My name is Lauren Raycraft and I am an MNA VISTA serving at Allegan County United Way. For those of you who aren’t familiar with southwest Michigan, Allegan is a rural county located about halfway between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. As a VISTA, I live in Kalamazoo and commute – about 35 minutes one way – to my service site. The drive isn’t particularly convenient, but living in Kalamazoo has allowed me to save significantly on rent.
Since starting my service this past August, I have also learned that my commute is not unique. Many people who work in Allegan county actually live outside of Allegan, and vice versa: many people who live in Allegan county work in neighboring cities. Being able to afford this commute, however, is one aspect of privilege that differentiates the levels of poverty in Allegan county: residents without reliable access to transportation experience poverty differently than their neighbors. Resources can be extremely widespread and public transportation is not easily accessible.
Learning about the unique challenges faced by residents of Allegan County has been my first and foremost goal in starting my year of service. Most of the month of August was dedicated to familiarizing myself with the area, my host site, and existing resources and partnerships available to me through Allegan County United Way.
To aid me in this endeavor, my supervisor dedicated one early August afternoon to take a driving tour of Allegan County. My position is unique in that although my official service site is at the United Way, my VISTA Assignment Description involves working with each of the ten Allegan County school districts. The various districts are widespread – it took my supervisor and I the entire afternoon and over 100 miles of driving to visit them all! Thankfully, my supervisor was also able to introduce me to a few key people who have provided an immense amount of support and insight!
After being formally introduced to a countywide group of counselors in mid-September, my day-to-day workload has really grown. I am currently in the process of identifying focus groups of parents and students with whom I’ll convene over the course of the year at area high schools. I also joined the Allegan STEM Initiative steering committee, where I’ll continue to highlight the importance of early career exploration and post-secondary education. Later this week, I will finalize career exploration materials to present at a series of early college workshops in October. In addition, I started planning a Show Me the Money Day event with one of my coworkers, attended virtual training for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) events this spring, and identified two additional grants to support upcoming events. My service is certainly picking up speed, but I’m loving every minute of it!
I’m also excited to be mentoring a small group of students through a partnership between the Saugatuck Center for the Arts and Saugatuck High School. Although the project doesn’t relate directly to my VAD, it is meant to foster mentoring relationships between community members (me!) and area high school students to help them solve a problem facing their community, develop soft skills needed to succeed beyond high school, and prepare for their post-graduation plans. My students have been tasked with bridging the gap between baby boomers and millennials in volunteerism. Specifically, they’ll be conducting interviews in the community to understand why or why not millennials are volunteering, and how those efforts are perceived among adults and employers in the community. As a final project, they will produce materials to help solve the problem on a local scale. Specifically, they hope to produce a mini-documentary about volunteerism and the United Way to inspire their peers to volunteer! I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I wholeheartedly believe in the power of volunteering to change lives for the better, but I hope this project inspires them as well. I’m very excited to see what they come up with, and to share it with all of you!
As I look forward to October, and my third month of service, I grow more and more excited about what this year holds. I have grown exponentially in the last two months, and can’t wait to see what else a year as a VISTA will bring!
Each blog post was written by one of our VISTAs!