The AmeriCorps VISTA Experience: An Interview with Kelly Olivo

Nov 17, 2021
Kelly Olivo (left) and fellow AmeriCorps member Kellyn Cuevas attending a professional development training at The Alliance Refugee Mental Health and Wellness Conference

AmeriCorps brings people together through service and volunteering to improve lives, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement. AmeriCorps members serve directly with organizations and nonprofits to tackle our nation’s most pressing challenges. AmeriCorps members serving in the VISTA program support projects that address poverty in communities across the country.  

Through fundraising, grant writing, volunteer recruitment, and much more, VISTA members serve for one year to help increase the capacity of nonprofits and public agencies to strengthen their impact in those communities. 

We talked to Kelly Olivo, a current AmeriCorps VISTA member, to learn more about the program and get some application tips.  

1. What inspired you to apply for AmeriCorps VISTA? 

I started applying to the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program in 2016 after graduating from the University of Georgia (UGA). But the real story starts in 2015 when I met another student who volunteered with Campus Kitchen at UGA, an organization focused on anti-hunger initiatives and reducing food waste. Since Campus Kitchen had an opportunity for a shift leader, I was convinced to join the student volunteers. That was the start of my volunteering with Campus Kitchen for the rest of my time at UGA. At Campus Kitchen, I ran a shift every Sunday where I oversaw the redistribution of recovered groceries to a local meal distribution site for the homeless. 

I eventually learned Campus Kitchen at UGA was an AmeriCorps VISTA project aimed at highlighting sustainable solutions to food waste and hunger. The Campus Kitchen AmeriCorps member at the time acquainted me with AmeriCorps and its various domestic opportunities for an educational-service experience. This was when I first started considering AmeriCorps service. I even asked the AmeriCorps member who managed volunteers and provided a reference for my AmeriCorps application! However, instead of immediately pursuing AmeriCorps, another incredible opportunity came up for me. In the middle of AmeriCorps applications, I became an International Flight Attendant. 

Although I loved the international and cultural experience of being a Flight Attendant, I aspired for a more fulfilling career. In 2018, I enrolled in an MA Human Rights Program with the University of London Worldwide. In 2020 during my master’s program, I rediscovered the AmeriCorps VISTA program and moved to align myself further with my professional goals of public service. In applying to AmeriCorps, I hoped to serve at a local Houston nonprofit to acquire new skills, knowledge, and nonprofit experience to qualify for more professional opportunities. Also, since I’m completing a master’s degree, I thought AmeriCorps service and school were more manageable than juggling a full-time job and school. Lastly, since I have student loans and plan for a career in public service or the nonprofit sector, AmeriCorps was a natural fit due to its benefits. 

AmeriCorps staff and volunteers after a Brighter Bites Food Distribution during the COVID-19 pandemic (Photo credit: Kelly Olivo)

2. What are the benefits of serving in AmeriCorps VISTA?

I think the main benefits of the VISTA program are the professional development, the numerous opportunities for personal growth, and the network attained throughout service. These, at least for me, are probably the biggest values of an AmeriCorps experience. The deepest impact for me was initially getting my foot in the door of the Houston nonprofit sector. Now, over my two service terms, I’ve worked on major fundraising events, gotten exposure to grant writing, and gained a lot of experience in recruiting and onboarding interns, volunteers, and AmeriCorps members. I also gained experience in refugee resettlement, adult social services, and program management. Likewise, my skills in research, leadership, community engagement, generating resources, securing donations, marketing, and communications have all been refined and strengthened. Over my two years of service with The Alliance, I’ve supported and organized events like The Alliance’s 13th and 14th Annual Back to School Drives, food distribution drives during COVID-19, and community celebrations for World Refugee Day Houston. As I finish my second service term with AmeriCorps and begin my job search, I can confidently say that the two years of professional development presented to me have prepared and qualified me for many more job opportunities than before. 

