Audrey Tappenden graduated in 2016 with a major in Political Science and a minor in French. She received the 2016-17 Excellence in a Discipline award for the Political Science program. She is currently working for AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) in Alaska.
Whenever I share that I am serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA, many aren’t sure what that means. “Capacity building for nonprofit organizations and fighting poverty” is the hottest stock phrase of choice offered in explanation, but this is equally mystifying. The real answer is that it depends. VISTA positions not only vary across the country and within states, but across large cities and small communities as well- a fitting mirror for the diversity of the nonprofit universe and the issue of poverty itself.
I recently had a work week that illustrates quite well the breadth and depth of my VISTA service. It went like this:
On Monday there was an ice storm terrorizing the roadways. The bus system shut down as roads and sidewalks became traction-less labyrinths. I worked from home instead.
Tuesday began with a meeting I organized between a contractor and several project partners who are serving as the steering committee for a feasibility study focused on the topic of centralized cold storage for produce grown in Interior Alaska. The goal here is to identify solutions that increase the self-reliance of the food system and encourage greater agricultural production in the long term. The project is funded by a USDA grant I prepared a successful application for earlier on in my service term. Note: USDA grants are filled with a rambunctiously pedantic spirit.
Wednesday was spent ears deep in discerning federal regulations- I combed through the many sections and subsections of CFR 117 Title 21 to assess how different activities related to food packing, holding, and distribution would impact producers’ subjectivity to certain regulations (i.e. to be [exempt] or not to be). Thursday built on this theme by attending an eight hour training for compliance with the latest and greatest version of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule.
Friday and Saturday consisted of managing volunteers and enjoying a few of many presentations and workshops packed into the two day Food Festival & Conference, a food system-celebrating event geared towards producers, policy wonks, home gardeners, subsistence skill enthusiasts, and kiddos alike. I helped plan the conference and recruit volunteers, so it is fitting that I joined the presentation roster as well (towards the end of the conference, just to test my endurance). It is possible I even prepared a batch or two of no-bake cookies “for the volunteers” to enjoy. I finished the conference by presenting on the feasibility study: its background and motivations, the grant program funding it, the outreach being done to increase participation from agricultural producers in the area, and the overall plan moving forward.
Sunday was an ideal time to catch up on sleep, but first I made my way over to a “thank you!” luncheon hosted by a new community garden site- a feast of mac and cheese, ribs, collard greens, fried chicken, cake, and pie. Myself and a co worker spent the summer developing community garden spaces by assisting with the planning process and seeking in-kind donations for everything from labor to lumber. This was part of a larger effort to address food security issues in a USDA recognized food desert. This work occupied spring and summer months when sunlight was available nearly 24 hours per day and headlamps weren’t standard procedure by 3 in the afternoon, as they are now. A nap likened best to a deep trance certainly ensued shortly after.
So, to recap, VISTA service includes all of the following (and more): volunteer management and recruitment; grant-writing; project management; stakeholder outreach and engagement; and feasts of epic proportions.