CASPER, Wyo. — Jenn Hendricks carried bags and boxes of donated food to her car on a recent Thursday from an event benefiting Wyoming Food for Thought.

It took a few trips to haul the donations from the Turkey Trot 5K at the Tate Pumphouse Trail Center. Hendricks spent the morning there representing Food for Thought, where she is one of four AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) members working full time at the nonprofit. The four volunteers are serving a year in the national service program that aims to bolster organizations that help combat poverty. Currently, six AmeriCorps VISTA members work in Casper, among 27 around the state, according to Amy Busch, state program director for the Corporation for National & Community Service. The program is recruiting for more than 25 positions that will start in early 2018.

The VISTA members at the Wyoming Food for Thought Project work on a variety of projects and learn professional skills, from horticulture to social media management.

Wyoming Food for Thought Executive Director Jamie Purcell started using VISTA about two years ago. The members have helped the nonprofit expand far more than it otherwise could have in its mission to serve as a local solution to hunger, she said.

“We sure wouldn’t be getting done as much as we are. They’re really helping to put a lot more processes in place, and lot more programs,” Purcell said. “All of the VISTAs that we have had have been instrumental in helping us move forward.”

PURSUING A CALLING

Kyllie Harris worked in retail management before joining VISTA. The pay cut has been a challenge, but it’s worth it, she said. She’s even considering a second term.

She’d always wanted to work in the nonprofit sector, and social media posts of a friend in the program inspired her to apply for a VISTA position at Wyoming Food for Thought.

“I’ve always felt called to give back to my community and try to do something good in the world in which I live,” Harris said. “I think if you have the opportunity to try a VISTA position for a year I think you should go for it. It’s been enriching for my life and I’ve really enjoyed it so far.”

Full-term AmeriCorps VISTA members sign up to live in poverty for a year.

The program, founded in 1965, calls for the members to live and work among those they serve, according to the AmeriCorps VISTA website. Members receive a small living allowance and qualify for housing and food assistance. They also earn their choice of a $1,800 stipend or an education award equivalent to $5,920, Corporation for National & Community Service state program director Busch said.

“The program requires that members live at a poverty level in order to experience the same struggles as the people they work with in the community and make the programs they provide more authentic and helpful,” said Action Resources International VISTA program director Lina Dunning, who supervises the Wyoming Food for Thought VISTA program.

Purcell, the co-founder of Wyoming Food for Thought, said she found her passion for nonprofit work through AmeriCorps VISTA. She worked at a local architecture firm after finishing her degree in drafting and design, but she wanted a change and decided to see where becoming a VISTA would take her.

She landed a VISTA position with the Girl Scouts Council of Wyoming and later worked as a trained VISTA supervisor at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Wyoming.

“I think AmeriCorps VISTA is a really great way for people to get their foot in the door with nonprofits and get some work experience with it before jumping in with both feet,” she said.

SERVING AND LEARNING

The VISTA members at Wyoming Food for Thought, like Hendricks, are gaining skills and knowledge they plan to use in their careers. Hendricks joined AmeriCorps VISTA to find out more about the nonprofit sector and self-start projects.

“I thought this would be a good jumping point,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot about how it all works.”

Her current focus is a community food assessment, which involves aggregating data about issues with access to affordable food that meets the USDA health requirements, she said. Her research has included surveying locals, comparing food prices at stores and analyzing data. The assessment will help shape the nonprofit’s goals and grant applications.

Alyss Smith had wanted to work for Wyoming Food for Thought for years because she’s interested in health and the food system. She joined AmeriCorps VISTA when a position opened at the nonprofit seven months ago. She manages Wyoming Food for Thought’s social media and blog and helps with grant writing. Those are skills she can use for a future career in social media management and volunteer work, she said.

“That’s another reason I wanted to do this is I wanted some real skills. I’ve grown a lot in the past seven months,” Smith said. “The other part is being able to see what the inner workings of a nonprofit are and understanding their struggles and how important they are to the community. They’re important, and it’s hard — so it’s a labor of love for sure.

A full VISTA term averages at least 2,000 volunteer hours, said VISTA member Carol Wise. That’s a lot of time to learn skills like interacting with the community and volunteers as well as creating systems that are sustainable and long-lasting, she said.

She’s been working on a new vertical garden project with a hydroponic system. She’s exploring ways the growing method can bring more healthy food into the community through community gardens. She’s also been working to set up procedures for the gardening that any volunteers can maintain.

“I’m learning a lot in areas that apply everything else that I want to do in the future,” Wise said.

The full-term VISTA members work full-time for a year, but their efforts will carry on afterward, Purcell said.

“The intention of the VISTA program is for VISTAs to come in and do something that will be sustainable once they leave,” Purcell said.


Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com