By: Tessa Holmes, FSWCD 2020-2021
Interior Alaska is one of the most expensive places to live in the nation, with households spending an average of 4% more of their income on food than households elsewhere in the nation(1). 12.5% of borough residents are classified as food insecure and 8.1% of residents live below the poverty level(2). 75% of children qualify for free and reduced-price school meals(3). My VISTA project at the Fairbanks Soil & Water Conservation District (FSWCD) aims to combat cycles of poverty and food insecurity by creating a year-round source of local greens while also providing agricultural job training opportunities in both indoor and conventional farming methods.
The AmeriCorps VISTA project goals and tasks at FSWCD have evolved through time. Over two years ago, Melissa Sikes, the Natural Resource Education Specialist and VISTA supervisor at FSWCD began discussing a community farm project with local stakeholders. Inspired by an indoor hydroponic farm in Anchorage that employs and supports at-risk youth, Melissa sought to connect key community players who would support the creation of a hydroponic farm in the Fairbanks community. The previous VISTA (June 2019-20) recruited stakeholders and conducted research on how to viably fund the creation of a hydroponic farm. Over their service year, the previous VISTA set me up for success by finalizing a team of representatives from community organizations that include the Fairbanks Community Food Bank, Alaska 4-H, and a for-profit farm specializing in indoor growing technologies. In collaboration with these organizations, multiple grant applications were submitted and the scope of the project was adjusted slightly based on funding opportunities. A large part of the first VISTA’s work on this project was to determine the viability and scale of the project based on different funding opportunities.
As if the stars aligned with the AmeriCorps VISTA calendar, about a week before I started my service, FSWCD got word that their grant application for the USDA NIFA(4) Community Food Project was accepted. Beginning my service year in September 2020, I have been able to directly and tangibly continue the work of the VISTA before me. Beginning with our project partners, I have created contracts, organized and implemented regular project meetings, collaborated on local radio and television advertisements, and will be creating and managing a website and social media presence for the Community Farm Project. In December, we hosted a
Community Input Meeting with 33 participants and are now recruiting a community-led Advisory Council.
Thus far, the most meaningful part of my service has been telling the community about the farm project, gauging their feedback, and finding ways to infuse the project with their ideas. In order for the indoor farm to succeed and thrive, the project needs to bring value to Fairbanks community members so they accept and support it long-term. Thus, a big focus of my VISTA year is to tailor our program’s classes and workshops to reflect community input and respond to community need. The ideation, planning, and fundraising of the previous VISTA has provided me with clear direction and set me up for success in my VISTA service. Following my year, a third VISTA will support the Community Farm Project as it grows into a fully-operational farm, sustaining funding and community support along the way.
Photos courtesy of Yukon Farms, the AFFECT Project's hydroponic farm collaborator.
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!
Leah was an amazing addition to our team at FSWCD and the Fairbanks community. We chose Leah for this position because of her impressive academic background in economics and community service. She seamlessly became part of FSWCD staff, the Fairbanks community, and the VISTA community. Her dedication to the indoor community farm project began even before her first day of service and continued to be impressive in the successive months. As part of her service year, she assisted us with gathering the necessary support within the community by connecting with a wide variety of organizations. She was a part of a number of outreach events throughout her year in Fairbanks, helping with our information table at the Chena Hot Springs Energy Fair as well as a local food event at the Tanana Valley State Fair. She presented about her project to the local City Assembly, spoken briefly at the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce weekly meeting, and given information and updates at the city Housing and Homeless Coalition meetings. She assisted with the planning and leadership of our local Interior Alaska Food Network (IAFN), our local food policy group. Every chance she had to represent and share her work she jumped at without question. Her confidence and demeanor was excellent, and her representation of Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District was consistently impressive. She wrote at least two very large grant proposals during her time with FSWCD and her ability to collaborate with a large group of agencies and folks guided the process with ease. Her dedication to ensuring the positive outcome of her projects is evidence of her high standard of professionalism. We are so happy she chose FSWCD for her VISTA service. We know she will go on to do great things with her career and will miss her smile and laughter terribly."
Leah, thank you for your service to our community. You helped our local program with your input, positivity and dedication. We wish you the absolute best in your future and know you will be successful in anything you do!
Hydroponics in Anchorage and Racing to Build a Grow Tower
We headed out to Alaska Seeds of Change where we were met by Sara Renard, the AKSoC staff coordinator. We stopped to discuss the successes and challenges of both AKSoC and the project I am working on, the Fairbanks Urban Hydroponic Farm (FUHF), and offered each other advice on methods of best practice.
The next day started early as Mel and I headed over to the Z. J. Loussac Public Library to set up for the workshop. Our students for the day, all teachers by trade, arrived at nine and we got right into the hydroponics education. Mel took them through a PowerPoint to teach them all about gardening in the classroom, from soil fertilization to which types of seeds will grow best. Just before lunch we got up on our feet and explored different interactive stations, each with an easy classroom activity the teachers could do with their own students. Then after lunch, it was all hands on deck to build a seven foot tall hydroponic grow tower.
