteers in Service to America) living and serving throughout the state of New Hampshire. Families in Transition’s Manager of Volunteers recruits dedicated volunteers and host sites to join the VISTA team, with the goal of improving the quality of life for the most disadvantaged members of our community.
Families in Transition VISTAs and host sites work together to create sustainable programs that better the New Hampshire community. In turn, both VISTAs and their host sites receive the invaluable benefit of personal and organizational growth. Here are some of their stories.
Emily Melhorn, VISTA
Hometown: Winchester, New Hampshire
VISTA Position: Health and Wellness Coordinator, Winchester ACCESS
Term: August 2010 - present
After graduating with a degree in International Studies from American University in Washington, D.C., Emily decided to return to her hometown of Winchester, New Hampshire, and spend a year as a VISTA at ACCESS (All Children Cared for, Educated, Safe and Successful). ACCESS, which serves four communities/schools in Cheshire County (including Winchester), is an after-school enrichment program that features a mixture of homework help, nutrition and health promotion, and recreation. The goal is to provide safe and affordable childcare for all families. All ACCESS sites are established in communities with high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, low educational attainment, and poverty.
During her first VISTA year, Emily helped make the Winchester Health and Wellness Fair a reality. The fair, which brought in over 200 community members, provided a space for community members to learn about important health-related topics. She also helped implement “Good Deed Dollars” for children, an incentive program for good behavior, and coordinated volunteer recognition and appreciation. The variety of hats she had to wear was one of the key reasons Emily enjoyed her VISTA service.
According to Emily, “The one thing that I have really enjoyed about my VISTA position is that while I have a set job description, there are plenty of opportunities for me to get involved in activities and tasks that enrich my experience and make me better equipped to serve in a wide variety of capacities.”
Emily is one of a select few VISTAs that opted to extend her service term for another year. She continues to work on her projects and develop them so they can become sustainable. But while working toward ACCESS’s sustainability, Emily learned a lot about how to sustain herself outside of college.
“This job was my first full-time work experience out of college (with the exception of a few internships) and I learned so much – about my own skills and weaknesses, about where I see my future taking me and what I’d like to do and become,” Emily said.
Cathy Kuhn, VISTA Site Supervisor
Host Site: Families in Transition
Title: Director of Research and Training
VISTA Sponsorship Term: July 2008-Present
Cathy Kuhn’s experience as a VISTA supervisor stands as part of a long relationship between Families in Transition and the FIT VISTA Project. “Families in Transition has a very long history of working with the VISTA Project,” she explains. “And as far as I can tell, from everything I’ve heard, we’ve had incredible success working with [them].”
This was certainly true with Mark, a 2008 VISTA whom Cathy tasked with an incredibly involved and complex project—legally establishing FIT’s Housing BenFITs as an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit—and who saw the task through to its almost year-long completion. The project, which Families in Transition had talked about “for years,” says Cathy, “hadn’t gone anywhere because no one had the ability, the capacity, the time to put the amount of effort into it that it needed.”
It was the VISTA program, with its crucial combination of cost-effectiveness, full-time manpower, and “great talent pool” of candidates (“They’re extremely bright, professional, and passionate,” she says) that enabled Families in Transition to achieve this time-consuming goal. “[Housing BeneFITs] would not have happened without Mark,” Cathy states with certainty.
Would Cathy recommend the VISTA program to other agencies? “Absolutely,” she says without hesitation. “Honestly, I don’t understand why folks don’t. It’s just such an amazing resource. You pay very little money for a full-time, bright, highly qualified person.”
After seeing what VISTAs have done for Families in Transition, Cathy strongly believes in the VISTA program’s ability to create sustainable change and build capacity at any agency. “It’s an amazing resource for Families in Transition, but it could be an amazing resource for other agencies out there as well.”
Kevin Murray, VISTA Alum
Hometown: Dover, New Hampshire
VISTA Position: UP Program Development Specialist, Rochester Child Care Center
Term: August 2010 – August 2011
Kevin Murray was teaching English at Oyster River High School in Durham, New Hampshire, as part of his master’s in teaching program at the University of New Hampshire when he began to consider VISTA. He ultimately decided to take a VISTA position with the Rochester Child Care Center, an organization that provides high-level childcare to families in Rochester at affordable rates. He found that VISTA gave him the chance to see teaching through a new lens.
“I’ve gained a valuable, broader perspective on education in the community,” Kevin reflects. “As a classroom teacher, I was largely concerned with my students in my classroom. As a VISTA working to build and develop afterschool programs at multiple elementary schools, I have the chance to interact with administrators, school board members, teachers, parents, and more. It feels like a bit of a wider angle for me.”
During his year, Kevin secured grant funding for the program and began developing ways to recruit volunteers and start enrichment programming. During the 2011-2012 service year, VISTA Miranda Sciabarrasi will continue to build on Kevin’s work by seeking out more fundraising opportunities and finding volunteers to teach hands-on afterschool classes like yoga and gymnastics.
“With some luck, the changes that we’ve made to the program will be sustainable and will have a lasting impact on the children that we serve in Rochester,” continued Kevin.
Today, Kevin is hard at work on his Ph.D. in Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is sure that VISTA program contributed to his getting into the right grad school program.
“I think that it looked really good on my graduate school applications — perhaps even better than a year of teaching!” he said. “I think that being a VISTA is a clear sign that we’re really dedicated to those principles we all claim to have – being interested in justice and equality, working to reduce poverty, and ensuring access to quality education.”
For more information about the Rochester Child Care Center, visit www.rochesterchildcare.org.
Anne Rawson, VISTA Site Supervisor
Host Site: The Way Home
Title: Business Manager
VISTA Sponsorship term: August 2010-Present
The Way Home is no stranger to the impact of VISTAs. The organization hosted its first VISTA member in 1993, and they have used VISTAs to build programs and raise funds ever since. Recently, members from the Families in Transition VISTA Program have helped The Way Home continue its work assisting lower income families and individuals so they can find and keep safe, affordable housing.
“They are just awesome—their dedication, their professionalism, their ability to get things done,” said Anne of VISTAs. “They are people who have gone on to do good things and stay involved.”
For the 2011-2012 service year, The Way Home is hosting not one, but two VISTAs. VISTA member Levi Kafka, who is currently completing his second service year, was instrumental in securing tax credits that will be used to turn a property on Laurel Street in Manchester into permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans. A groundbreaking was held this November to kick off the project, which will help The Way Home achieve its goal of better serving this population. Meanwhile, VISTA member Shane Fisher has recruited over a dozen volunteers within the first few months of his service. These volunteers have helped with everything from cleaning up properties to answering phones.
Anne pointed out that VISTAs are valuable because they enhance an organization without requiring a significant amount of funding—something that is key during a time when funding is low and demand for services is high.
“They plug a very big hole there, especially when you get this caliber of individual,” she said.
She has found that VISTAs often go above and beyond in their duties, leaving the staff saying “wow.”
“They far exceed our expectations in what they’re able to accomplish,” she enthused.