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Memoirs of a VISTA

April 20, 2015

HEADSHOTToday’s guest post comes from Rachelle Duroseau who graduated summa cum laude from Nazareth College, in Rochester, NY, with a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a minor in Community Based Youth Development. Rachelle will soon begin her second term as an AmeriCorps VISTA with Children’s Home Society of Florida’s community outreach and engagement initiative. She was recently awarded Volunteer Florida’s Champion of Service award for her VISTA work.

Growing up, it didn’t take long for me to learn that I felt most fulfilled when giving my time to others. Between high school and college, I took full advantage of as many volunteer opportunities as time allowed. I was never serving out of obligation, but always because I felt a genuine desire to volunteer.

I first learned the true meaning of empathy and saw my life in a greater context in high school. I took an elective course in hospice (The Harley Hospice Corps) that taught me how to take care of people at the peak of their vulnerability right before death. I remember one patient in particular that I bonded with. In only a few short weeks, I watched her physically and emotionally deteriorate beyond recognition. It was such a surreal experience for me. It was also a brutal lesson: life’s miseries don’t discriminate. None of us are safe from it, and all we can do is deeply cherish and respect one another while we can.

This newfound sense of civic responsibility was heightened when I studied sociology in college. I focused on exploring the areas of poverty and social inequality. During school, I volunteered with several organizations including The House of Mercy, a homeless shelter in my hometown of Rochester, NY. I became so enthralled with that community and felt so much joy building relationships with its residents and staff. But, volunteering there also made me sad. I witnessed so many people living with debilitating physical and mental restraints that had been blatantly abandoned by society. I also saw people at the absolute depths of their despair. The most painful to see were those newly seeking refuge in the shelter as they had run out of options, yet were inconsolable that this was what their lives had resorted to. It was hard not to feel the powerlessness and desolation that they experienced. It hurt to know I could not provide the support they needed. It also taught me devastating things about the pervasive, insidious, and complex realities and consequences of poverty.

By the time I graduated college, I was frustrated. I didn’t feel like my direct service work did more than put a Band-Aid over a festering wound. I was eager to start applying my skills to help create effective change, but I wasn’t ready to jump into a career. I needed to find an opportunity that would let me build off of what I knew while simultaneously giving me the confidence to safely test my personal boundaries to see what I was capable of.

Rachelle's VISTA supervisors, Meghan Pfleiderer (in the blue suit) nominated her for a Champion of Service Award! Rachelle received the honor during a Governor’s Cabinet Meeting February 5, 2015.

Rachelle’s VISTA supervisor, Meghan Pfleiderer (in the blue suit), nominated her for a Champion of Service Award! Rachelle received the honor during a Governor’s Cabinet Meeting February 5, 2015.

I had learned about the AmeriCorps VISTA program while working in my college’s Center for Civic Engagement. As I pursued different job opportunities and even accepted my first full-time job, VISTA was always an option that lingered in the back of my mind.

The VISTA program through Children’s Home Society of Florida stood out to me and I applied. Children’s Home Society of Florida is the state’s largest, private nonprofit serving children and families. With 15 divisions and over 90 offices, it has programs in all 67 Florida counties and works tirelessly to provide healing and protection to abused children, while working to equip parents/guardians with the necessary tools to strengthen and rebuild their families.

Rachelle was pleasantly surprised that here second large in-kind campaign of the year, a Holiday Toy Drive received just as much community support as the Back-to-school drive.

Rachelle had worried that the community response to the Holiday Toy Drive, her second drive of the year, would not be as strong as her first one, but it was a success too!

The majority of my time is spent at Joshua House, a residential facility for abused, abandoned, and neglected children, where I handle volunteer recruitment, coordinating activities and securing in-kind donations. The rest of my time is spent managing large in-kind campaigns for my division’s dependency case management program, which supports close to 500 children and teens at any given time.

Initially, I had no direct experience with any of those roles. I was nervous yet optimistic. My personal skills, coupled with my willingness to give it my best as I gained support and training made me more confident that I could take on these tasks. My first weeks of service were spent learning the basics of my division. I perused program manuals, learned policies, participated in trainings, wrote scripts for cold calling potential donors and volunteers, shadowed tours of the campus and more. At the same time I was learning the basics, I was also preparing for my first of two major in-kind campaigns (a Back-to- School drive and a Holiday Toy drive, respectively).

In retrospect, it is almost amusing how scared and unprepared I seemed. Now, everything comes so naturally. I love giving tours and making community presentations, and I cherish all the community partnerships I’m building for my organization. Most important, I love that the work I am doing is sustainable, not temporary. In May, I will begin my second year with Children’s Home Society of Florida, and I look forward to the new adventures that lie ahead.

If I were to give any advice to new VISTAs it would be this: trust in yourself, be patient, don’t be afraid to experiment, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. But most importantly, revel in every little victory!

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