As I approach the halfway point of my year as a VISTA, and as a recruiter, I’ve long since gotten the elevator pitch for my organization memorized: “The Seedling Foundation is a nonprofit mentor program for the children of incarcerated parents in Austin.” What that encompasses, however, is much more difficult to convey in such a short message. Over 500 children in Austin have Seedling mentors, but that is only a fraction of even the most conservative estimates of the number of children of the incarcerated in and around the city. There are social and legal support systems for children who lose parents by way of divorce or death; many of those who lose parents to incarceration are at best ignored or not considered, and at worst ostracized and stigmatized for a situation that they have no control over. The kids that we help are some of the kindest, most insightful people I’ve ever met, and I’m thrilled that part of my job includes spending time with one each week while also helping others get the support that they need.
I became a VISTA very much by accident. I wanted to do a small amount of volunteer work after college, so I looked into becoming a Seedling mentor, found that they had a volunteer position available, and jumped at the opportunity. The half-hour per week commitment I originally sought became full-time. I couldn’t have made a better decision. The moments that I’ve had personally as a mentor have been some of the most fulfilling that I can remember, and helping to enable others to have those same experiences has been truly rewarding. Seeing a child’s face light up while playing a game or talking about their day, and knowing that you had something to do with it, is amazing. I was told before I began my year that you get more out of your time as a VISTA than you could ever put in, and that’s certainly been the case. In my relatively brief time here, I’ve made new friends, learned the day-to-day challenges and successes inherent to operating a nonprofit, gained professional skills, and have, most importantly, begun to make a direct difference to at least one great kid, and hopefully indirectly to a few others. There have certainly been ups and downs; we’ve all had days where everything comes together perfectly and others where nothing seems to go right; days where we feel like we’ve made an impact and others where we aren’t so sure. What keeps me coming back, without fail, is the knowledge that I have friends who are going through the same things that I am, and people who will be there for me when I need them.
Part of our effort to alleviate poverty is to live at the poverty level. Financial difficulty is nothing new for me, though the process of learning what forms of assistance are available, and how difficult or easy many are to access, has been enlightening. Despite my willingness to live at the poverty line, no matter how difficult it gets, I always know in the back of my mind that I chose to do this voluntarily, that I am doing this for one year, and that I don’t have the pressure of having to support others on limited finances. The real learning experience, however, has been seeing the work that goes into running a nonprofit, particularly one with such a small staff. The dedication that I see from each of my coworkers, and the children that they help, keeps me motivated to do the work that I do. The people I work with every day are some of the nicest, most caring people I’ve ever known, and though I can’t fathom why they would have someone like me on board, I appreciate them, all the same. Working here has made me see the city that I live in, and hope to continue to live in, as well as its population, in a new light – and I think that I am becoming a better person for it.
~Adrian Smith, Seedling Foundation VISTA Volunteer Recruitment Coordinator