This post is by Carolina Linares, an AmeriCorps VISTA member serving with the Financial Opportunity Corps. (It originally appeared on the Corporation for National and Community Service blog.)
Someone asked me once (or twice) why I was doing a year of service with AmeriCorps VISTA, a national service organization that focuses on Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 resolution to eradicate poverty in our community.
It seemed ludicrous for them to think that someone would want to dedicate a year of their life doing something that wasn’t directly advancing their career. That doesn’t make them callous, it just makes them practical.
For me, it was so much more than just a rest stop from my career in journalism and photography; it was about doing something that would make me proud, and above all, something that would allow me to contribute to my community. I wanted to make a difference – as simple as that.
For many years, I had planned to become an AmeriCorps member, but it always came a close second after school, work, etc. The reason behind it was that it never seemed like the right time – until it was.
I started to browse through positions on the AmeriCorps portal looking for my best fit. Two months later, I found a couple of service opportunities that caught my attention and I went ahead and applied for them.
My introduction to AmeriCorps VISTA was through the Summer Associate Program at the Miami Coalition for the Homeless as an outreach coordinator. Immediately thereafter, I started my yearlong service with the Financial Opportunity Corps. HandsOn Broward, part of Points of Light’s HandsOn Network, was one of nine sites that pioneered this program.
In my VISTA role I help coordinate a financial literacy program that takes as a premise the coaching framework to help individuals become financially self-reliant. We do this through financial education workshops and one-on-one coaching. Among other duties, I help recruit and train the volunteers who would take on these roles.
This was not a service that was readily available to the community members in the low-to-moderate income bracket. Another aspect that makes this program unique is its focus on individuals, their financial goals and their strengths rather than their shortcomings. Someone could be somewhat money wise and still struggle to save.
Sometimes, they just need an accountability partner, and that is what we offer them.
I’ve also worked on developing strategic alliances with community organizations that have supported the success of the program.
As an AmeriCorps VISTA member, I understood the need to alleviate poverty and enhance the community in which I lived; that is why most of us commit to do this work full time for at least a year. But it is not until I started developing my program and started working alongside community partners, organizations and volunteers that I saw how this work was having such a positive effect in the lives of the people we were serving.
I used to think that it was too hard for one person to have an impact in our society, but being a VISTA member, I have found out that each person’s effort and talent contributes tremendously to change. I never imagined how vast the reach of one person’s effort was.
I decided to extend my service for an additional year because I told myself, “I am not done expanding this program.” (This was the second year this program had been in place.) I felt that my mission wasn’t complete because there were still some plans I wanted to implement in the new program year.
The VISTAs before me paved the way for us by creating the foundation to get the program started, and it was our job to build upon their effort and ensure the sustainability of the program for years to come.
Through this position I have been able to grow and improve myself both in the personal and the professional aspect. I learned a lot about myself, and through interacting with many people from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, I also learned how to adapt to different environments and adjust my approaches accordingly.
I knew HandsOn Broward was the perfect site for me in which to be stationed because of its collaborative, small-team environment. Working hand in hand with these people proved to be very valuable in my professional and personal life because each of them possesses a unique set of talents that they brought to the table.
They were always willing to share their expertise in a particular subject, and taught me skills that I will continue to carry and improve upon for the rest of my life. Sometimes it was as easy as simplifying an approach for me, since I tend to overcomplicate everything.
During my tenure as an AmeriCorps VISTA, I learned about leadership and presentation skills by training and managing a group of amazing volunteers who also taught me a lot about other topics. I saw from their involvement and dedication the qualities that I wanted to ensure I nurtured in myself. The skills I have learned through my service are too numerous to list.
In sum, I serve because through our work as volunteers, we are able to bring programs to a community that alternatively may not have access to them, because we are able to see our community grow from the efforts of like-minded people and because each step we take is helping someone who wouldn’t have been able to receive this service otherwise.
The expression “Esprit de Corps” – a feeling of pride, fellowship and common loyalty shared by the members of a particular group – encapsulates everything I have gained and expected to gain from serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA member.
I am proud to be a part of this group of like-minded and service-oriented individuals who work together to effect change in their community.
The Financial Opportunity Corps is a partnership between Points of Light, Bank of America and the Corporation for National and Community Service, which places AmeriCorps VISTA members in nonprofit organizations, such as HandsOn Broward in cities across the country.
Here are some accomplishments from the Financial Opportunity Corps’ second year:
- 462 low-income individuals received one-on-one financial coaching from trained volunteers (financial coaches) at nine sites across the country.
- More than 1,700 community members have attended financial education workshops supported by AmeriCorps VISTA members and trained community volunteers.
- 341 trained financial coaches are participating in the program, including 47 Bank of America employees.
- At HandsOn Broward, 37 trained volunteers are working one on one with and providing financial coaching for 40 low-income community members. AmeriCorps VISTA also helped support financial education workshops reaching 279 community members during the past year.
For more information on AmeriCorps VISTA opportunities throughout the country, go to www.nationalservice.gov/VISTA. For more about the Financial Opportunity Corps, visit www.pointsoflight.org/financial-coaching.