As the final term of my VISTA service becomes ever more imminent, I find myself tasked with reflecting on my experiences thus far. So much has occurred in my time at Literacy KC, however, that a comprehensive summary would require more space and detail than I think is reasonable. How could I quantify all of the things that I’ve learned, or adequately describe the overwhelming positivity of our students? Instead I will try to describe the nature of that service, and attempt to provide a VISTA perspective on the progress and direction of Literacy KC.
VISTA stands for “Volunteers in Service to America.” We are trained and deployed by AmeriCorps to provide support and long-term growth in the form of capacity building, while simultaneously experiencing American life from a perspective of poverty and hard work. Volunteering is a major aspect of a VISTA’s year of service; not only have I been shown the nature of our students’ day-to-day, but that of our many volunteers as well. I have seen the impact they have on the organization from every level, whether it is by witnessing our phenomenal tutors in action or working with the volunteers that helped make our Spelling Bee possible. I have also seen the significance they draw from their time with the students, the invaluable relationships they have made with so many incredible men and women. This capacity for connection, the celebration by our students and tutors of their differences as well as their similarities, is the most significant lesson I have learned in my time at Literacy KC.
The most important aspect of a VISTA’s service, however, is capacity building. Where other branches of AmeriCorps may focus on disaster relief or more immediate forms of direct service, our goal is to help develop existing programs and/or implement new ones. Ideally, each VISTA will leave the organization better than they found it, with the ability to point to specific examples where they contributed something concrete and efficient. All VISTAs are stationed at non-profits that do important work within their communities, and it is this combination of locally focused organizations and nationally stationed capacity builders that helps to grow and support thousands of people around the country.
During my term with Literacy KC I have seen first-hand the impact adult literacy education has on a community. I’ve met dozens of people who have brought their own intelligence and work ethic to our classes and permanently improved their lives (and many of the lives of those around them). Literacy KC’s ability to do this has changed quite a bit over the last few years; the most major difference has been the switch from one-to-one tutoring to our current classroom model, but even since then our growth has been rapid. I personally have had the opportunity to oversee and take part in many different projects. New tests have been selected to more accurately measure our students’ advancement, and we have had to adjust and re-adjust our enrollment process to incorporate these changes. The way in which we track students’ achievement of their goals has become a more concrete and reliable process with the implementation of new data collection and analysis strategies. The Student Needs Committee was created to help our tutors provide even more assistance to their students by granting those who need it with basic necessities like bus passes and eye glasses. The students have also taken a larger role in the decision making process of the organization; the student advisory council, or “Together We Stand,” gave students a chance to nominate their own representatives, speak publicly regarding their needs as students, and even to organize and run their own end-of-term celebration. These are a small sample of the many things I can proudly say I have been a part of here at Literacy KC.
Ultimately, being a VISTA is about learning. This experience has afforded me the opportunity to learn what it takes to succeed in a professional environment, as well as the many challenges that come with living on a small government stipend designed to closely reflect the average income of our student population. It has been a difficult year, with many adversities and some failures. It has, however, provided me with access to some truly incredible people; students who lead lives that constantly inspire, and volunteers who regularly model dedication and compassion. There is still this last term to go, and I know it will be as hectic and surprising as the first two. But I also know, at the end of it, I will be proud.