Wednesday, November 17, 2010

VISTA Member Vanessa Schaefer Reflects on Her Year of Service

This week we bid a very fond farewell to two of our AmeriCorps*VISTA members who are completing their service on Friday. One of those VISTA members is Vanessa Schaefer, who has spent her year of service at Barclay Elementary/Middle School building mutually supportive connections with the Harwood, Abell, and Charles Village neighborhoods.

Recently we caught up with Vanessa to reflect on her year at GHCC.

 You’re originally from Arizona—what brought you all the way out here to Baltimore?

I visited a friend in Washington, DC in September 2009 and we took a day trip up here. All my friends in Arizona were moving further west, but I wanted to check out places that hadn’t been explored as much by my group of friends. I felt like Baltimore was a place on the cultural up-swing, yet it was still a smaller city so it didn’t feel totally overwhelming (Phoenix is a big city, but it isn’t condensed like cities on the East Coast). I went home after that trip and started applying to positions out here and two months later I moved!

Vanessa carrying a scarecrow with Barclay students.
Was VISTA your first choice coming out of college? What other options did you consider? How did your family feel about you moving across the country to do a year of service?

AmeriCorps was my first choice coming out of college, though I hadn’t decided specifically on VISTA. I had considered other things like Teach for America and Peace Corps, but for various reasons I ended up going with AmeriCorps*VISTA, and I’m really happy with how it all worked out. My family wasn’t too concerned about me moving across the country, but I am very close to my brother, so it was difficult to move the farthest from him that I have ever been.

Every VISTA has a lot of ups and downs during their year. What was the toughest thing you had to deal with, and what/who got you through it?

The toughest thing I had to deal with was that early in my year, I was assaulted while in Washington, DC. Being in the midst of making new friends after having just moved alone across the country and started a new job, this added a whole other level of stress to the situation. What got me through it was making friends and pressing through the red tape to take advantage of the benefits AmeriCorps offers its members. Building a support system and utilizing the few resources you do have as a VISTA cannot be touted enough.

What accomplishment are you most proud of from your VISTA year?

My role in helping to create the Organized Parent Group at Barclay. It is one of the most stable, continuous projects I have worked on. This is something that needed my help to exist in the first place, but now that it does, it has the leadership and the momentum to play a huge role in the workings of the Barclay School and the sense of community amongst the families that come here. Capacity building is at the heart of the VISTA mission, and this was my favorite example of that.

What memory will always make you laugh?

Pretty much any event that required Kelly Oglesbee and me to handle the barbecuing at Barclay.

What is your favorite thing about GHCC?

The employees. I live with two people who were VISTAs during my time and they have been great. The people I work with, both GHCC and Barclay School staff, have made my year really enjoyable. They have also been a source of encouragement: seeing so many people working so hard to make Baltimore a better place has shown me the commitment of the community here and demonstrated real possibility for the future.

L to R: Vanessa, new VISTA member Marc Francis,
and Barclay Community School Director
Kelly Oglesbee
Where are you headed after November? Are you planning on staying in Baltimore?

After November, I’m not sure where I'm headed. I am actively looking for job opportunities, but I'm not done traveling yet. I may continue living here and traveling periodically, or I may move to a different state and experience that for a while. Either way, being 23, I don’t feel too terribly anxious about making concrete plans.

Give us the outsider’s perspective—when you moved here, what surprised you most about this city? What do you think is its biggest strength? Biggest weakness?

What surprised me most about Baltimore was how different each neighborhood was while still being in such close proximity to one another. The discrepancy of wealth, the culture of the region, the architecture, everything varied within blocks of each other, and I had never in my life seen that. The biggest strength I found was the sense of community and the willingness of people to work together towards what they want for themselves, their families, and their communities. It may have to do with the history of the city, but the community is something Baltimore should be really proud of.

It’s harder to pin down Baltimore’s greatest weakness. Honestly, it might be something as difficult to fix as the lack of money, or the lack of employment opportunities. These issues breed the street-level problems we see on a daily basis, and unfortunately, it’s a weakness that a lot of towns and cities are facing right now.

If you could say one thing to people just starting their year of service, what would it be?

Just go with it. It will probably be one of the strangest years of your life, and possibly one of the most difficult, but it’s definitely worth it and you’ll learn a lot. Keep your sense of humor and just go with it.


R. Steggy said...

Vanessa gives some great words of wisdom to all VISTAs! Thank you for sharing!

P.S. I shared parts of this interview on my blog:

GHCC said...


Thank you so much for sharing! Vanessa was an amazing addition to her team and we were sad to see her year of service end. We're so glad to see her words being shared with others who can benefit from her experiences.