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.

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 

Credit Union Hero

May 28th, 2015 by

It’s not often that a financial institution is a protagonist. But in Savannah, Georgia Heritage Federal Credit Union came through like a hero this year, working with Step Up to create a new loan product aimed at low-wage employees.

More than 60 percent of Chatham County residents have sub-prime credit; thousands of residents remain stuck in a cash-based economy (albeit some by choice, others due to mistakes or, yes, bad choices) and at least 10 percent are completely unbanked. Many — truly untold numbers, since there is no straightforward way to count these individuals — are working full or part-time. For several years, Step Up staff and our partners have tried to identify ways to connect our working poor, some barely a paycheck away from poverty, to public benefits they’re eligible to receive that effectively boost their earnings. A significant opportunity has existed among thousands of wage-earners who find themselves in need of a small-dollar loan but who don’t have credit or whose bad credit translates into exorbitant interest rates.

When a life emergency or unanticipated need pops up, most employees ask for payroll advances, borrow from retirement plans, or turn to the unregulated car title loan industry.

Step Up has urged banks and credit unions to consider offering a safe loan product through area employers. Georgia Heritage recently stepped up. Employers can now offer through the credit union loans of $300-$1500 to those who have been employed in good standing at their companies for 6 months or more. No questions asked, no fees, and monthly payments are determined by the credit union and borrower, with amounts processed through payroll deduction. Credit scores are not part of the determination process and payments are recorded at credit bureaus so these employees can build a positive credit record. Further, once the loan is repaid, the auto deductions continue with payments going to the employee’s savings account. They can easily opt out of course but once individuals get accustomed to not having that $50 or $100 available, they typically keep it up, and in this case building savings.

Chatham Area Transit, Hospice Savannah, and Chatham County are employers who are on board, or just about, with the Life Line Loan. Step Up will be gathering data to document what works– or doesn’t– about this loan product. But we know that it won’t bury in more debt those who can least afford it, like the car title loan.

To learn more about our Life Line Loan, contact Robyn at rwainner@stepupsavannah.org

“Ban the Box” Legislation in Georgia Leads the Way

February 25th, 2015 by

In January of 2014, Octavian left the Correctional Institute in Americus, having just served a 10-month sentence for aggravated assault. At 27 years old, his life lay ahead of him, yet he had no idea what to do with it.

“After my release I could not find a job anywhere and thought that I had ruined my chance of having a successful future or being able to take care of myself,” Octavian said, who moved back to his hometown of Savannah after his release.

Each month nearly 1,300 men and women just like Octavian return to their communities across Georgia to face the daunting task of reconstructing their lives.  One of the first orders of business is to find a job. However many returning citizens are unable to get past the application stage of the job search because of their criminal background. Nearly all applications for all levels of work have a box that requires an applicant to note any criminal history. When an applicant checks that box, it acts as a “scarlet letter,” affecting the employer’s perception of the applicant. The employer’s view of the applicant is tainted before ever examining their qualifications.

So why is this a problem? Georgia is one of the hardest states to get a job when the box is checked. Even individuals re-entering with high-level hard skills are considered unemployable, and all too often, the conviction is irrelevant to the demands of the job. Those returning citizens lucky enough to find a job typically have to settle for the lowest-wage positions regardless of their skills, which leaves them stuck in a cycle of poverty. Evidence has shown that stable employment is the best way to prevent recidivism. With nearly 3.8 million, or one in three Georgians, with some kind of criminal background the state needs to step up and assist returning citizens in getting their fair shot.

Governor Nathan Deal agrees. Through executive order  on February 23, 2015, Georgia joined thirteen states to enact the fair hiring policy commonly called “Ban the Box.” And Georgia is the first Southern state to sign. The new policy means returning citizens will be considered first on merit and qualifications on state employment applications. Rather than disclose their criminal history on the application, the candidate is able disclose their criminal history in a face-to-face interview. This should allow candidates to provide a better understanding of their history and how it impacts their ability to perform the work. In addition, only a relevant conviction may be used as the basis for disqualification.

Step Up Savannah applauds this move because a significant percentage of our Chatham Apprentice Program (CAP) graduates have some form of criminal background. We help them develop the job-readiness skills necessary for employment. We partner with Georgia Legal Services to assist our participants learn how to better articulate their criminal history  during interviews.

Still, the pool of employers who will hire individuals with a criminal background remains limited.  The Governor’s order to “Ban the Box” on state applications should go a long way to reduce a barrier many of our graduates face and potentially open some doors to interview for higher-wage positions.

Octavian found employment after completing CAP and continued to take classes at Savannah Tech. His experience—and many others like him—show it’s possible to rebuild after incarceration.  Now because of “Ban the Box,” thousands more Georgians with criminal backgrounds have more hope of finding employment; at least they’ll get a foot in the door.

If your business is interested in partnering with CAP to help our graduates find employment, email kblair@stepupsavannah.org