AmeriCorps members in the VISTA program have a mission to combat poverty. VISTAs do this by serving with local nonprofits to build organizational capacity and impact communities. For compensation, members receive a Living Allowance Stipend which is based on the federal poverty level and is adjusted for the cost of living for the county where you serve. The monetary benefits of service are therefore limited. If you move more than 50 miles for service, you’re also eligible for a relocation and travel allowance to assist in that move. Other AmeriCorps benefits include healthcare, childcare, guaranteed medical and personal leave, and reduced education costs. To elaborate on that, with AmeriCorps you can enter Loan Forbearance, Deferment, Pay-Based-Income-Payment, or the Public Loan Forgiveness Program. On top of all that, AmeriCorps will also cover your student loan interest payments throughout your service! In the VISTA program, after you successfully complete a term of service, you receive an End of Service Award and Non-Competitive Eligibility. With the End of Service Award, you can choose between the Segal Education Award to pay for education expenses or a cash stipend. The Non-Competitive Eligibility in the federal hiring process is available for one year after exiting the program and is a benefit exclusive to AmeriCorps members in the VISTA program. 

Kelly Olivo and fellow AmeriCorps member Madeline volunteered at The Alliance United We Dine event in November 2020.

3. What tips would you give others applying to AmeriCorps VISTA? 

Since the stipend is intended to cover basic expenses and is based on the poverty level, my advice is to consider your financial situation upfront. To put it simply, because of their financial circumstances, not everyone can make the commitment to serve. Before you even apply, my advice is to look up the stipend allowance for your service city of interest and be realistic about your budget and the feasibility of being able to serve and live off that stipend for 12 months. Consider the fact that AmeriCorps isn’t a job. It’s a national volunteer service term. Consider what lifestyle changes you might need to implement to successfully serve – Do you need to find roommates or move in with your parents? How’s your budget? Do you need to apply for a public program like SNAP? Do you need a part-time job?  

If you need to work part-time, OK, that’s doable, but again, think realistically about your full-time, 12-month commitment to the VISTA program and whether it’ll be feasible for you to commit to both AmeriCorps service and a part-time job for 12 months. On that note, if you do have other obligations outside AmeriCorps service, communicate that with your VISTA Leader and your Site Supervisor. Loads of AmeriCorps members have other obligations like undergraduate courses, graduate school programs, or part-time employment. Communicating those other obligations with your VISTA Leader and Supervisor can help set expectations and commitments from the onset of service and can establish a more manageable, flexible schedule for the service member. 

When navigating the application process, be aware that it’s a two-tier application system and your audience, the VISTA Leader and Site Supervisor, are looking for different things. The VISTA Leader is looking for qualified committed candidates to refer to VISTA Supervisors. As a VISTA Leader, when screening candidates for supervisor referral, I primarily look that they meet the basic qualifications of national service. Next, I ensure that they fully grasp the commitment of serving full-time for 12 months. Lastly, I question if they understand and have considered the potential challenges of that service term (i.e relocating, budgeting, managing graduate school or a part-time job, etc). If they qualify and are clearly committed to serving for a full term, I refer them to our AmeriCorps sites. 

Once I refer the candidate, each VISTA Site supervisor looks for certain skills or characteristics, but ultimately, all supervisors look for effective, dependable, and coachable members that are a great fit for their organizational needs. That said, I suggest candidates fully research the organizations where they want to serve before supervisor interviews. When interviewing with supervisors, demonstrate your knowledge of their organization and take the positions you are applying for, whether it’s Community Engagement VISTA or Volunteer Coordinator VISTA, and advocate how you can execute that role at their organization. In other words, do your research and pitch yourself accordingly! 

Lastly, some general advice on the AmeriCorps portal. First, get your two references in. Even if you get offered a service position, AmeriCorps won’t be able to proceed if your application isn’t complete with your letters of recommendation, so get them in ASAP. Next, if you are searching for positions but aren’t attracted to anything currently listed, don’t be discouraged! AmeriCorps is a national service program with new opportunities posted regularly. Search for new listings often and refine your parameters to different cities or programs. Lastly, don’t be afraid to reach out to the contact on the service listing with questions. People are open to helping and providing informational interviews!  

Kelly Olivo is completing a second national service term with AmeriCorps. She serves as the VISTA Leader for the Houston Adult Literacy VISTA Project. VISTA Leaders increase their project’s impact by building the capacity of the members they lead. As a VISTA Leader, she recruits, mentors, and provides support for AmeriCorps members to ensure positive relationships and impactful service within the community and project. Kelly previously served through the Houston Refugee VISTA Project as an AmeriCorps VISTA supporting The Alliance Community Relations Department. Before joining AmeriCorps, Kelly obtained a Bachelor of Arts in both International Affairs and Philosophy from the University of Georgia. She is currently finishing a Master’s in Human Rights from the University of London Worldwide. She hopes to graduate in Spring 2022. 

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