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AmeriCorps Alums Celebrates AmeriCorps VISTA with Awards

February 23, 2015

PrintFifty years ago, the first Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) joined what is now a long legacy that proves a committed group of volunteers can make a tangible difference. There are more than 7,000 AmeriCorps VISTA members today who serve each year in 4,000 communities and projects across the nation. Since the program began, 190,000 VISTA alums have helped to bring communities out of poverty. In honor of the 50th anniversary of VISTA, we are proud to celebrate their impact by honoring five alumni with an AmeriCorps Alums National Leadership Award.

Our winners were chosen from a pool of VISTA alumni nominees from every region of the country that included nominations of alumni who served from the first VISTA cohort in 1965 to VISTAs in the 2000s. Each of our award winners exemplifies a commitment to a lifetime of service. They are dedicated to increasing the capacity of their communities and expanding economic opportunity. All served as AmeriCorps VISTA members (from 1994 – 2012). Building on this experience, these award winners continue to solve community challenges in areas including economic development, state governance, educational opportunity, health care, youth civic engagement, and employment services.

AMERICORPS ALUMS Co-Executive Directors Mary Bruce and Ben Duda

Mary Bruce and Ben Duda

“We are humbled by and grateful to the VISTA alums who continue to make fighting poverty and building up communities a priority after service” said AmeriCorps Alums Co-Executive Director Mary Bruce. “These alumni understand that poverty is not just tied to a person’s bank account,” said AmeriCorps Alums Co-Executive Director Ben Duda, “but to the healthcare, education, civic engagement, and career opportunities available where we live, serve, and work.”

Eileen Conoboy, the Deputy Director of AmeriCorps VISTA who served on the Selection Committee for the awards, shares, “VISTA builds a talent pipeline to public service. After dedicating a year of their lives to address poverty in America, VISTA alumni continue to empower communities and promote economic opportunity long after their service ends.”

On February 25, our national leadership award winners will be recognized at a reception following the AmeriCorps VISTA’s 50th Anniversary National Solutions Summit in Washington, D.C. Meet our award winners below!

Denise Riebman

Denise RiebmanDenise served as an AmeriCorps VISTA member at the Denver Indian Center (1994-1995) and has spent over 20 years in the nonprofit and higher education sectors, including directing several AmeriCorps programs, focused on poverty alleviation, volunteer engagement and career development. Denise was the Assistant Dean of Career Services at Brandeis University’s Heller School where she built their career development center and led to the creation of a $1M AmeriCorps Alum Heller School Scholarship. Denise has also directed AmeriCorps projects at Communities for Children, Boston Cares, LEAP and Maine’s Promise. She’s currently a career development specialist who serves as the AmeriCorps Alums Career Coach and Director of Career Development and Alumni Services at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at George Washington University.

The AmeriCorps VISTA philosophy of building capacity and serving continues to shape Denise’s “sustainable and strength-based” approach towards her professional life and volunteerism. She believes in supporting communities, particularly underserved populations, to discover their own assets and to connect together for building greater leadership diversity across all sectors. In addition to her work empowering AmeriCorps alums, Denise continually volunteers with nonprofits serving low-income communities including currently providing career development assistance at Miriam’s Kitchen, Year Up, and StreetWise Partners.

Denise shares, “A major tenet of my work, service and Career Happiness Coaching practice is to instill the mindset of choice and opportunity to build your own life.”

Dr. John Baumann

john baumannDr. John Baumann served as a VISTA with Oregon Asset Building Corps (2012-2013). He is a physician, educator and program developer with a lifelong history of service. He was a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service, an Army Reserve Member, a board member/president of Isla Vista Health Projects, the Chairman of Santa Barbara County Emergency Services Committee, and the Chief Medical Officer in the LA Olympic Village. As a VISTA, he served as a Project Coordinator for the Fern Ridge Service Center, a $2.3 million project in the small town of Veneta, Oregon. He collaborated with the city government and a local nonprofit to build a physical facility and coordinate multiple community services including a creative rural medical outreach program to make health care available to those who need it most.

