The United Way of Thurston County VISTA team serves nine regional non-profit organizations in a variety of programs. Part of the overall goal of the AmeriCorps VISTA program is to provide professional development and support to VISTA members. For the past year, are lucky to have the team led by our VISTA Lead, Ari Rogers. As her term of service ends, we sat down to hear more about how this year has impacted her.
Tell me how you first got involved in AmeriCorps VISTA.
I graduated from The Evergreen State College in 2013 with a Liberal Arts Degree in American Cultural Studies. After working in youth development for a number of years, volunteering and conducting service learning through my education, I knew that I wanted to work in the non-profit sector serving my community. Because I had accrued debt pursuing my education, I considered the AmeriCorps VISTA program, as I understood that through this opportunity I could work towards paying off my debt or furthering my education while getting a stipend to serve my community.
In times as tough as these are, getting access to the formal and informal professional development available to me as an AmeriCorps VISTA has made me a more capable adult and has given me the tools to market myself as a non-profit professional. Having had the opportunity to observe first hand the intimate challenges of non-profit service has made me a better candidate for careers that my undergraduate degree did not. My first term of service was at an organization called Solid Ground. I wanted to serve at this site because it was in the neighborhood that I had grown up in and I had volunteered with them through partnerships at my middle school. It felt important to me to serve the community that I had come from and use the passion of love for my home to motivate my service.
What made you decide to apply to be the VISTA lead?
I applied to be an AmeriCorps VISTA Leader because I love national service. I see incredible potential in what AmeriCorps VISTA can do for our communities and to the individuals participating in the program. I wanted to contribute my service to the task of facilitating positive service experiences for those who were willing to make this incredible sacrifice to serve. The beauty of the VISTA program is that we have the opportunities as VISTA service members to serve organizations in a unique capacity by building infrastructure and capacity while developing ourselves as individuals and professionals. Through this opportunity, I knew that I would be able to develop skills in facilitation, program development, mediation and marketing. I am consistently impressed at the humility of VISTA team members as I see them making deep affect at their organizations while absorbing so much learning and every opportunity available to them. VISTA service is certainly a unique professional development experience as we are equally invested in the outcomes for the organizations as we are in the outcomes of our service members, VISTA creates community leaders and I am proud to be a part of that.
What has been the most challenging part about being the VISTA lead?
AmeriCorps VISTAs, though serving full time at local organizations, receive only a modest monthly stipend to conduct their service. Oftentimes this limited stipend can be a significant stress factor in the lives of service members as we are working long hours for little pay. Certainly being on a government stipend that is fixed to the poverty line deepens some of the challenges that come with serving full time. During my two years of service I have had to choose between eating and paying my bills, I spent months living on a friends couch; at many times I have had less than $1 to my name. I don’t know what I would have done without the community of loving and supportive people who were available to give me rides, feed me meals, buy me coffee or give me hugs. That being said, so many people have felt gratitude for my service to the community and the financial sacrifice I make to do so that they have supported me as a way to say thanks. That being said, I am seeing these years of service as an investment in my future and though now I do not have much, because of these challenging years I feel more capable of budgeting a small income and more grateful in anticipation of a standard hourly based income.
What might someone be surprised to learn about you?
In addition to being an AmeriCorps VISTA Lead I am an interdisciplinary visual artist and award winning local television writer/producer. In addition, I’m on a soccer team called the Meatballs.
What are your plans for after your service period ends?
I plan to continue volunteering at the Crisis Clinic and with the Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter. I plan to stay in Olympia, where I have made my home since 2010 and enjoy all that this community has to offer from the swimming holes to the nettle patches, this is a special place! In addition, for all you employers out there, I am seeking opportunities to apply my leadership experience in the field of youth and family development after my service is complete in May of 2017.