By: Mikayla Riley, FRC 2020-2021
How does VISTA service fit in and does it really matter?
So you want to be a VISTA? Awesome! We are so glad you are interested in serving your community. As a VISTA, you will be partnering with nonprofits and other agencies throughout Fairbanks as you serve alongside your designated organization. Through your indirect service, you will be given the chance to see the non-profit sector through the unique lens of macro work.
Um… what is that?
Don’t worry, it sounds a lot more clinical than it really is. All non-profit work can be broken down into three levels of engagement; micro, mezzo, and macro work. You will see all of these during your time as a VISTA, but the work you are specifically focused on is called “indirect service,” which falls under the umbrella of macro work.
Picture it like a pyramid… but flipped on its head.
Macro work – what you will be doing as a VISTA – is a chance to look at the bigger picture. Macro work consists of indirect service where you review the policies of an agency, a community, or even a state and analyze how it might impact your agency’s ability to carry out its services. VISTA’s do not do much on the policy side, although, you will be given many opportunities to look over program evaluations, research, and data that is related to the work your agency is doing - another critical part of macro work. This information that you gather is often crucial to writing grants that will go towards funding your agency’s programs. Because VISTA’s are working within a community, it is important to understand the local culture surrounding your work and how it impacts the ability of your agency to do the work it does. Thus begins mezzo work…
Mezzo work is a beautiful middle ground between micro and macro work. Like macro work, mezzo work takes into account the different policies in place for a specific area. Yet, unlike macro work, mezzo work often includes direct service with larger communities such as community medical centers, the families at a specific school, and non-profits like your agency. People who work at the mezzo level are often doing direct service, just on a larger scale than you might see when you walk into a typical non-profit. But remember, just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
When you work with a non-profit that does direct service with individuals and small groups, you are working with a non-profit that is doing microwork. This work is done between a case manager and a client, a therapist and a therapeutic workgroup, or the social worker who helps cope with life transitions. Anytime you have met with someone in a helping profession in a one-on-one or group setting, you have been on the receiving end of microwork. It is happening all around us and, without it, non-profits could not reach the people that they do.
During your time as a VISTA you may experience some level of envy for the employees at your agencies who are working directly with the people that your agency is striving to serve– I know I did. Just remember, your indirect service work, in addition to others’ work of direct service, makes it possible for non-profits to achieve their goals. Without looking at the bigger picture, your site would have limited capacity to meet the needs of community members. While direct service work is the work you most often see, this does not mean the work you do not see is any less valuable. Your work as a VISTA is crucial to the long-term sustainability of your site and its programs, and your dedication to the role is greatly appreciated.
By: Mikayla Riley, FRC 2020-2021
AmeriCorps VISTA programs all focus on alleviating poverty; so why do we have a VISTA at the Fairbanks Reentry Coalition? Well… It may not seem like it, but when you look a little closer, reentry work is poverty alleviation work.
You are 35 years old and leaving prison for the first time since you were 22 years old. You are released and sent on your way. Ask yourself the following questions…
If you haven’t already made a reentry plan, what will you do? Where will you go? What if you have to stay in Fairbanks, far from your family, because you are required to complete certain programs as a condition of your parole? These are all really scary experiences that, without a reentry team, many people are forced to face alone.
Now go back to imagining yourself in this scary position of leaving incarceration. A condition of your parole is that you are employed within 60 days to pay for your electronic monitoring system. Sounds simple enough, right? Not so much. To get a job you need to have an address and an ID, and more often than not, a lot of places won’t hire someone with justice involvement. So now you have 60 days to get an address, pay for any identification paperwork you need, and find a job. Without this job you will fail to pay the fee for your electronic monitoring system and will be remanded to prison.
So, now that you understand the full picture, how is this related to poverty alleviation work?
