AmeriCorps Week: Challenging and Building Capacity through VISTA

Julia SyllaI hope everyone has had a fabulous AmeriCorps Week, which ends tomorrow. Our series of interviews concludes today. This interview is with  former Idealist.org intern Julia Sylla who is now serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA through Oregon Volunteers. To read more about Idealist.org-involved folks who have also served in VISTA, check out my post on the “V is For __” campaign which features grad school blogger Eileen Gallagher, Idealist staffer Jung Fitzpatrick, and me. But, now for Julia:

Where do you serve?

My site is a nonprofit organization called SOLV, based just outside of Portland, Oregon.  SOLV is a state-wide organization focused on the promotion of environmental stewardship.  In a nutshell, we create opportunities for environmental volunteerism and support restoration and cleanup initiatives in communities throughout Oregon.  The work I do at SOLV is based in a collaboration between SOLV and Oregon Volunteers. I serve both organizations, even though I spend most of my time at SOLV.

What were you doing before you joined AmeriCorps VISTA?

Here comes the shameless plug for Idealist.org!  Just before joining AmeriCorps VISTA, I spent eight months interning at Idealist.  I worked on a really great project, creating materials for the site’s career resource center.  I researched third-sector career opportunities in a variety of fields, and then created comprehensive profiles of each.  My goal was to give nonprofit job seekers a clear sense of the scope of nonprofit work – there are opportunities in every field imaginable; you don’t have to be a social worker or run a community garden.  The pieces I developed also lay out guidelines for obtaining a position in a given field and help readers understand what to expect once that dream job is landed.

I was also a field interviewer for a national, longitudinal health study, ADDHealth.  I tracked down past study participants, conducted standard interviews, and collected bio-samples throughout the Metro area.  It was eye-opening work – it gave me a chance to peek into the lives of people all along the local, socio-economic scale.

Why did you join VISTA? What did you hope to accomplish?

There were a lot of different things that factored into this decision.

I have always wanted to do an extended term of service.  It’s rare to grow up relatively free of need, and I’d be a pretty sad specimen if I didn’t use my own advantages to help other people out.  I have also always wanted to see if I can handle it.  Having grown up in different parts of the developing world, my first inclination has always been to serve abroad.  Working on the ADDHealth study helped change my mind in that regard.  So many of the people I met with were struggling, it made me realize that there is plenty to help with right here.

I would still like to work overseas.  Before I head back out, though, I’d like to make sure that I have something to come back to.  It can be difficult for ex-patriots to make the transition back to living in the United States.  I’ve watched my parents try to make the transition and…they’re moving to China.  Since I don’t really have a “home town” or anything in the United States, I’ve decided to take the time to try and make one for myself.  Portland is it, I hope, and my first year of VISTA service has really helped me take stake in this community.

My choice to become a VISTA, in particular, came from my internship at Idealist.  For one thing, I met several former VISTAs through Idealist who had great experiences.  Also, I interviewed a lot of people working in the nonprofit sector as part of my research for my internship project.  I was overwhelmed by the number of VISTA alumni I spoke with.  I was similarly impressed by how many of them thought of their VISTA service as a crucial stepping stone in their career paths.  If I was serious about making a place for myself in the nonprofit sector, I realized that serving with VISTA would be a smart way to get started.

What have you done during your term so far?

My project, this year, has been to help coordinate a statewide community-service event called Take Care of Oregon Days, one of this year’s sesquicentennial events – 2009 is Oregon’s 150th year of statehood.  It’s a collaborative effort between Oregon Volunteers, SOLV, a grassroots, community development organization called Rural Development Initiatives, and Oregon 150, the nonprofit organization in charge of sesquicentennial events.  We have coordinated about 550 community projects all over the state during the month of May, and we’re counting on 20,000 volunteers coming out, altogether.  I have concentrated on supporting rural, economically distressed, and traditionally underserved communities in this endeavor.

What impact has your work at SOLV had on the community?

It’s hard to say, at this point, what impact this project has had on the community — we’ll have more quantifiable information at the end of May, when we get all the results of the Take Care of Oregon Days projects taking place this month.  I’ll be able to tell you how many boxes of food are being collected, how many pounds of invasive species are being removed, how many neighborhoods are being cleaned up, how many people are coming out to volunteer.  Based on the information we’ve gotten so far, I think the numbers will be staggering.

Maybe more importantly, though, I think this event will help illustrate the importance of community, the strength of the communities we live in, and the impact community service can have.  Take Care of Oregon Days is really made up of 550 local initiatives – my role has just been to help people make connections and maybe play the cheerleader every once in a while.  A lot of these projects would be taking place, regardless of whether Take Care of Oregon Days was in the picture or not.

My hope is that, at the end of the month, people will get a picture of how their involvement has an incredible, positive impact on our communities and our environment.  I hope that they’ll get a picture of how great this community already is, and that they’ll be inspired to strengthen it further.  It all looks kind of cheesy in writing but…I don’t care! This is what I’ve been working for, and it is going to happen!

What has been the greatest challenge?

I think the one of the biggest challenges for me, personally, have come from my own presumptions of what I would be achieving this year.  It’s kind of hard to explain.  You become a VISTA and you have all kinds of great ideas, and a ton of energy, and you’re ready to change the world.  It takes a little while to realize that a lot of other people have had those great ideas, too…and there are a lot of really good reasons why they don’t necessarily work.  I wish that terms of service with VISTA were two years long – just because it takes a long time to get really oriented before you can start doing work that really qualifies as capacity building rather than…capacity challenging.  Does that make sense to anybody but me?

Learn more about Oregon Volunteers, AmeriCorps VISTA, AmeriCorps, and how to apply. Get involved with AmeriCorps Week in your own community!

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