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.
Ashton served as VISTA Team Leader from April 10, 2019 to October 8, 2020. She recruited 32 VISTAs for both full-year and summer terms and took pride in mentoring them through their service. She also created the Fairbanks VISTA website, Facebook page and Alaska AmeriCorps Facebook group. Ashton moved to Fairbanks in March 2018 to serve as the public library's first VISTA and fell in love with the community. She appreciates all the opportunities Fairbanks and Alaska opened up to her. Her next adventure takes her to the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i as the County's Homeless Coordinator.
It is amazing what Ashton can accomplish in just 18 months! Before Ashton started, I had serious concerns about the VISTA program. The City had just taken over the sponsorship and at the same time AmeriCorps was going through a significant restructuring. Because the sponsorship had changed, we had to recruit for all 11 full year VISTA positions and the 18 Summer Associate positions. The Summer Associate recruitment began about a week after Ashton started as the VISTA Leader and our recruitment period was only two weeks long. To make matters even more challenging, our local program didn’t have a website or dedicated social media presence yet. Within a few weeks of accepting the VISTA Leader position, Ashton created the AmeriCorps VISTA of Fairbanks website and social media pages, established our local VISTA office, and recruited for 14 of the 18 Summer Associate positions. After those first couple weeks, I no longer worried about our VISTA program.
Ashton, thank you for your service to our community. You helped our local program with your dedication, problem-solving, and leadership skills. We can't wait to see the great work you'll continue to do in Hawaii!
VISTA Accomplishments: The best part of my VISTA service was getting to work with fellow VISTAs and VISTA alums on various projects. This includes working with my supervisor (a former VISTA) to build a successful employment program for youth with disabilities; working with Lauren Eck to re-imagine and organize the Halloween Trick or Treat Town event; and working with Scott Wiser to establish fun outreach ideas for FHHC. The collaborative spirit of the Fairbanks VISTA program is my overarching favorite memory!
Life After VISTA Service: I am wrapping up a second VISTA term working in Colorado with the Community Opioid Response Program. I will soon begin work as the Syringe Access Program Coordinator with my host site, Southern Colorado Health Network, to continue expanding public health resources related to injection drug use, overdose prevention, and sexual health education in communities in southeastern Colorado. VISTA prepared me for this position by giving me the confidence, tools, and experience to wear many hats in my job and to say yes to projects that are entirely new to me.
Advice for VISTAs: My advice to any VISTA is to get as involved in the community as you can. I always say that being a VISTA gives you the opportunity to be in rooms you may not otherwise be in. By virtue of being a VISTA member, you are often able to gain access to people and opportunities that would take much more experience to reach so run with as many ideas as you can and get as connected as possible!
2017-2018 Fairbanks North Star Borough
Parks and Recreation Department
Life After VISTA Service: When my VISTA service ended in early 2018, I took a job as a Recreation Program Coordinator with the same entity I completed my service with. I was fortunate enough that my supervisor pushed to create a new position for me in the borough. VISTA allowed me to gain applicable job experience in my field and create community connections that to this day still help me succeed at my job. In addition, my work as a VISTA helped me hone my skills and realize the field I want a career in.
Advice for VISTAs: If I were to give one piece of advice to a potential VISTA, it would be: stick with it and keep an open mind. VISTA service is challenging with many trying times, but if you keep a good spirit and remember the positive impact your service has, the many times of triumph make it worth it. It all pays off in the end, both for you and the community you are serving in, even if you do not see it right away.
2017-2018 Fairbanks Housing and Homeless Coalition
2012-2014 Anchorage Catholic Social Services VISTA
VISTA Accomplishments: My time with VISTA was very rewarding and really helped to build my confidence. Co-coordinating the first Fairbanks Symposium on Homelessness with Michael Sanders was probably the biggest accomplishment. I headed up a subcommittee to research content and together, Mike and I ensured funding, promoted, and hosted the event. The event was very well received and helped to create coordinated, collaborative projects between organizations serving individuals who experience homelessness. It was a day where the Fairbanks community really came together and I was happy to be a part of it.
Life After VISTA Service: Currently, I am just starting a position on a contact tracing team in Anchorage. However, immediately after my last VISTA year, I worked for two years as a speech-language pathologist assistant in Fairbanks. This was my field of undergraduate study and I’m in the process of applying to graduate schools to be a speech-language pathologist. When I was working for the speech pathology clinic, I helped them receive an Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority grant to retrofit the office to complete tele-therapy. I wouldn't have been able to do that without the knowledge of community and the skillsets gained from my VISTA service years. VISTA gave me a whole other career and provided me important insights into my own career interests. I hadn't realized that I would love working on community projects as much as I do. I found a real passion for collaborative community projects and it informed my career path for the future.
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: INTERIOR ALASKA CENTER FOR NON-VIOLENT LIVING
AGENCY: JP JONES CENTER
AGENCY: LION'S DEN
AGENCY: LOVE INC
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: KELSEY SNYDER
AUTHOR: LEAH SHAFFER
AUTHOR: MEAGAN SCHEER
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
IN THE NEWS
OFFICIAL CNCS STATEMENT
RADIO 970 KFBX
TOPIC: GRANT WRITING
YEAR LONG VISTA