AmeriCorps – The impact on those who have served
By Jason Phillips, LMSW, THN VISTA Program Manager
AmeriCorps is hard work. It is more than groups having fun doing community service projects together. It is more than the good vibe of serving others or working on an issue that you are passionate about. It is more than simply serving your community. It is challenging. It can be isolating when you are the only member at your organization. It can be frustrating when you learn and see how long it takes to change processes or old ways of doing things. It can be disheartening when you see firsthand the unnecessary suffering, oppression, and marginalization that populations experience because of our systems failing them. It is hard work.
However, it can also be, and often is, one of the most fulfilling and impactful experiences a person has. A year of service is often a kick-start to a career and a learning experience that can be much more enriching than anything found in a classroom.
For me, it was a year of firsts.
The first time I witnessed an overdose.
The first time an organization looked past my lack of degree and allowed me to learn, grow, and prove that I could gain the skills needed to be effective in that role.
The first time I sat with a client, weeping because he just received a stage IV cancer diagnosis.
The first time I received training on case management, CPR, mental health, and the consequences of poverty.
The first time I sat with a client for hours, in silence, because they were incapacitated and facing their last moments in life – an experience that facilitated my own healing in the grieving of my father’s death.
The first time, of many, I had the opportunity to be side by side with someone, unlocking the door to their new apartment after living on the streets or at the homeless shelter, often times for years.
Finally and most important, the first time I realized that homelessness is not a result of an individual’s mistakes or misfortunes. It is the result of our systems favoring and strengthening pathways for some communities and populations (mostly white) while reinforcing barriers for and often at the expense of other communities and populations.
I served as an AmeriCorps member with Keep Austin Housed in 2009. As you can tell, that year had a huge impact on my personal and professional journey. It opened my eyes to some of the pain and suffering in our own backyard. I learned how resilient and empowering some of the most vulnerable people can be. I learned that there are opportunities for healing when systems are person-centered and provide pathways for folks rather than obstacles. AmeriCorps gave me the opportunity to work directly with persons experiencing homelessness, and it was the catalyst for my career in social work.
[Jason in 2009 while serving as an AmeriCorps member with Keep Austin Housed]
Simply put, #AmeriCorpsWorks. It works for organizations trying to expand their impact in the community. AmeriCorps works in providing opportunities for professional development and folks of all ages to transition into a different or new career. AmeriCorps works to allow members to see if the field that they are serving in is right for them long-term. It helps pay for college. AmeriCorps is an effective and efficient way of providing and expanding resources to our communities, especially those communities and organizations that are under-resourced. It is a responsible way to leverage resources, provide opportunities for professional development, and serve populations that would not otherwise be served. It is fiscally responsible and morally just to have and support programs like AmeriCorps.
As we celebrate AmeriCorps week, I’d like to thank our THN VISTA members, other AmeriCorps members, site supervisors, and AmeriCorps alumni for your commitment to your community and service. It is an honor to be a part of this group.
I’d like to highlight the other AmeriCorps Alumni at THN:
“My time with AmeriCorps VISTA not only helped decide my future career plans, it helped me realize how small actions can have a larger impact in the grand scheme of things. While I didn’t do direct care work, I still went home each day with the feeling that I played a role in changing someone’s life for the better.”
Kraig Blaize-Fiero, THN CoC Programs Assistant
AmeriCorps VISTA Member and VISTA Leader, 2010-2012
“I credit AmeriCorps with getting me to where I am today, professionally. I joined AmeriCorps right after college in 2013, just as the recession was only beginning to lift and the job market was still tight. My job options at the time weren't ones I thought would lead to gaining the skills I needed to build the professional life I wanted for myself. One day I went to a career fair and stopped by an AmeriCorps table, and knew immediately that this was the opportunity I was looking for. What I loved about my AmeriCorps experience was that, even though I was very young, I was immediately given ownership of a project and was trusted (and supported) to make things happen in my community. This ignited my interest in public service and empowered me to believe in myself and to believe that I had the ability to help those around me. This interest sparked through AmeriCorps has led me to work from direct-service jobs to the policy-level job I hold today. I wouldn't trade my AmeriCorps experience for anything; it has helped make me who I am.”
Caitlin Bayer, THN Balance of State Programs Coordinator
AmeriCorps State Member, 2013-2014
“AmeriCorps VISTA, which I applied to as part of a Social Work Policy project on “how to use the internet” (it was the mid-90s), changed the course of my life dramatically. My first assignment was to work on building the Cold Weather Shelter program and assist the Homeless Services Coordinator on completing the Continuum of Care grant application on behalf of Austin in 1997. And, oh by the way, I met my future wife within 10 minutes of walking into the pre-service orientation that year. So, yeah, AmeriCorps VISTA, pretty important in my life.”
Eric Samuels, THN CEO/President
AmeriCorps VISTA Member and VISTA Leader, 1997-1999
“I can say, with no exaggeration at all, that being an AmeriCorps VISTA member changed the course of my life. During my first service term as a VISTA (2006-2007), I gathered knowledge about grant writing, resource development, nonprofit management, homelessness, job development, and much more. Almost as importantly I met a social work professor who became a mentor and encouraged me to pursue an MSSW, which was a mid-life career change for me. Ten years later I am a VISTA for the second time, an LMSW, deeply involved in the service network for members of our community who experience homelessness, and am planning to join the staff of a housing organization when my member year is over. I’m so thankful for AmeriCorps and the doors it has opened and invited me to walk through.”
Laura Herridge, LMSW, THN VISTA Community and Program Development Specialist
AmeriCorps VISTA Member 2006-2007, 2016-2017
For more information about AmeriCorps in general, please visit: www.nationalservice.gov