During our new program, Middle School Nature Immersion, students tried a variety of local food snacks and participated in hiking, compass reading, nature drawing, yoga, bridge engineering, culinary arts, and plant identification. As the program went on, students who at first were nervous about going into the woods begged to lead the group. On our final hike, two of the youngest students came up to me and said, “This is our very favorite place to be." BELONG is educating thousands of students who would otherwise not have access to these experiences, as well as assisting teachers who are newly discovering how to incorporate environmental sustainability and outdoor education into their classrooms.
I believe that the public value of VISTA can best be demonstrated by the collaborative work myself and others in my VISTA cohort have put into the Erie Garden Coalition this past quarter. When we first met with the Coalition, there was an obvious sense of frustration with the group’s stagnating progress among the members. Having been initially organized several years prior, those who were still dedicated to the established mission had expressed their concerns with the lack of progress that had been made since then. Together, myself and four other current VISTA members listened carefully to these concerns and began to meet regularly to discuss what we could do in our capacities as VISTAs to restore the Coalition’s potential as a community organization committed to fighting food insecurity and eliminating food deserts in the area. Over the course of several months, we worked together to develop a list of the definite services that the Coalition is presently capable of providing to the community, developed a protocol for working with community members who request assistance, and relaunched the Coalition’s website with a focus on user friendly navigation and search engine optimization so that it may be accessible to all who are interested.
The work that I have done includes work to promote outreach and cultural awareness of the refugee community in Erie. For Gannon’s GIVE Day, we were able to have 15 volunteers, which included 13 students and 2 faculty members, come to interact and play games with refugees who had recently been resettled by our organization. This provided benefits on both sides. The refugees were able to practice their English and get to know members of the receiving community, and the Gannon volunteers had the opportunity to learn from the refugees about their experiences and got to see them as people rather than statistics or news headlines. The same can be said for the experience that the 7 Allegheny College students and 2 faculty members who came to interview and interact with the refugees. These two events were the beginning steps towards the larger community outreach goal of creating a more welcoming community for refugees to be in.
As an AmeriCorps VISTA serving with Pennsylvania Soldiers’ & Sailors’ Home and with Embracing Our Veterans, I am working to improve communication and collaboration amongst veteran-supporting agencies in Erie County. I am also an administrator for the Veterans Portal of Northwestern PA. When I took over responsibility for updating the website’s content in August 2016, the site was about two years old with an average monthly unique visitor count of about 500. Since then, the website has reached a new high of 4,669 unique visitors for the month of September 2017. The site currently has resource information for 86 programs/agencies within Crawford, Erie, Warren, and Venango Counties, with most resources located in Erie County. I collaborated with PA 2-1-1 Northwest’s database coordinator to have these resources entered into their 2-1-1 database to ensure a fair representation of veteran services in their system. The site also promotes veteran-related events, making them more easily found online.