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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Gena Bigler: AmeriCorps, V.I.S.T.A. offer amazing life experiences for young people

AmeriCorps and V.I.S.T.A. offer amazing life experiences that all young people can benefit from. From time to time, people ask about my experiences. Below are some recent questions I’ve received – and my answers. I am happy to talk to anyone about my experiences. If you are considering public service, do it! You won’t regret it.

What attracted you to AmeriCorps?

I always wanted to join the Peace Corps, but you need to have a degree and marketable skills to do that. I wasn’t sure about my major and thought AmeriCorps was a good temporary stop that would help me pay for college.

What did you actually DO as an AmeriCorps member?

As an AmeriCorps member at God’s Pantry, I primarily did direct service: I packed grocery bags for meal lessons; I helped recruit speakers for our programs; I helped write a Super Pantry manual; I spent some time answering the help line and some in the food bank; I wrote brochures; and I traveled the central and eastern part of the state meeting and working with low-income moms.

As a VISTA, I coordinated the fundraising for the agency; created and produced annual fundraisers – coffee house, flower sale, direct mail and recruited in-kind donations from cameras to hotel rooms for victims fleeing abuse. I met with victims, helped with Temporary Restraining Orders and accompanied them to court. I trained volunteers and applied for and received grants. I spoke to groups and schools about abuse.

What was the best part? The most difficult part?

It was all the best part, even the hard parts were rewarding. I loved stretching my abilities to fill the agencies’ needs. I loved going to work every day and knowing that what I did mattered. Every day I helped make someone’s life better. I loved every bit of it… the most difficult part was learning boundaries and leaving work at work. Working with some people was very difficult. Sometimes people become cynical when they work in a field for a long time and scorn new ideas or approaches. Holding on to your enthusiasm can be difficult, but if you do you can inspire those who have lost their spark.

How did you grow personally?

I learned to rely on myself. I learned how to work with others. I learned how to balance multiple projects, and the most profound experience for me was learning to appreciate every good thing in my life and to appreciate the strength of the human spirit. I saw women survive terrible things and come through stronger, full of love and hope.

How did your parents feel about your decision to participate in national service? (before, during and after). Any tips on how to help parents see the potential positive outcomes?

My parents were very supportive. Not terribly thrilled about my moving far away or taking a break from college, but appreciated why I was doing it and sent some cash to help with the huge heating bill in Vermont.

To help skeptical parents understand, tell them about the immense professional experience you will gain. Tell them that the experience will help you grow personally and professionally.

Did AmeriCorps help you with your career path? If so, how?

After AmeriCorps and VISTA, I had confidence in my ability to meet whatever task was put in front of me. This helped me take on responsibilities that I otherwise might have shied away from.

Managing on a small stipend sounds challenging, especially for up to three years. What tips do you have for doing that?

Get food stamps. We didn’t discover that we qualified for them until after our service was finished. The social services offices now have a box to check for AmeriCorps. Living on the stipend is hard, take what help is available.

Plan your meals. Forget about restaurants, that is a rare indulgence. Shop around for affordable housing; some sites help find affordable housing some don’t.

Budget your money so you know how much you have and what your bills are. If you can, sign up for the budget plan on utilities.
What advice would you offer someone considering AmeriCorps? 

What are some “red flags” when looking at an AmeriCorps host opportunity? I know it’s not for everyone, so how would I know it is right for me?

Ask what your responsibilities will be, try to meet the staff you will be working with and make sure the work and the mission of the agency are congruent with your beliefs. If you are lucky, you will have the opportunity to work in a field you are passionate about. If you aren’t passionate about it you likely will be by the end of your term of service.

Make sure you can live in poverty. It’s not easy, but the experience will change you for the better. Learning to do without helps you value what you have. It also helps you learn to carefully budget.

Gena Bigler is passionate about public service and credits her time serving nonprofits in AmeriCorps and Volunteers in Service to America (V.I.S.T.A.) with teaching her extreme budgeting and bargain shopping. Gena is now CFO of McNay Settlement Group and serves on the board of the Lactation Improvement Network of Kentucky (L.I.N.K.). Gena would be happy to hear from you at lgbigler@gmail.com.


Click here to read more columns from Gena Bigler.



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