Opinion

A Year of VISTA Service: Five Lessons for Nonprofit Practitioners and Other Service Members

Derek Moore and Nicole Smith recently completed a year serving as ServiceWorks Online VISTAs at Points of Light in Atlanta. Photos courtesy od ServiceWorks

Derek Moore and Nicole Smith completed their AmeriCorps VISTA service this week. During their year of service, they supported the launch of a new online resource, ServiceWorks Online, which is part of a larger national program that uses community service as a way to build skills and connections for opportunity youth. They created new partnerships with community organizations, created additional resources and managed training to engage youth. Here they reflect on their service and share key lessons.

  • Adaptability is Key

One key lesson learned through our year of VISTA service is that you have to be flexible, adaptable and open – especially in this youth-serving nonprofit space. The goals set for the ServiceWorks Online VISTA team, a small but mighty team of National Service VISTAs devoted to supporting the launch and growth of this product, were ambitious: to engage thousands of 16- to 24-year olds in a new online service learning opportunity.

Our first week as VISTAs began with a project to create a boot camp for ServiceWorks Online for a state juvenile justice agency. We were in unchartered territory with a new partner in the residential juvenile justice space, but we plunged in with a multitude of new ideas and approaches. This “baptism by fire” set the stage for our year of service, during which we were constantly coming up with new prospects for partnerships, new ideas for training and new ideas for resources. For example, we learned how to make ServiceWorks more relevant for juveniles in residential detention centers by focusing on activities that could be managed by their staff (as opposed to volunteers) and projects that could be done on site.

While Points of Light staff focused more on national partnerships, as VISTAs we decided to focus mostly on our own backyard in Atlanta. Building local partnerships enabled us to get to know our users more — and therefore ultimately helped us understand and tailor resources more effectively to meet their specific needs.

  • Understand and Appreciate Your Team’s Diversity

Being immediately engaged with the work forced our VISTA team to quickly learn each other’s work styles and personalities. We recognized that we had to be open to trying new methods to accomplish our goal, and we developed an understanding of the gifts and talents of our team. By doing a variety of tasks at first, we learned how our strengths were complementary – while some of our team members enjoyed leading partnership outreach and meetings, others enjoyed the necessary behind-the-scenes work to support the longevity of ServiceWorks Online.

  • Good Partnerships Are About Filling Each Other’s Gaps

Many of the organizations we worked with were smaller nonprofits that were often understaffed. While most organizations already had their own lesson plans, a few were either reintroducing or starting from scratch with programs they had in the past. We learned that these organizations in particular really desired the service learning component ServiceWorks Online has to offer.

A participant uses ServiceWorks Online to learn about the steps to successfully plan a community service project.

ServiceWorks could, for example, fill an important gap for organizations that had solid youth programming in place but that lacked a component centered around service and volunteerism. Good offline programming helped keep youth audiences engaged and gave them a chance to implement what they learned online to make it a part of their daily lives.

Derek describes one partnership that inspired him the most — with Resources for Residents and Communities (RRC): In the middle of my service term, I was honing in on life after AmeriCorps and began to research different community development organizations. I reached out to the RRC in the Reynoldstown community of Atlanta, a historic working-class neighborhood in the heart of the city. After meeting with the executive director, we started to partner on opportunities to reach local youth. Our first, along with four other nonprofits, was a MLK Day service project with more than 100 volunteers. It was an inspiring day and a proud partnership moment to see the community coming out to support their neighborhood.

  • Talk to Your Users

The ServiceWorks Online team spent a lot of time doing focus groups and talking with youth participants about their reactions to the new online tool. One of Nicole’s favorite experiences was presenting to middle schoolers on their Culture of Caring Day. Nicole proudly recalls this was one of the first times they implemented tools that her team had curated and developed: The students were so interactive and really got involved. It was encouraging to hear their perspectives and involvement with serving at such a young age.

Youth participants learn more about ServiceWorks Online in a focus group organized by Derek Moore and Nicole Smith at Atlanta’s Usher’s New Look organization.

This experience gave our team a picture of what ServiceWorks Online could look like in other environments, such as a school. We sought a partnership with Giving Point, an organization that matches Atlanta-area students to service opportunities. Many Atlanta students require as much as 75 hours of service to meet graduation requirements. As a result of the collaboration between The Giving Point and ServiceWorks Online, students can become better prepared to be community changemakers and develop community projects — and gain service credit for taking ServiceWorks Online.

  • Know Your Product and Practice What You Preach

The ServiceWorks VISTA team discovered one secret of success was really understanding every facet of our product. For example, we all spent time completing each of the three short online courses, and we agree one of its strengths is how interactive the courses are. Derek likes how Course 1 integrated TED Talk/videos and the celebrity quiz to make learning more hands-on. Nicole appreciates how, from her first encounter with the courses, she began pondering her own gifts and talents, and considering how she can better develop them. We both believe this year of service has helped us learn more about the nonprofit sector and the many meaningful career opportunities within it.

Derek and Nicole are both interested in continued work in the nonprofit sector, with a focus on community development and youth development respectively. Both writers are 24 years old.

Go to the OST Hub for more resources & materials on community service opportunities for youth.
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