by Alexa Augone

The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns created a lot of hardships for many of the students and families Communities In Schools of Chesterfield (CIS) serves. Communities In Schools of Chesterfield is a local affiliate of the nation’s largest dropout prevention program. They serve nearly 10,000 students in 10 majority poverty schools across Chesterfield County. Their mission is to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life. They do that by addressing students’ unmet needs that, if left unanswered, contribute to the dropout rate. An unmet need can be anything that’s a barrier to a student’s success, or a challenge in a student’s life—not just school-related challenges. In the past, CIS of Chesterfield has provided free vision screenings, family engagement nights, mindfulness small groups, one-on-one mentoring and lunchtime buddies, weekend food bags, and home visits. 

Once schools closed, it quickly became clear that Communities In Schools had to pivot to become Communities out of Schools. This involved connecting students and families with community resources—like food pantries and rent and utility assistance—to meet their most basic needs. A lot of the services I mentioned above (including mentoring) just weren’t possible anymore. A lot of what CIS did before the pandemic was school-based, and schools, like everything else, were shut down. 

So CIS shifted gears and adapted to the Covid world by meeting students where they were, AKA, at their homes. CIS Site Coordinators made countless visits out to students’ homes to check in and see how they were doing and offer support and encouragement. And, to bring some semblance of mentoring to students, the Year 1 AmeriCorps VISTA (who served before me) launched a pen pal program for volunteers and students to write to each other via snail mail.

As an AmeriCorps VISTA with CIS of Chesterfield through MENTOR Virginia, my role focused on strengthening mentoring initiatives even though we weren’t able to provide a lot of mentoring during the pandemic. I developed a workforce readiness curriculum for mentoring programs at CIS high schools in Chesterfield County and created a centralized hub of resources for CIS Site Coordinators. I also took the lead in developing the Workforce Bridge program and framework, which aims to ensure that workforce-bound CIS high school students have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in Chesterfield’s economy, and doing so by connecting them with local businesses and providing opportunities to develop key professional skills before graduation. This involved conducting background economic research about Chesterfield’s industries, workforce, and economy and then creating an asset map of existing community partners and nonprofit organizations that work in youth workforce development. I also created external communication materials to support the longevity of the program, which I hope will help the next service member who joins the CIS team. 

I’ve learned so much this past year in my role as an AmeriCorps VISTA. Speaking to the hard and soft skills first, I learned a lot about trauma-informed care, resilience, and using a strengths-based lens. I was fortunate to be able to participate in a professional development cohort on asset-based community development, where I learned about “doing with” instead of “doing for.” Over the course of the year, I also learned about the ins-and-outs of mentoring programs—designing, evaluating, engaging volunteers, etc. 

Beyond the technical knowledge I gained, I also learned a lot about myself as an individual and as a professional. This past year, I worked for an incredible organization and with an incredible group of experienced and knowledgeable professionals. I learned so much about working in nonprofits and family and child services just by watching CIS staff members do their jobs. I learned about building and managing relationships with community partners, mobilizing community resources to support students in crisis situations, and building relationships with students and families. 

This past year has helped me learn more about myself and the types of professional environments and jobs I enjoy, and has helped me narrow in on my career path. Once I wrap up my AmeriCorps VISTA year, I plan to continue working and gaining experience in the child- and family-serving field for a few years, and eventually return to school to complete a Master’s of Social Work degree.

Childhood is such a magical and one-in-a-lifetime window where the world’s possibilities are just as endless as your imagination. Unfortunately, I know that not every child gets to experience the wonders of childhood. Many kids are forced to grow up early to deal with adult problems, for a multitude of reasons. One way that kids can stay kids is by having a caring adult who looks out for them; and for some kids, that’s a mentor! I hope to spend my career doing whatever I can to make sure that kids can just be kids, and working to support mentoring was a great way for me to start doing that.

To learn more about serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA and explore open positions, click here.