Jack Smyth was an AmeriCorps VISTA member serving in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to support the Cities of Service Experience Matters program. He began his service year working out of Saint Paul’s Office of Financial Empowerment on a program called Neighbors Helping Neighbors, which helped residents avoid fees for minor nuisance violations and water leaks with the help of volunteers. When COVID-19 temporarily disrupted the program, Jack helped quickly connect community-minded residents with organizations that needed additional volunteer help during the pandemic.
What made you decide to apply to be an AmeriCorps VISTA?
The AmeriCorps VISTA program, and the Cities of Service opportunity in particular, stood out to me as a great way to give back, try new things, and learn more about the inner-workings of city government. I’ve always valued public service and I was excited to find a way to use my time and energy to help out.
I’ve always valued public service and I was excited to find a way to use my time and energy to help out.
How did your work change when the COVID-19 pandemic began?
Seniors are some of our strongest volunteers. When COVID-19 hit and they couldn’t volunteer in the same capacity as before, a lot of these community organizations like food shelves and Meals on Wheels were hurting and unable to fill the gaps themselves. At the same time, people around Saint Paul saw that their neighbors needed help and wanted to step up. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve been taking in new volunteers and connecting them with community organizations that have the most need and fit the volunteers’ interests.
We made sure that the organizations were practicing social distancing and had all the necessary protocols in place. It was important to make sure that they were safe while they were giving back to their community.
What role have volunteers aged 50 plus played in the program?
The 50 plus volunteers put in more hours than the younger volunteers. It was almost double. Senior volunteers are committed to the organizations that they serve, and they are invested in their communities.
What are some things you learned?
I learned a lot about program management, being able to help guide this program from a really nebulous idea into this concrete initiative. You have to get fine and granular with your details to get everything right, but you also have to be able to zoom out and see the whole project to make sure that goals are being met.
What did you enjoy about working with the city?
Mayor Melvin Carter created the Office of Financial Empowerment to focus on the city’s under-resourced communities and to lead with an unapologetic equity agenda. The team has some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met and working alongside them as they tackled big issues in the city was humbling and informative.
It was truly inspirational to hear from people that felt called to serve and to know that we were able to help them answer that call.
I had amazing supervisors, too. They had my back, were looking out for my best interest, and opened up a lot of opportunities for me to connect with other public servants.
What are some of your favorite moments from your service year?
We had the chance to interview some of the volunteers that were connected to community organizations and hear what Neighbors Helping Neighbors meant to them. It was truly inspirational to hear from people that felt called to serve and to know that we were able to help them answer that call.