With power drills out and at the ready, instruction packets in hand, and disassembled buckets, pipes, and screws scattered around the floor we were given a challenge: build the tower in 1.5 hours, beat the previous workshop’s record and someone will get to take the grow tower home. With our deadline looming in the near future, we rushed into action, naturally splitting into groups to tackle different aspects of the tower. I got to work helping with the sump basin, which is the foundation of the tower and holds all the water.
Where does the summer in Fairbanks go?
Our summer associates are finished already!
They have accomplished much in only 10 short weeks.
The Fairbanks community appreciates the difference you all have made!
Imani McGowan helped prevent child hunger by aiding JP Jones in their summer food program. She has supervised kids, provided meals and done outreach. VISTA service provided an outlook that she plans to apply to her career.
In her own words: “Since I am becoming a doctor/surgeon with a minor in childhood education, I plan to go to countries that are less fortunate and help kids all over as well as in the U.S.”
Raina Follet served at the Boys and Girls Club of Fairbanks, aiming to maintain the previous school year’s education as well as build on that ground and stimulate the children in stem and motor skills on a daily basis. She enjoyed contributing to their art program as well.
In her own words: “I have worked with a few kids on their language and mannerisms and kept a log of what I see when they're unaware of my observations and documented their success to pull up and share with them as a self esteem builder.”
Sheila Vent worked on social media/advertising for the Fairbanks Wellness Coalition. Her organization is small and personal which has led to successful campaigns. They had a booth at the Midnight Sun Festival and received around 200 surveys from attendees with 400 interactions.
In her own words: “I appreciate how VISTA is there to help out the community especially the areas of need to help a community regain control of certain issues it may be facing.”
David Leslie served the North Star Community Foundation by creating a presentation to teach nonprofits how to use social media effectively. He hit the ground running to make connections in town by meeting and networking with all the new summer VISTAs and members of the Fairbanks Housing and Homeless Coalition. He utilized those new connections and ideas to address not just his work as a VISTA for NSCF, but all service providers in Fairbanks.
In his own words: “Multiple times while manning a booth for outreach, I would meet an older community member who was a VISTA years ago! VISTA has been a common way for people to learn, move to, and live in Alaska since the 60s. I had no idea it was so popular not just in Alaska, but also for many decades as a whole!”
Grace Martin aided the Noel Wien library with the Summer Reading Program. The library staff will be happy to hear the seed that they planted in Grace’s ear about library school may sprout someday.
In her own words: “At the deployment fair, I was able to reach 252 soldiers and family members with information about the Fairbanks Noel Wien Library. Later that same day, we had multiple military families visiting the library for the first time because of the deployment fair connections. The librarians were all too busy to sit and table at the deployment fair so without the other VISTA Evan and I, they wouldn't have been able to do this outreach.“
Her impact: “Grace has been an excellent VISTA volunteer at the Noel Wien Public Library this summer. She is full of ideas, suggestions and enthusiasm for the projects she has been tasked to complete and has a great attitude for getting the work done.” - Michelle Proper, FNSB Libraries
When Kim ran into challenges, she took initiative to find solutions. She also created a list of local doctor’s offices for the year-long VISTA to use as she pursues fundraising opportunities.
In her own words: “Because I am not a Thrivalaska employee, I'm not allowed to pick up the kids. The kids like to be held and ask me to pick them up. It feels awkward around parents when I can't help by picking up the kids. I take time to explain that I am a volunteer and can't do that task. To work around the challenge while in the classroom, I sit on the floor and the kids are allowed to sit in my lap.”
When the site was closed to students, Amber and the other staffed cleaned the building top to bottom. She even vacuumed the window screens outside. Having a clean interior and exterior keeps kids healthy, parents confident in their childcare and ThrivAlaska running smoothly.
In her own words: “The support of the teachers is extremely important. That's the biggest thing that comes to mind. I've seen all summer that they really have their hands full. Most of these kids come from low income families, single parent households, and Thrivalaska wants to give these kids the best chance to succeed.”
Devon Gerstenfield maintained several community gardens on behalf of Fairbanks Soil & Water Conservation District. Locations included JP Jones, Stone Soup Community Garden, Zion Community Garden and Corinthians Garden.
In his own words: “I helped several buses full of high school kids from the lower 48 plant trees by the Chena River. The basic idea was that by driving sticks into the ground and planting trees nearby, we could keep the river from weathering away at the ground that the nearby houses sat on. If I had to guess, I'd say we planted somewhere on the order of 150 trees. On the eighth, I helped set up the Stone Soup Community Garden. There were about 40 odd plant containers that needed to be weeded and their soil turned over and prepared for the plants. Fortunately, I wasn't alone. We had dozens of community members helping us get everything completed. After four hours, we had enough lettuce, potatoes and peas planted to feed an army.”
