Mike Reiderer served as Fairbanks' VISTA Leader in 1995 as one of the first in the position. He developed a youth employment program at Fairbanks Neighborhood Housing Services through Southside Community Center. Read the Q&A below about what Fairbanks & AmeriCorps VISTA means to him.
Q: Where did you move to Fairbanks from?
A: I applied to VISTA during my senior year at St. Michael’s College in Vermont with the goal of going to Alaska. In the end, I accepted a position just outside of Seattle and served a year there before deciding to serve a second year and move to Fairbanks.
Q: Why did you choose to serve in Fairbanks?
A: I had wanted to go to Alaska most of my life. Fairbanks seemed like the perfect balance of civilization and wilderness. When looking at positions available at the time, I was also excited about the opportunity to work on developing youth employment programs in the agency I applied to.
Q: What was your first impression of Fairbanks?
A: I took the ferry from Bellingham with a friend that was heading to Nome to serve in VISTA. It was an amazing trip and beautiful drive from Haines to Fairbanks. It was mid-March and still cold and snowy which was a big difference from Seattle and even the inside passage, but I was never really worried about the weather, the extreme cold was something I was looking forward to.
Moving into a small studio apartment in town did leave me a little disappointed in my surroundings but within a few months I had moved into a cabin near Ester and felt like I finally arrived in Alaska.
The people were wonderful right off the bat and very helpful with getting settled in. I came to find a wonderful community in Fairbanks and remain in contact with many people that I consider closer to family than friends.
Q: Where do you live now?
A: I left Fairbanks in 1999 to move back to VT with my then-fiancé. We now live in a small town with fewer than 300 people with our 3 kids, 2 dogs, cat and rabbit. I work for a non-profit public transportation company with a mission to support economic, social and environmental health of the communities we serve.
Q: Has VISTA affected your life since you served? If so, how?
A: Serving in VISTA has affected my life in more ways than I can even say.
I had the opportunity to work with people who became wonderful mentors that shaped my professional life. I was able to develop “real world” skills coming out of college and gain valuable work experience. I was able to gain a level of understanding cultural differences through first hand experience and similarly have some experience with what it is like to live in poverty. Perhaps most of all, VISTA helped, or maybe forced, me to develop a volunteer mindset, a first hand knowledge of how important it is to help and to work together to meet needs in our community.
Q: Would you encourage others to serve with VISTA? Why or why not?
A: Absolutely! From the perspective of a college graduate who joined at the age of 23, VISTA service provided a “next level” of education after college where one can still receive guidance and support but is also is thrust into “real world” experiences.
Q: What was your favorite thing about Fairbanks, Alaska, VISTA or all three?
A: It sounds a little cliche, but for all three I’d have to say the people. In Fairbanks I was able to surround myself with a wonderful community of friends, many of whom became more like family.
For as large an area as Alaska covers, the whole state had a feel of a small town, where I could be hundreds of miles from home in Anchorage or Juneau yet still run into friends as though we were at the Fred Meyer (boy, do I miss Fred Meyer!).
And, as a VISTA Leader, having the opportunity to travel throughout the Pacific region and to Washington DC I got to meet so many people, professionals and volunteers alike, in the CNCS that had so much dedication to fighting poverty in the communities they served that were truly inspirational.
Of course, not everything about my experience in two years of serving in VISTA was perfect. Without a doubt there were many challenges and struggles along the way. But taking the experience as a whole and taking this opportunity to think back on my service 25 years later, I can’t imagine a better path I could have taken and I appreciate all that I have gained from those years of service.
Thank you, Mike, for your answers and your service!