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November 23, 2015 – This month, we said goodbye to two of our AmeriCorps VISTA members, Caroline Montgomery and Andrae Hash, who officially finished their service terms on November 6th, 2015.

Caroline served with the Blacksburg Farmers Market, which offers fresh, locally sourced food to the New River Valley community year round.

Andrae served with the Kindergarten 2 College program, which is housed under VT-STEM and focused on pre-college outreach in low-income area schools.

We sat down with Caroline and Andrae to gain insight into their AmeriCorps VISTA terms and collect some final thoughts on their work.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

Caroline Montgomery

VT Engage: Can you start off by giving us a broad overview of your service year?

Caroline:  My job with the Blacksburg Farmers Market was focused in two areas. The first was the MarketKids program, which is in its third year. We saw the most kids that we’ve seen in the program so far, and the program gained a lot of face time with the community.

I created a curriculum for the program, and I also started an internship to help sustain the program after I leave. This was a really fun part of my job, because I went to the garden once a week with the kids and watch them learn what it’s like to grow your own food. It was really inspiring, because the kids might not have tried that vegetable otherwise if they hadn’t grown it themselves.

The second area that I focused on was outreach with the SNAP double value program. Maureen McGonagle, the previous VISTA member, obtained a grant that allowed us to expand the program. We can now double purchases for SNAP recipients up to $30! The main goal of the program now is to incentivize people to eat more fruits and vegetables.

Andrae: The project in which I served, Kindergarten 2 College (K2C) was a K-12 outreach experience that was primarily aimed at children from low-income families. The project was housed under VT-STEM, so the three main flagship initiatives I worked on throughout the year were focused on engagement of science learning and STEM advocacy.

The first flagship program was the actual Kindergarten 2 College visits. We would invite 5th grade students to campus for an immersive college experience, including participating in hands-on stem experiences.

The second program that I focused on was the Southwest Virginia STEM Summit, which is a symposium hosted annually for STEM stakeholders including educators and innovators, as well as legislators and administrators from local schools and universities.

The last flagship event I worked on was the 2nd annual Virginia Science Festival, which was a collaboration with the Science Museum of Western Virginia, the Virginia Tech campus, and the Town of Blacksburg. Around 4,000 children and families attended the festival, and around 200 student volunteers helped with the event.

VTE: What were some highlights and challenges during your service terms?

C: The main challenge of my VISTA year was definitely being the last VISTA, year three of the project. I felt a lot of pressure on the Marketkids program to be able to sustain it after VISTA presence was gone. But it worked out in the end, and I hope it continues to work out. With the partnerships I have created, MarketKids has a support group outside the market that will continue to support it.

There were a lot of highlights during my VISTA year. I remember this one particular day, there was a MarketKids participant who swore up and down she didn’t like beans. We were growing snap peas, which are pretty similar, and it was the first time she ever had a snap pea. When the first couple sugar snap peas were coming off the stem, she was so inquisitive and curious, and just wanted to eat it right then and there. She actually liked them!

A: One highlight was being able to interact with so many different people. With the K2C visits being on Fridays in March and April, it was a great end of each week to be around kids and be silly, and see the excitement and enthusiasm in their eyes when they’re coming to campus – many of them for the first time.

I was also able to interact with some high profile individuals in the community who I don’t think I would have got to otherwise, especially people who make things happen. I think it’s pretty cool to interact with them on a level where I feel like I can make a difference.

In terms of challenges, I think perhaps that if I could’ve focused more early on or been given more of a charge to think about sustainable outcomes for the entire VISTA project, I think it would have been more helpful for me to have tangible outcomes to measure myself to.

Andre

VTE: Could you share any lessons that you learned from being a VISTA, and specifically lessons about your relationship with the NRV?

C: One thing that I learned even more being a VISTA is that this community is so wonderfully caring and empathetic, and there are so many people doing so many good things, and so willing to help.

This really just amazed me and taught me that when you have something that you’re passionate about and you can see a change that can be made in the community, people will step up and help you and say, ‘we’re going to do this’.

A: In terms of things that I’ve learned, I think it was a fantastic year to get involved at the university level in program management and development. I feel like I have come away with some very refined skills, so that was the most significant learning item to take away.

I also know that without a doubt, had I not grown up in Pulaski County, I don’t think I would have even shouldered the possibility of being a VISTA that serves local schools here. There are so many resources and so many people who care for us, I knew we could make a major impact. I know that my experiences growing up here definitely served to that end.

VTE: Do you have any advice for others considering VISTA, whether it is in the New River Valley or elsewhere?

C: My advice for people that want to become a VISTA is that it’s tough financially (but definitely do-able) and it is definitely humbling. If you are ready to shed some things in your personal life, and hopefully in that find something more meaningful, then go for it.

I would say to most people that you need to think about that aspect, because if you’re not ready to give up those things that you might find most comforting, then you might see a very hard reality when entering this world. VISTA has helped open my eyes a bit more.

A: I think that enumerating the differences between AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps VISTA is important for anybody considering VISTA. Also, being very intentional about knowing where you’re going to be and how you’re going to be serving is a crucial element. I was very fortunate to be a part of this university in that I felt tremendously supported, and I had the audience of people who were important.

VTE: What does the future hold for you?

C: I’m staying in Blacksburg for the time being. My immediate future is kind of all over the place (just like me), but I’m going to be teaching at a Montessori infant day care, and I will also be volunteering in the community because being a VISTA has definitely furthered my love of volunteering and serving the community.

I’m really happy to have a job that motivates me more to do service. Long-term goals include traveling, having my own small business, re-vamping my website, and I have a goal for this month to shoot as many things as I can with my camera.

A: In my next position, I will be working as a grassroots community organizer for a statewide non-profit organization called Virginia Organizing. I will be the first ‘boots on the ground’ in the New River Valley area which is really cool – again being able to focus on the community which has served me very well as a native.

Looking to bring people together, my primary purpose as a community organizer is to develop a chapter. The chapter will essentially consist of a representation of community members who care enough about an issue to get involved, developing them as leaders, and having those community leaders come out of this process to affect change on issues that directly affect them.