Alexandra Nicosias-Kopp’s Year of VISTA

April 25th, 2018 by

During a community planning internship, Alexandra Nicosias-Kopp’s architecture and design professor at the University at Buffalo shared her experience with AmeriCorps VISTA following college. Intrigued, Alexandra learned more about the national program and submitted applications for several positions. Although Alexandra had spent most of her life traveling, even living abroad for many years in Australia and Greece, she was excited to experience the South as it had always been somewhat mysterious to her. The images of moss-covered trees, warm winters and the rich history of Hostess City appealed to her. So after speaking with the staff at Step Up, Alexandra accepted the position of Fundraising & Outreach AmeriCorps VISTA.

While leaving support systems behind seemed daunting at first, Alexandra embraced the warmth of the Savannah community. She quickly established a network of AmeriCorps VISTAs, often organizing outings and trips to explore other cities. Working and living downtown allowed her to explore Savannah’s history while trying every single pizza place within the two-mile radius. She embraced the hospitality and duplicated it in every interaction she had with clients, colleagues, and other VISTAs.

Most of Alexandra’s work experience had been client-facing positions in the hospitality industry so at first working in an office felt foreign to her. But she quickly found her groove. She organized fundraisers, managed volunteers, wrote grants, and supported the staff in a multitude of ways. She oversaw Step Up’s social media presence, utilizing her interest in graphic design and her knack for storytelling. She stepped out of her comfort zone to speak publicly in front of community leaders. She interviewed and photographed countless Chatham Apprentice Program graduates, Medicaid recipients, and tax preparation clients as they shared about how programs in the Savannah helped them overcome obstacles to success. All the opportunities to explore various aspects of nonprofit work helped her to discover her strengths, weaknesses, and passions.

Alexandra describes AmeriCorps VISTA as “an incredible learning experience for people that are uncertain of what they want to do.” Through this experience, Alexandra was able to develop skills to will help her reach her personal and professional goals. But Step Up also benefited from her tireless commitment to the mission of the organization. Her creativity and initiative built capacity in fundraising, communications, event planning, and wealth building.

Although Alexandra will say that it was she who benefited from the AmeriCorps VISTA program, Step Up would argue that the greater impact was made within the organization and for the community. Her commitment and the commitment of AmeriCorps VISTAs like her contributes to Savannah’s growing and resourceful nonprofit community dedicated to creating pathways to prosperity for the 25 percent of residents living in poverty.

Luckily, Savannah will have Alexandra for a bit longer. Recognizing her ability to lead and create strong relationships, Alexandra was invited to return next year as an AmeriCorps VISTA leader. In this capacity, she will assist in the local management of the AmeriCorps VISTA program. Savannah boasts eight AmeriCorps VISTAs placed at nonprofits and the Chatham Emergency Management Agency. Alexandra will continue to support the Step Up office while ensuring that all AmeriCorps VISTAs and their host agencies are supported and engaged.

My Journey to AmeriCorps

August 30th, 2016 by

By: Rebecca Elias, Americorp VISTA for Step Up Savannah

South Bronx. Mott Haven. 1990s. At the time, this area was considered one of the worst places to live in NYC. At the time, I did not know that. Sometimes when I think about my childhood, I only have good memories; running through fire hydrants, babybeckyplaying tag, or jumping rope with my sister and our friends. Now I think of the hot metal slides, the scars on my knees from playing on gravel and asphalt and stern warning from my mom to not let other kids play with my toys. There’s danger, but I only have an abstract concept of it. This is my home and I love it here.

Growing up, I didn’t consider myself different from any of the other kids in my neighborhood. We all went to the same parks and the same school (and we all hated school.) School made me feel stupid. I didn’t understand things as quickly as the other students so I spent most of my time socializing, but it seemed like my older sister was made for school. The better she did, the worse I felt and by the time I graduated high school, I was completely done with school.

I wasn’t the only one. Going to college was an anomaly in my neighborhood. I moved in with a friend and started working full-time at a clothing store. My sister came home during vacation grownbeckyand immediately put a stop to my lifestyle. She decided that I was going to college. I was conflicted. I wasn’t exactly happy folding clothes all day, but I definitely did not get along with school. My sister shrugged and simply said, “You’re smart. You just learn differently than other people.”