Many companies have policies in place regarding background checks and the abilities of justice-involved people to work for them. This has led to nearly 60% of formerly incarcerated people still being unemployed a year after their release. Those who do find employment typically bring home 40% less pay annually (1). With barriers to employment and limited access to social welfare programs, individuals with justice involvement are pushed further into poverty and put at a higher risk of recidivating – returning to prison within three years of their release. Unemployment leads to poverty, poverty can lead to desperation, and desperation can lead people back to crime.
Because reentry work is designed to address these barriers and focus on reducing recidivism, reentry organizations must also be poverty alleviation organizations. Reentry work is so much more than putting a roof over someone’s head; it requires active engagement in a person’s life to see that their needs are met and that they are given the tools to overcome the barriers that have been placed before them.
Mikayla, Tessa, Hal, Sol, Nicole, and Stephen will serve Fairbanks from August 31, 2020 - August 30, 2021. Year-long VISTAs perform indirect service focusing on capacity building. Stay tuned for updates as their year progresses!
Brynn wrapped up her service year on August 17, 2020. She served at Fairbanks Reentry Coalition as their Reentry Program Associate. In her role, she organized a relationship with the Fairbanks Wellness Court to facilitate a location for those in their program to come and fulfill their community work service obligations and facilitated sustainability by putting together a complete "box kit" of supplies and materials needed to organize and run a Reentry Simulation. As the pandemic affected our community, Brynn stepped up immediately as a front-line worker to run a Warming Center for the homeless community, providing them with a place to warm up and eat while other agencies were closed.
She will remain in Fairbanks and work at the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living as their Administrative Assistant to three of their programs.
It has been my privilege to work with Brynn for the last year. She had obstacles to overcome and did overcome them. In telling her story, she told us that she would no longer let anyone write her story for her, she would write her own story. In many ways working with us in setting up a new program, she has not only charted her own way but helped us write the story of the Reentry Coalition in Fairbanks. Her authenticity and ability to share her life with us has made us more trauma-informed and sensitive to the re-entrants that we serve.
Brynn, thank you for your service to our community. You helped our local program with your perspective, hard work and dedication. We are excited to continue seeing your good work in Fairbanks!
By Shea Brenneman, United Way of the Tanana Valley '20-21
They say that the only thing we can truly count on is that nothing is 100% certain. We do our best to calculate cause and effect to predict the future, but the best we can do is work with probability. Scientists and the likes of Bill Gates have been saying for quite some time that the greatest potential threat the world currently faces is likely to be a pandemic, but I probably speak for most of us in that COVID19 still came as something of a shock. The virus didn’t seem real until it did.
All of us AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers here in Fairbanks, Alaska had plans for the months of March, April, and May put on hold as the world shut down in response to COVID19. But all of us VISTA’s, presented with the unprecedented stay-at-home mandate, continue to find creative ways to support and care for the Fairbanks community.
I’m proud to be part of a team with people like Zak Mitchell who creates regular, uplifting, and insightful videos that make the online Fairbanks community feel more alive and supported. Or Brynn Butler on the front lines, pouring her energy day in and day out on behalf of Fairbanks’ homeless population at the temporary Warming Center. Even those whose roles here have suddenly felt far less defined are embracing the humility and patience it takes to just be available and show daily kindness to themselves and those immediately around them.
As for me, I slid under the door into Fairbanks Indiana-Jones-style before everything shut down. I had three days to explore the city before businesses started to close.
Thankfully, I was able to meet the other VISTA’s one time face-to-face over a pickle pizza lunch ordered from the local restaurant Hungry Robot (that was surprisingly good?) before social distancing ramped up. Despite having arrived in Fairbanks like this, my move to Alaska was by far the smoothest transition I have ever had – and I have moved a lot. Between Ashton Varner, our current VISTA leader who has stayed well past her service end date due to the virus, and Meagan Scheer, a previous VISTA leader still living here in Fairbanks, I had tremendous support finding a very affordable apartment. They donated all the furnishings I currently own and haven’t let up in their humbling generosities and kindness towards me to this day.
