by Ashley Yeaman
After I graduated from Baylor University, I spent a year serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Texas Hunger Initiative in Waco, Texas. The experience was challenging and transformative, and it set me on a different career path from what I had originally planned after graduation. Here are just a few of the things I learned, and why I think the VISTA experience is worthwhile.
- Hunger and Poverty Impact Individuals and Communities
Perhaps my greatest take away from my year as a VISTA was learning and seeing firsthand how hunger and poverty affect individuals and communities. The issue of hunger can often seem distant. The media shows us how hunger impacts people in other countries through images of malnourished children in Africa, with distended bellies, but hunger in the United States doesn’t look like these photos.
As a VISTA, I had the opportunity to speak with people who were directly impacted by hunger or witnessed it firsthand. Perhaps the most eye-opening of these conversations was one with a third-grade teacher, a woman that I had grown up knowing because she had attended my church. She described how hunger impacted students in her classroom, noting that she would never forget one particular student. This student had stomach pains almost every day and would often hoard snacks he was given. But once his needs were met through school programs and outside assistance, he became a regular kid – even making friends, the teacher noted.
To learn that hunger existed in my own community made the issue that much more real for me. Hunger isn’t this distant issue affecting only a small group of people. It’s could very well be a problem for the kids you see catching the school bus in the morning, the elderly couple waiting at the doctor’s office, or the family who lives next door. That realization made my year as a VISTA that much more valuable, knowing that my work could impact those I came in contact with each day.
- Work Behind the Scenes Influences Change
If you had asked me before my year as a VISTA what tackling the issue of hunger looked like, I would have probably listed off things like soup kitchens, distributing meals, and collecting canned goods. I think that’s what many people believe, because those activities are the most visible signs of fighting hunger in a community. It’s what we see in advertisements and in the news.
Direct service organizations certainly play a big role in addressing hunger in the United States, but being housed at the Texas Hunger Initiative helped me see firsthand how important behind the scenes work is to establishing food access for all. Community organizing and meeting facilitation are key to ensuring that everyone is working together efficiently, not duplicating services. Policy development and advocacy help to maintain and strengthen programs that serve as lifelines to those in need. And research helps to target specific needs, informing those working in the field. This work isn’t always the most glamorous or newsworthy (a picture of a meeting probably won’t make the front page of the local newspaper) but it’s making a difference and paving the way for long-term food security. Texas Hunger Initiative gives VISTAs a chance to play key roles in this work, from organizing meetings and advocating to government officials to completing grants and planning events.
- Many Skillsets Can Come Together to Make a Difference
I honestly had never considered nonprofit work before beginning my VISTA year. I assumed that it required a specific set of skills—perhaps a degree in nonprofit management or social work—and that was something I didn’t have. But through my year of service, I worked alongside staff members whose education and professional experiences ran the gamut—sociology, mathematics, education, theology, public relations and political science (just to name a few). Despite their different backgrounds, they were all working together to positively impact communities.
I think this diverse environment illustrates two important things: how a variety of talents can be used in nonprofit work, and also that each of us has a unique, vital role to play. From the executive director down to entry-level employees and volunteers, change doesn’t happen without all of us coming together. We each have some valuable skills and insights to bring to the table. As long as you have a passion for making a difference, there is a place for you in anti-hunger work.
Ready to make a difference in your community by serving with Baylor University’s Hunger Free Communities Corps? Learn more about the positions and apply today at www.baylor.edu/texashunger/vista.