She was right. I made it through community college then transferred to Buffalo State College. Buffalo State changed me. I saw that where I grew up has a major impact on how I did in school and the things I did not have access to. The schools I went to were too overcrowded for teachers to adjust their teaching methods for each and every student. I didn’t have access to tutors or after school activities. My sister only had access to certain programs because she was introduced to them via her best friend (and she grew up in a “better” neighborhood).

I realized I could use how I grew up to positively help families like mine to reach their full potentials while also reaching mine. After graduating college, I felt compelled to show anyone living in the same environment that I grew up in that it is possible to break the cycle of poverty. I have a desire to help lower- income families and neighborhoods grow and improve. I am only one person and I cannot save the world, but I am confident that my commitment to community service will a make an impressionRebecca on at least one person in any community. This is why I decided to join AmeriCorps. I want to make changes in different low income neighborhoods throughout the country. I served one year as an AmeriCorps member in Fresno, California and even small changes like a homework help center or family movie night made a difference in that community. Now I’m using my skills to help create opportunity in Savannah. I know from experience that all it takes is a small change to make a big impact in someone’s life and that’s what AmeriCorps VISTA allows me to do every day.

When my sister and I talk about our childhood now, we still mention the games and the fire hydrants but there’s a small hint of regret. Our mom did the best she could under the circumstances but sometimes we wish we were able to take dance classes or learn an instrument. The parks are better now; gravel and metal are replaced with soft padding and colorful plastic and the graffiti is mostly gone but the opportunities are still not there. One day (if someone doesn’t beat me to it) with all the experience and knowledge I gained from AmeriCorps, I’m going to go back and help enrich my childhood community.

 

From Corporate America to AmeriCorps VISTA

November 6th, 2015 by

By Janice Johannsen

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor 23 years, I was a slave to my job. I say this not to equate my status to African Americans who were enslaved in this country but because, at my worst moments, that is how I felt.

Before moving to Savannah, I worked for a major entertainment company in Hollywood, California, a Fortune 500 company that was owned by an even bigger multimedia corporation. I didn’t care much for my job but I went to work every day because the money was too good to pass up and the benefits were unbeatable. Those on the outside looking in thought it was exciting. I’d see George Clooney or Ashton Kutcher on my way to the commissary, work out next to George Lopez at the company gym and have access to free merchandise that beat the local Toys R’ Us.  At first, it was exciting; after all, a bright, shiny object is attractive but over time, like most everything else, it started losing its luster. When it was all said and done, I was nothing more than a cog in a wheel whose purpose was to protect the company’s assets so that it could continue to be a money-making machine.

Of course I’d be hypocritical if I didn’t acknowledge that I enjoyed the money. To live life comfortably is something most of us desire. But at what price?

Over 10 years ago, I got deeply involved with a small nonprofit organization that sends poor kids in the Philippines to school. It10941040_869838259726702_6142924340733328274_n was through this work that I realized I had the passion to do nonprofit work and that I could do it well. When we moved to Savannah because of my husband’s job, I knew I couldn’t go back to working in corporate America. After searching long and hard, I grabbed the opportunity to work for Step Up as an AmeriCorps VISTA.

I have to admit that initially I was afraid to take on the challenge. After all, it is easier to ignore poverty than to address it. I’ve always lead a fairly comfortable life and frankly, I was afraid that the work would be depressing. I am glad to say I was wrong.

11741022_954779277899266_1215838927150003950_o (1)My year as an AmeriCorps VISTA has been one of the best things I have done. I have met wonderful and inspiring people that I never would have met had I stayed in my own little world. I have spent time in poor neighborhoods and as a result I have a better understanding of people’s lives. Not having children of my own, I have learned that being with kids gives me so much joy. Perhaps most importantly, I have a renewed sense of hope that, when faced with adversity, a community can work together to make change. I found that when you are working to make a difference, the rewards are numerous and life-changing. I once read that the best kind of work is one that affects people. Whoever wrote that was right.

As I end my service as a VISTA, I leave with more experience, skills, and a clear idea about what I want to do next. Working for a cause such as reducing poverty shifts your focus in life. I may no longer get that generous paycheck but, for the past year, I have been coming home with a smile on my face instead.

Learn more about AmeriCorps VISTA