He now continues that work on the Board of Directors of Mid Lane Cares, the Veneta nonprofit he helped develop. He also serves as the Executive Director of Eugene Hearing and Speech Center, the only nonprofit of its kind in Oregon. He is active in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in Lane County and serves on several advisory panels at Lane Community College. He is always on the alert for additional ways to serve.

John says, “Fulfillment of life is in making a difference for others.”

Miriam Gillow-Wiles

Photography by McCarson Jones, Red Scarf Shots

Photography by McCarson Jones, Red Scarf Shots

Miriam Gillow-Wiles’ AmeriCorps service inspired a life-long career in government. She says, “I would not be here without the skills and leadership development from both AmeriCorps VISTA and AmeriCorps State/National.” Miriam served with the Western Hardrock Watershed VISTA team in 2009-2010 and the Southern Ute Community Action Program in 2011-2012. Today, Miriam is the Executive Director of the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments, a region that covers 6,500 square miles including two tribal reservations, 10 municipalities, and 5 counties that encompass over 95,000 people. Miriam works to increase efficiency in local governments and alleviate community challenges connected to ageing, environment, housing, telecommunications, transportation, tourism, and economic development.

Miriam shared that her own experience growing up in what was considered the wrong neighborhood influences her passion for creating economic opportunity. In addition to her role in government, Miriam does “Life after AmeriCorps training” for her old AmeriCorps program and is working to develop a Durango AmeriCorps Alums chapter.

Miriam shares, “My community service and engagement at 20 was different than at 30, and what I do at 50 will be vastly different than what I do at 80. The common thread weaving through the different times in my life is, and will continue to be, a responsibility to my community.”     

Oscar Robles

Photography by King Texas

Photography by King Texas

Through AmeriCorps VISTA (2009-2010) and then Public Allies (2010-2011), Oscar Robles built a career working toward more equitable educational and economic opportunity. Oscar now works as the Manager of City Learning Networks for US2020. In this role, he manages the network of US2020 city-based grantees from across the country by sharing best practices and hosting virtual and in-person convenings in an effort to scale science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) mentorship across the nation.

Oscar’s work with these cities will help seed STEM mentoring movements in communities throughout the nation for students underrepresented in this field: girls, students of color, and low-income students. By exposing underrepresented students to STEM careers, these mentoring programs help put students on a trajectory towards jobs that provide a greater degree of economic freedom. He also does work with Black Male Achievement and Opportunity Nation.

Oscar says, “I am deeply committed to service because the opportunity to serve through AmeriCorps provided me with a strong, transferable skillset and reinvigorated a sense of purpose within myself. At a time when I was disconnected from work and school, the AmeriCorps VISTA program – specifically my Supervisor – saw something in me that I had lost sight of within myself. I am continuously indebted to the program and carry a passion for servant leadership because of it.”

Susan Paul

Susan Paul Best HeadshotSusan Paul served as a VISTA with the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office (2009-2010) and with the Boston Community Health Corps AmeriCorps program (2005-2006). Susan’s VISTA service gave her the leadership skills to help individuals, families and organizations reduce recidivism by developing solution-oriented initiatives through community partnerships. Through VISTA, she also had the opportunity to engage in successful capacity building with youth from low-income communities. She now works as the Communications & Community Programs Specialist for the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office. Susan continues coordinating the District Attorney’s Youth Advisory Boards which allow youth who are considered at-risk the opportunity to address issues in their schools and communities through public service campaigns created for their peers. Susan shares with youth the value of service and how active civic engagement can be a pathway to greater economic opportunity, college, and a better life.

Susan has also supported AmeriCorps alumni in San Diego as an AmeriCorps Alums chapter leader. In her term as a chapter leader, she promoted leadership development, mentoring, service, advocacy, and self-care to fellow alumni.

Susan says, “Being an AmeriCorps VISTA member at a law enforcement agency definitely pushed me out of my comfort-zone. It was a remarkable learning experience to create and implement innovative public safety programs with youth and community members leading the way.”

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