My VISTA experiences thus far…by Brent Balog
I’m a native of West Virginia, currently serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA. As a recent 2012 graduate with an MA in Secondary Education and English my hope is to one day use educational and service experiences to initiate change in educational theory and practice.
The Boys and Girls Club is a nation-wide non-profit after school organization that services young people and their families through academic support, social networking, life skills classes, and a variety of other programs relating to health/wellness, fitness, the fine arts, and recreational sports, etc. I am stationed at the Mountaineer Boys and Girls Club (MBGC) in Morgantown, West Virginia. MBGC is located in downtown Morgantown, and services young people ages six to eighteen. Many of the members served are of a lower sociology-economic status; and due to its location, many of the lower-performing schools in the area filter students into MBGC. While MBGC does not exclusively serve underprivileged youth, the vast majority of the youth in attendance fit this classification; because of this, MBGC requested a VISTA to aid in program development/management, parent engagement, and family-oriented services. This is the capacity in which I service: bridging gaps between members and families, families and club staff, families and schools, and families and community.
While many of the parents/families here are disadvantaged, they do not tolerate the idea that they are needy or helpless; there is often a profound sense of pride that often leads members’ families to resent effort to help them. Helping thee parents without offending them is one of the more difficult aspects of my job; the other is convincing already overworked, overstressed people that their children’s after school program is worth their time. One of the best ways to do this is through Family Day. This is a monthly event that focuses on encouraging parent/family interaction with children through food and fun. Each Family Day provides attendees with a light meal and a fun activity to do with children, while at the same time myself and other club staff an opportunity to offer other services and provide parents with information they may need, but may be unwilling to ask for.
For the October 2012 Family Day, we wished to provide members with free pumpkins that they could carve, paint, or decorate with their parents. To obtain these pumpkins, I had to establish several contacts with area organizations, including business, university-affiliated groups, and individual community members. Overall, we had roughly 90 pumpkins donated: 40 were from a local pumpkin farm in western Pennsylvania, 25 were donated on behalf of the local Wal-Mart (a club member’s parent served s my liaison for this,) and the rest were donated by random West Virginia University student organizations and individual students.
The families were able to avoid the expense of a pumpkin, while still providing their child(ren) an opportunity to participate in such hallowed American tradition. While parents, children, and club staff worked (or is it played) together, I was able to make announcements about out Parent Advisory Board meetings (where parents can help mold club policy and identify/address club needs), the Parent Resource Center (where parents may obtain information on free and/or reduced cost medical assistance, legal aid, homelessness and anti-hungry resources, employment opportunities, unemployment assistance, weekend childcare, etc), and an up-coming MBGC-sponsored career workshop geared toward unemployed/underemployed club parents and their associates (organized by myself and ran by a club member’s mother.)
While I have accomplished a lot so far in my VISTA experience, this stood out as my favorite. It was difficult working to establish connections between club staff, club families, and outside community resources, but the nectar was worth the squeeze. Club members, some for the first time, were able to carve pumpkins with their parents and get a meal, parents were able to spend quality time with their children (and their children’s friends) in a casual, relaxed setting, and staff were able to attain a better understanding of each member’s individual family life/dynamic, which gives us better insight into their behaviors, academic performance, etc. Hopefully November’s Family Day will be just as fruitful; I have already obtained a donated gift card of $50 from Sam’s Club to use to purchase three frozen turkeys. These turkeys will then be raffled off to three lucky families on November 16th!
In addition to Family Day, the two other event/activities I have focused on have been the Parent Advisory Board and the monthly Volunteer Recognition Day. The PAB is meant to further engage parents in club life by allowing them to voice their concerns and opinions about club programming, the physical facility, and our presence in the community. Not only does the Parent Board provide a vehicle for parents to become active and involved, it also alleviates financial and staffing pressures on MBGC. I have used these board meetings to recruit parents to help run club programs and events. This reduces club dependence on paid staff and regular volunteers, while allowing parents to get to know staff, members, and their own children in an out-of-home environment. They also set a good example for the children by modeling the importance of volunteering, being involved, and giving back.
The Monthly Volunteer Recognition Day is meant to retain volunteers, so that we have consistent people who know the rules, procedures, and the children. This consistency is beneficial to the members as well; some of their familial role models are too frequently absent from everyday life. For this event, I had to establish relationships with some of the local businesses. Many of them provided discount coupons, gift cards, and similar items for us to use as incentives for our volunteers. These kinds of relationships are very important, as they further recognition within the community.
My experiences thus far have shown me many things; the most important though, is the constant presence of a stable adult in a child’s life. Many children lack a positive adult role model in their personal lives. It is so simple to become a good influence on a young person; I urge everyone to find some way to influence a young person’s life. Many areas have community mentoring programs, or chapters of Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Boys and Girls Club, etc that are always in need of mature, dedicated volunteers.