by Andrea Wiegard

My AmeriCorps VISTA year of service was dedicated to jump-starting a mentoring program at ForKids in Norfolk. ForKids’ mission is breaking the cycle of homelessness and poverty for families and children. My job was to work full-time expanding the in-person mentoring program through marketing and developing policies, procedures, and forms to have the program flourish and be sustainable after my one-year service term.

Our mentoring program was one of the few that continued in-person mentoring out in the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our mentor program is based in ForKids’ education department, and we had heard so much about Zoom fatigue and kids having difficulty managing the pivot to online school, that we felt it was important to stay with the mission of in-person mentoring while following the governor’s mandates of COVID protocols. Our first mentors were matched in late February, with vaccines and spring around the corner. Spring lent well to outdoor activities and options for in-person mentoring that could easily follow COVID precautions, and mentors and mentees were eager to get together.

The good, the bad:

I have recruited 22 new mentors to the program during my year of service. We made nine mentor matches in the program in February 2021, and we have a total of 21 matches at this point in July. Some of our matches have been strong from the start, some matches have needed nurturing along the way, and a few of our mentors and mentees have been unmatched. Through check-ins after the initial match and at the end of each month, our program has been able to monitor the progress of each relationship. When additional assistance is needed, ForKids staff (who have a relationship with every family) intervene to work to help where they can. Some assistance needed is minor, such as a mentor wanting to help her mentee get a swimsuit so they could have a beach outing. Some help is more intensive, such as when a mentee’s family is not responding to communication from the mentor to begin or maintain the match. Despite our staff’s best efforts, not every challenge can be resolved. When this happens, we formally end the relationship. Our families at ForKids have a lot of things they deal with every day, and sometimes even when they have enrolled their child in the mentor program, in the end, they have found they are not ready for it. Most of our mentors have been open to a rematch when this has happened, often with great success in the next relationship.

The amazing:

An amazing part of this year was when a ForKids benefactor became involved in the mentor program after he heard that some of our mentors struggled to pay for outings with their mentees. He is a strong believer in mentoring and believes that having a mentor while growing up changed the course of his life, so he wanted to provide financial support for group mentor outings. His generosity allowed two group outings this summer, with plans in place for additional outings in the fall. These outings have allowed mentees to meet and have fun together, and mentors to meet each other and plan future outings. I am in amazement at the generosity and kindness of this caring individual.

Personal reflections on my service year:

What led me to my AmeriCorps VISTA journey was probably different than many VISTA members. I have a Bachelor of Science degree, but I was out of the paid/full-time workforce for over two decades. I saw my daughter perform a year of service through AmeriCorps VISTA right after college, and she found her year and mission very rewarding. I felt like it would be a great alternative for me to serve my community and gain full-time work experience while dusting off my degree and gaining a path to reenter the paid workforce. I was lucky enough to land at ForKids, which has been an amazing learning and growing experience for me personally. I learned much about the community that ForKids serves, and I have learned much about myself. I have enjoyed immensely working with our amazing mentors who have volunteered to provide guidance and friendship to their mentees. The mentors have spent hours working on their background paperwork, attending initial interviews and trainings: they are truly a dedicated group. Our amazing mentees have been open to meeting someone new and gaining a friend/confidante to help them grow in ways that they themselves may not have been able to imagine. The ForKids staff has been a privilege to work with this last year. Even in my first few months of service, the staff’s dedication and passion for the mission of breaking the cycle of poverty and ending homelessness was palpable. It has truly been a positive environment to work in.

Where I am now:

Part of my mission of self-growth was to learn skills in my service year that I could carry over in the future to full-time, paid employment. I am happy to say, with a month to go in my term, I have accepted a position at Catholic Charities that will start when my service year is over. AmeriCorps VISTA was everything I could have hoped for and was extremely rewarding in so many ways that I did not envision even a year ago.

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