Lisa Cogen serves at The Door youth shelter. She is a Jack of all trades, meeting any of The Door’s needs. Even after her VISTA tasks are done, her work ethic finds new tasks without fail. The organization loves her and doesn’t want her to go.
In her own words: “When someone expressed surprise that FYA had gotten a summer VISTA (even though it had looked unlikely), they asked the Executive Director where I had come from, and her response was that I was "sent from heaven!" FYA is going through a lot of staff transition at this time, and my presence has made it easier for staff all around, as I am another person able to help provide continuity of care for the youth. At the same time, since I don't have to do much of the paperwork and documentation, I am also able to do things like sort and rotate the food donations, organize the game shelves, and do things that the regular staff just can't ever seem to get to.”
Her impact: “Our VISTA, Lisa, is an incredible addition to our team. She is insightful, motivated and doesn't hesitate when she sees something needing to be done. Our Summer Associate helps to fill in the gaps in the youth shelter. Thanks to Lisa, we attended our first Pride Festival, been able to meet with volunteer groups on the weekends, and managed to deal with changes in the shelter - without any service delays to youth. We love her and don't want to see her time end.” - Marylee Bates, The Door
Emily Markkanen supervised and taught job skills to teens with disabilities with Access Alaska. With the program, they handle specific jobs at a local farm and a recycling facility. Emily mentors the kids, keeping them on track, training in real time when they get stumped and resolving conflict as necessary.
In her own words: “During the course of the month, we set up a lesson about how to run a mock assembly meeting. To help with this first we set up a day at the Central recycling center and Green Star recycling to learn about our recycling goal we have in Fairbanks. Then we have a mock assembly meeting to show how the meeting is ran.”
Evan Thomas aided the North Pole library with the children’s Summer Reading Program. He registers children, stamps their accomplishments and provides them with prizes. He has also had the opportunity to create marketing materials for several library events.
In his own words: “I enjoy the ability to participate in the kid's programs such as rock painting and slime, many of my co workers say they appreciate a male being in this setting, which is a nice reassurance, It feels great to be able to help with that stuff. I'm trying to get a "Little Library" started but I'm having a difficult time getting it off the ground as i am not quite sure on how to go about it. I'll continue research though and hopefully something will come of it very soon!"
If you are interested in serving as a summer VISTA in 2020 or
if your organization is interested in hosting a summer VISTA in 2020, contact the VISTA team leader at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AGENCY: ACCESS ALASKA
AGENCY: ALASKA COALITION ON HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS
AGENCY: BOYS & GIRLS CLUB
AGENCY: BREAD LINE INC.
AGENCY: FBX CHILDREN'S MUSEUM
AGENCY: FBX HOUSING & HOMELESS COALITION
AGENCY: FBX NATIVE ASSOCIATION
AGENCY: FBX NORTH STAR LIBRARIES
AGENCY: FBX REENTRY COALITION
AGENCY: FBX RESCUE MISSION
AGENCY: FBX SOIL & WATER CONSERVATION DISTRICT
AGENCY: FBX WELLNESS COALITION
AGENCY: FBX YOUTH ADVOCATES
AGENCY: FOUNDATION HEALTH PARTNERS
AGENCY: INTERIOR ALASKA CENTER FOR NON-VIOLENT LIVING
AGENCY: JP JONES CENTER
AGENCY: LION'S DEN
AGENCY: LOVE INC
AGENCY: MORRIS THOMPSON CENTER
AGENCY: NORTHERN HOPE CENTER
AGENCY: NORTH STAR COMMUNITY FOUNDATION
AGENCY: RESTORE INC
AGENCY: SALVATION ARMY
AGENCY: TANANA CHIEFS CONFERENCE
AGENCY: THE DOOR
AGENCY: UNITED WAY
AUTHOR: AISHA PEREIRA
AUTHOR: ASHTON VARNER
AUTHOR: CAITLIN RAMPY
AUTHOR: KELSEY SNYDER
AUTHOR: KENZLEY DEFLER
AUTHOR: LEAH SHAFFER
AUTHOR: MEAGAN SCHEER
AUTHOR: MIKAYLA RILEY
AUTHOR: MIKE REIDERER
AUTHOR: SHEA BRENNEMAN
AUTHOR: TARYN WILLIAMS
AUTHOR: TESSA HOLMES
AUTHOR: VICKI SLOBODYANIK
AUTHOR: ZAK MITCHELL
EVENT: COMMUNITY NEEDS DRIVE
EVENT: IN-SERVICE TRAINING
EVENT: PROJECT HOMELESS CONNECT
FAIRBANKS DAILY NEWS MINER
FRED MEYER REWARDS
IN THE NEWS
OFFICIAL CNCS STATEMENT
RADIO 970 KFBX
TOPIC: GRANT WRITING
YEAR LONG VISTA