With this backbone of support and community, I haven’t experienced the “fish-out-of-water” feeling one might expect moving to a new state during a pandemic, and I have enjoyed starting work with United Way of Tanana Valley. I am on a team with three strong, incredible women - Brenda Riley, Sarah Canoy, and Heidi Kampwerth - who have been nothing but inspiring to work with, and I can’t tell you how powerful it is to see them take on the needs of Fairbanks with high-level efficiency and communication – all while maintaining a healthy sense of humor and camaraderie. I have only met one of the three in person as all our interactions are virtual through programs like Slack and Zoom. I truly can’t imagine this pandemic without technology, as 100% of my work depends on it.
My original project under United Way was to create a Volunteer Action Center (VAC) for the city as a way to consolidate resources, needs, and volunteers into one, collaborative system or platform. However, my project has since taken on a different angle to become coordinating and transcribing volunteer and donation needs from Fairbanks agencies during COVID19 and communicating largely through Fairbanks’ favorite medium: Facebook.
After a true crash course on all the different nonprofits in the city, I took over the "Volunteer Fairbanks" page on Facebook. We designed a short needs-assessment survey that went out to all the active agencies in the city, which I then transcribed onto our United Way site for volunteer needs and resources. My job has been to raise daily awareness and to rally donations on behalf of a group of dedicated nonprofits that continue to provide heartfelt, incredible services to its community despite the pandemic.
It’s been incredible to see this community respond to the needs of others during all of this uncertainty, and in my eyes, Fairbanks does live up to its name as the Golden Heart of Alaska.
In an uncertain world, perhaps one of the best qualities to practice and instill is that of adaptability. In that way, no matter what curve balls life throws at us, at least we can count on our abilities to adapt and to be creative. Although COVID19 has been a strong reminder that nothing is 100% certain for us, it sure does seem like VISTA’s can rely on each other, and that Fairbanks can rely on its community to adapt and support one another.
"The Fairbanks Reentry Coalition now operates a new warming facility at the J.P. Jones Center in Fairbanks. The warming center allows for homeless persons in Fairbanks to get out of the cold and rest while being offered a meal."
Read the full story at KTVF's website.
"Despite these changes, VISTAs have continued to serve the community.
Zak Mitchell, who serves at Noel Wien Library, helped to start a Virtual Storytime program while the library building is closed to the Public.
Brynn Butler, who has served with the Fairbanks Reentry Coalition since August of last year, has begun working directly with homeless clients at a warming center, taking temperatures and sewing face masks.
“I think we’re more important than ever to our organizations,” Varner said."
Read the full story at KTVF's website.
What it's like being on the other side?
By Vicki Slobodyanik, Love INC. VISTA '19-20
The Fairbanks Reentry Coalition held a Reentry Simulation that I was able to be a part of. It was a very good opportunity to experience the life of someone who was incarcerated and is reentering society.
By Ashton Varner, VISTA Team Leader '19-20
The 2019 Community Needs Drive was even bigger than 2018! We owe our success to our team and so many other community members.
Thank you to Love In the Name of Christ of the Tanana Valley for hosting our event, even though you had only recently moved into your location. Thank you to The Salvation Army - Fairbanks Corps for providing hot drinks, bottled water and snacks for our volunteers and donors.
Thank you to everyone who helped me promote this event: Julie Doll who passed out flyers in parts of the community that are hard for me to reach such as military bases and Salcha, Rob Prince of KFBX 970 for having us on morning radio, Cheryl Upshaw for the fantastic piece in the Daily News-Miner and Andrew Hawkins at News 11 for helping us make the 7 o’clock news.
Thank you to the donors who brought bags, boxes and totes full of items.
95% of our requests were filled and some donations came all the way from Nenana!
Thank you to the 10 local non-profit agencies who participated and allowed us to serve them through this event. We appreciate the work you do in our community all year round.
If you are still interested in donating, please see our list of requested items, contact the agencies directly and ask if they still need specific items.
See you next year!