Ladies and Gents, enjoy perusing my speech given at the awards dinner for the VISTA fellows, TFA fellows and other district service employees.
I’ve faced this challenge of explaining who I am and what I do countless number of times throughout my year of service. Starting my first day, I was mistaken for a high school student, a parent and a teacher.
Well, I am, in fact, none of those things. I am an AmeriCorps VISTA, which stands for Volunteers in Service to America and is an organization that combats poverty by placing volunteers such as myself in nonprofits to help them build their capacity to help those they serve.
But what does that mean? I think it means something unique for each VISTA. For me, it meant working in three different schools in the San Fernando Valley where I basically filled in the gaps. I worked with the principals at each school to identify where I could be of service and then I hit the ground running, developing my own projects that I felt fit their goals.
I experienced great failures this year, learning from each equally. I researched grants, wrote grants and got denied by grant-makers. I tried and failed to learn Spanish. I attempted organizing a 5K fundraiser that got rained out by gale-force winds. But these failures were accompanied by great successes: I harnessed my skills as a journalist and took on the task of writing and designing the parent newsletters at two of my schools. I single-handedly organized Back to School Night and turned it into a Spring Fling carnival fundraiser in which we raised more than $1,000. I organized nutrition classes in the Parent Center. But even better, I helped the parents and the Parent Center Directors achieve their goals—organizing a Parent Safety Fair, putting together a Parent Teacher Association—goals they achieved and empowered them as participants in education.
I made a lot of memories this year, experiencing once-in-a-lifetime opportunities because of the fact that I became a VISTA. I got to meet Mr. Carlos Santana when he came to my school, the Carlos Santana Arts Academy, for our naming ceremony. I got to spend an evening rubbing elbows with Hollywood elite at the Nickelodeon Halo Awards with a few fellow VISTAs. I got to help build a community garden, fix up a school, and spruce up a fire department as part of our days of service we participated in throughout the year. At the Family Summit held on the USC campus, I had the opportunity to inspire kids to want to go to college and to speak with their parents about affording it. I sent out countless donation request letters and was shown true generosity in the process: we received college fare from schools across the nation, tickets to amusement parks, meal coupons at restaurants, and perhaps most interestingly, a pair of warm-up pants from the Lakers that wouldn’t fit me if I were seven feet tall.
It’s true that in service you always get back more than what you put in, and being a VISTA was no exception. I built connections with people that transcended age, language, and cultural barriers. I taught myself how to design the website for my school and in so doing, earned another skill to put on my resume. I gained a new understanding and respect for what it means to be poor—spending hours in the Department of Public and Social Services will do that to you. I came to love and receive acceptance from a community that became my own and for that, I will forever be grateful.
When my VISTA service ends in less than three weeks, I will be moving to another foreign community, South Korea, where I will be teaching English as a second language for the next year. I take with me a more open, teachable mind, the knowledge that I have the strength to survive the difficult times ahead, and the continuing hope that I can make a difference.