AmeriCorps VISTA Member Journal: Seven Months

March 22, 2016

This blog entry is written by Helen Stoddard, a Cities of Service Love Your Block AmeriCorps VISTA Member serving in Phoenix, AZ. For more information on Phoenix’s Love Your Block work, visit their blog and the city’s Volunteer Phoenix page.

Welcoming in the New Year, it’s gratifying to see how much has already been accomplished and what’s still to come as we move into the remaining five months of service.

During the height of summer heat, I packed one suitcase and a backpack, moving from Virginia to the hottest city in America: Phoenix, Arizona. What enticed me to brave the heat was the opportunity to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA at the City of Phoenix, with Cities of Service’s Love Your Block neighborhood revitalization initiative.

Allow me to take a step back and sort out any confusion as to the role an AmeriCorps VISTA plays. While I found my experiences as an intern in undergrad as valuable, being an AmeriCorps VISTA has offered a much higher level of leadership opportunities. The Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) national service program was created by President John F. Kennedy in 1963His vision was to create a program that would fight poverty that we see every day in America. VISTA was implemented and founded during President Lyndon Johnson’s Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 as a domestic version of the Peace Corps, officially launching in 1965. In 1993, VISTA became part of the AmeriCorps program, a division of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Fifty years later, and the legacy still rings true: VISTAs are making year-long, full-time commitments to serve on specific projects in nonprofits or public agencies, with the intent to empower the community they’re serving to serve themselves. Basically, over time, we’re working ourselves out of a job—but in a totally positive and uplifting way.

What makes my particular service unique is that I have a counterpart who helps brainstorm, plan and implement Love Your Block in our city. It has opened my eyes to the true meaning of teamwork and collaboration. As AmeriCorps VISTAs for the Love Your Block program, we are helping to realize the mission of Cities of Service, a nonprofit in New York City, by supporting mayors and city chief executives to engage local communities and residents to solve issues together through impact volunteering. It is about aiding residents in their efforts to change their neighborhoods—one block at a time.

As an AmeriCorps VISTA, one can expect challenges. On a small stipend, I have had to make ends meet on more than one occasion. Budgeting the stipend is a challenge, and surely a learned skillset tailored for necessities, like housing, food, and healthcare. However, these challenges are surpassed with the amount of knowledge, mentorship, and freedom we have been given.

Personally, I have learned so much from experts in the nonprofit world and local government. I have been given freedom to help design and brand our chapter of Love Your Block in Phoenix. And I have received mentorship from the many hardworking staff in Neighborhood Services, especially Neighborhood Specialists. It’s fulfilling to have staff that are looking to me for creative insight or for Spanish translation—something I didn’t know was possible at my age. I work in a symbiotic environment here.

I have been challenged since the day I set foot in the City of Phoenix. The second week of work, I was asked to do a live interview on a local Spanish radio station to promote community interest in our Love Your Block program. Reading and writing in Spanish is one thing, but publicly speaking to potentially thousands of listeners felt intimidating. I had never spoken on the radio in my life, but with my heart beating fast, I agreed. Agreeing was one of the many examples of putting fears aside and stepping up to the plate; this is what it means to be an AmeriCorps VISTA. You might not get it perfect the first time, but demonstrating your leadership shows your commitment to the cause.

I have worked in education and youth engagement before my service as an AmeriCorps VISTA, but planning and completing two Love Your Block demonstration projects brought previous experience to life. These projects were major feats in defining how high-impact volunteering can better the community. The Medlock Alley Activation promoted connectivity and walkability for residents and merchants through creative design: wayfinding signs, chain-link ribbon murals, and landscaping of a shared alley. Before this project, the residents and merchants didn’t know each other—several months later, and it’s a different story.

With our Grand Canal Community Clean-Up, we engaged with a diverse community of mostly Spanish-speakers and Somali refugees. I particularly loved having the elementary youth draw what they wanted to see in their neighborhood and how they could recreationally use their canal more. These drawings were then inspiration for the community mural completed on the day of the clean-up. Both of these projects showed me the importance of communication amongst a diverse platform of people, regardless of language, ethnicity, or social status.

In October 2015, our Cities of Service cohort convened in Houston, to debrief and share best practices with fellow cities across the United States. It was exciting to realize the significant changes in the first year of this three-year pilot, and witness true, measurable results in other cohort cities. To name a few: City of Richmond, California has constructed an interactive art installation outside one of their Bay Area Rapid Transit stations to ask residents if they had $1,000, how they would love their block. In the South Park neighborhood of Seattle, Washington, residents organized the revitalization of two staircases, including a community-led mural running down one of them. Now residents can utilize these colorful stairwells between neighborhoods, where once blight stood in the way of their safety. Love Your Block sparks community members to make change—creatively.

I am looking forward to what these next five months of service hold and what I can personally bring to the table to support Phoenix neighborhoods. Love Your Block Phoenix is pleased to announce the first round of Love Your Block mini-grant recipients this week. The selected projects will mark the beginning of a more impactful way of addressing neighborhood needs, empowering residents to make the changes they want to see.

I am thankful to everyone who has helped shape me in my position in Love Your Block Phoenix thus far. Here’s to a successful new year.