Community benefits from VISTA’s vision

Kelsi Nummerdor lives just above the poverty line-and it’s by her choice.

The recent University of Georgia graduate-she finished bachelor’s degrees in psychology and anthropology in May-chose a job that closely connects her to the people she serves. As an AmeriCorps VISTA, she works to end hunger among senior citizens in the Athens area.

She is one of four VISTAs working through the UGA Office of Service-Learning to bridge the gap between the university and the Athens area through service-learning classes, experiential learning and volunteer activities.

“This is the type of program that’s really important for our office because our mission is to provide more service-learning course opportunities for students,” said Shannon Wilder, director of the Office of Service-Learning. “By having the VISTAs as our ambassadors in the community and in neighborhoods, we’re creating more links.

“It’s been really beneficial to have them help lay the groundwork for a lot of projects.”

AmeriCorps VISTA-short for Volunteers in Service to America-members have been compared to Peace Corps volunteers, except that they operate within U.S. borders. They spend one year working full time on a specific project at a nonprofit organization or, in Nummerdor’s case, a public agency like UGA. Their mission is to bring individuals and communities out of poverty through professional service.

Nummerdor is assigned to the Campus Kitchen at UGA, which is part of the nationwide Campus Kitchens Project, a growing network of university groups striving to reduce food waste and combat hunger. In Athens, that means reclaiming good food that would otherwise be thrown in the dumpster and partnering with the Athens Community Council on Aging to deliver meals to hungry senior citizens.

While her volunteers do most of the food preparation-slicing through summer vegetables and frying up bacon for this week’s casserole, for example-Nummerdor does the heavy lifting behind the scenes. It’s her job to find and train volunteers, coordinate schedules, plan events, arrange meal deliveries, check on quality, keep an eye on food safety and make sure food is flowing into Talmadge Terrace’s commercial kitchen ready for cooking and packaging. Her time is spent in two shared offices, working through stacks of papers and Google documents to build the organizational, administrative and financial capacity of Campus Kitchen.

“I didn’t know anything about Campus Kitchen when I saw the VISTA job listing,” Nummerdor said. “But within psychology and anthropology, I was always interested in food. I love to cook, and I gravitate toward health psychology, more specifically nutrition, functional foods and medicinal plants. Campus Kitchen just seemed like a good fit.”

In 2013, the UGA Office of Service-Learning-a unit of the Office of Vice President for Public Service and Outreach and the Office of the Vice President for Instruction-joined a nationwide network of organizations offering opportunities through the VISTA program. A three-year grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service is funding four VISTA positions at UGA each year.

Nummerdor and her colleagues-Haley McCalla, Wick Prichard and Mary Schulz-started their service projects this past spring and make up the second group of VISTAs on the UGA campus. All four are working on food-related issues in the Athens area.

“There’s actually a lot of overlap in terms of what the VISTAs are doing,” said Sarah Jackson, outreach coordinator for the Office of Service-Learning. “We’re trying to promote collaboration amongst the VISTA projects to create a stronger network of these different partners.”

Combating senior hunger

McCalla had no idea poverty was such a pervasive issue in Athens until after she graduated from the university in 2013 with her bachelor’s degree in health promotion and behavior. Now, through her job as the AmeriCorps VISTA for the Senior Hunger Coalition, she works directly with senior citizens to get them the food-and the attention-they so desperately need.

Older adults “get put to the side and not really focused on,” she said, “and I thought (the VISTA position) would be a great opportunity to do something new, and it turned out that I really love it.”

She works primarily with the Athens Community Council on Aging to recruit and coordinate volunteers for programs for homebound senior adults. These include Take Out Tuesday (Caterpillar employees deliver nonperishables, produce and frozen meals prepared by Campus Kitchen on the last Tuesday of every month), Lunch Buddy (a volunteer brings conversation and lunch to a socially isolated senior adult) and the Mobile Food Pantry (the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia drops off 10,000 pounds of food to the ACCA campus every other month on the third Wednesday. The food is boxed and bagged and delivered to more than 400 older Athenians and their families).
“My clients basically do feel invisible and that they don’t have a lot of help out here because they’re not as mobile,” McCalla said. “A lot of them are homebound. Being able to reach out to them and help them has just been an amazing experience.”

Growing a love of food

Schulz is originally from Wisconsin. A love of urban agriculture-and family in Atlanta-drew her southward after she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a degree in community education and engagement.

She coordinates and trains the close to 150 volunteers for the 4-acre UGArden, manages the office and works with the UGArden Club to “try to beef up the student organization and to make sure the garden is still student-driven as a student-based learning farm,” she said.

“It’s really inspiring to see how the program has grown in three years into what it is now, and it’s functioning and supports so many different people and so many different missions. There are so many people involved in it. The UGArden does a good job bridging the gaps between UGA and the community and the students.”

Prichard has a similar focus in his job as the VISTA member for the Clarke Middle School Garden. The Double Dawg-he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history in 2000 and a master’s degree in environmental planning and design in 2013-develops programs that enable faculty and students from CMS and UGA to use the garden as an educational resource.

This past summer, eight Clarke County students tried new things every day as part of the Clarke Middle School Kitchen Garden Corps. The program, which Prichard oversaw, gave students the opportunity to work in the school’s garden and cook meals from scratch.

“Being able to prepare meals from the food they had grown in the garden made them extra proud of the hours they worked in the garden,” Prichard said. “In my opinion, this pride gave them a certain confidence to express their creativity.”

Both the UGArden and the CMS Garden provide organic food to those in need in the Athens area and hands-on learning to their volunteers-whether middle school students or a service-learning class.

The UGArden alone donated 1,200 pounds of produce to Campus Kitchen and other Athens organizations during June and the first half of July.

“Not only are we teaching a lot, but the teaching is producing a tangible thing for the community, which is really good, healthy organic food…” Schulz said. “The production and the amount of food the students grow and give away to the community is really amazing.”

Prichard is proud of the enthusiasm-and knowledge-he was able to impart to his students.
“What continues to impress me as I think about the summer was that the students remained open to the working styles of the different chefs and the cuisine we prepared without being afraid to assert their opinion on matters,” he said, “like when Amelia Goodwin advised a chef on the proper temperature to cook tofu or when Matthew Wells changed a chef’s cornbread recipe so that it had the proper consistency.

“I saw this confidence and adaptability on display again as Lucy and Ella Gibson taught UGA students how to preserve cucumbers by making dill pickles. This adaptability or openness to try new things but at the same time remain confident in one’s own abilities is a character quality I very much admire.”

A national force of professional volunteers

About 6,500 VISTAs are placed each year, working on more than 1,200 projects in low-income communities around the country. The program is open to all U.S. citizens, nationals or lawful permanent resident aliens age 18 and older. Yearlong members receive a modest living allowance, health coverage and other benefits.

Through UGA, VISTAs also are employed through the youth development organization Georgia 4-H in various counties across the state of Georgia.

Wilder enjoys each group of VISTAs that come through the Office of Service-Learning. She’s hoping to increase the number of positions her office offers as demand grows.

“All of our VISTAs are incredibly thoughtful and talented,” she said. “They really add a lot to the Office of Service-Learning. It’s extended the reach of our office and the programming we’re able to offer because they have such great ideas and are able to make some things happen that we just couldn’t do with our staff alone.”