During her senior year at CUNY City College in New York City, Wendolyn Ebbert decided she wanted to join the Peace Corps after she graduated. She was majoring in International Studies and felt compelled to go abroad and make a difference in the lives of those in need around the world. “Then I started changing my tune when I realized that there was a lot going on here [in America] and there are things that need to be addressed, so i decided to do AmeriCorps instead,” shared Wendolyn.
Ebbert – along with Nicole Banks and Sheryl Katz – served as AmeriCorps VISTAs through Up2Us Sports at three different youth serving organizations in New York City from November 2015 – November 2016. All three were given incredible opportunities to serve at-risk youth through indirect service for a year, and then all three were hired full-time by their respective organizations at the end of their service term.
AmeriCorps VISTA is a national service program designed to alleviate poverty. President John F. Kennedy originated the idea for VISTA, which was founded as Volunteers in Service to America in 1965, and incorporated into the AmeriCorps network of programs in 1993. Members make a year-long, full-time commitment to serve on a specific project at a nonprofit organization or public agency. They focus their efforts to build the organizational, administrative, and financial capacity of organizations that fight illiteracy, improve health services, foster economic development, and otherwise assist low-income communities.
The Up2Us Sports’ VISTA program has helped build the capacity of member host site organizations whose missions are to serve predominantly urban, at-risk youth through positive sports, educational and youth development programming. Over the past seven years, the program has placed over 160 AmeriCorps VISTA members to serve at over 160 of our member organizations nationwide. Isabel Pradas, Up2Us Sports’ Director of AmeriCorps and Government Partnerships, oversees the VISTA program and is proud of the success rate of VISTA to full-time staff turnover the organization has had. “Many of our VISTAs have gone on to full time leadership positions at the organization in which they served,” said Pradas. “Our [VISTA] members report that their service experience opened doors of opportunity and helped to build their sense of self and contribution to society.”
When asked what it is that makes VISTA so special, more often than not you’ll hear something that falls into three categories: the networking, the professional development and the support. Up2Us Sports provides meaningful networking and professional development opportunities for VISTAs. One of the most memorable takeaways for Wendolyn, Sheryl and Nicole was a professional development session on creating your own elevator pitch. Each of them praised this session for opening their eyes to a new skill and also giving them a tangible takeaway to use throughout their career.
Another feature that Up2Us Sports offers their VISTAs is their very own VISTA Leader. This person acts as their primary contact for anything they need, specifically as it relates to AmeriCorps policies and procedures. The Leader is often a second-year VISTA who looks for the added responsibility of leading the VISTA team in addition to their job responsibilities. Up2Us Sports’ current VISTA leader is second-year VISTA Candace Burton. “One of the coolest parts about being a VISTA Leader is the fact that I get to meet passionate people who are vested in making their organizations more sustainable. I love getting to know what projects they are doing and what new skills they have picked up,” said Burton.
While not all VISTAs continue in their service organization in a full-time role, one thing they do all come away having is a true understanding of what service means and, in particular, the importance of public service. Wendolyn Ebbert summed it up perfectly: “After VISTA, I definitely want to continue [working] in public service. It’s all about giving back – if you have the capacity to give back, you should. To learn about your community and care about your community and put work into it – even when it puts you outside of your comfort zone – it’s worth it.”