Is AmeriCorps VISTA Right for You?

AmericorpsVISTA50yrs2015Bridges of Hope is looking for a VISTA Member–a full-time volunteer who serves through AmeriCorps, to assist our organization with some very cool projects from August 2015-July 2016.

VISTA is often described as the “domestic version of the PeaceCorps,” and is a national service program that Bridges has successfully participated in over the course of several years of our organization’s history. The focus of VISTA is on reducing and eliminating poverty.

It can be a great opportunity for recent college grads looking to gain experience in the human services field, and it is also an opportunity for recent retirees looking for a way to give back to their community—as well as for many others in-between these two poles of life!

Here’s what Jacklin, a former AmeriCorps member–and current Bridges of Hope staff–had to say about her experience with VISTA:

After spending almost 2 years as an out-of-state AmeriCorps member, I was eventually placed in Deerwood, MN, where I finished up and entered the “real” world. Those years as a VISTA are what prepared me for where I am now, three years later. It not only gave me that on-the-job training that’s so vital, but it also taught me life skills that I needed. I learned how expensive and limited housing options can be, especially when choosing to do something as “crazy” as having a dog! I learned how to live on a very small budget and what things were absolutely needed and what I could live without. I learned what things were out there that I could ask for help with – and I learned how it felt to ask for help.

The experience allowed me to start realizing what priorities meant the most to me and that there were consequences to those choices. My AmeriCorps time put me in a position that I had never been in before. It’s because of those experiences that I feel I could better relate to the people I would eventually work with. It’s allowed me to pose the question, “what would I have done?” and I can draw on actual experience as I think about it.

Looking back, those were definitely some hard years that I’m still making up for (hello, credit card bill!), but I wouldn’t have changed or replaced them for anything. I got to travel to places that I would never have otherwise. I got to meet some of the greatest people, and I now spend my vacation time going back to see old co-workers. If you’re looking for a challenge with great rewards and a little life experience thrown in, then I would definitely recommend AmeriCorps VISTA!

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Do you know someone looking for this kind of life-changing experience, or might YOU be that person? Bridges of Hope is currently seeking an AmeriCorps VISTA Member to assist our organization with a threefold project over the course of one year (August 2015 – July 2016). This is a fantastic professional development opportunity to grow your resume, give back to your community, expand your network, and gain experience within the nonprofit/human services sector!

For more information and to apply, visit http://bit.ly/bohvista. We will be accepting applications through the end of May 2015.

**New: effective May 3, 2015, VISTA members are now permitted to hold part-time employment outside of their VISTA assignment. More information is available upon request.

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Thanksgiving and Christmas

For many of us, Thanksgiving and Christmas are days where we spend time with loved ones, attend a special evening service at our place of worship, eat turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes until we can hardly move, and watch as our family members open nicely wrapped gifts under the Christmas tree.  We never worry that we are not going to be able to provide a meal for our family, or that we will not be able to afford to buy our children or grandchildren gifts for the Holiday season.

Though many of us don’t have to worry about those things, there are thousands of families living right here in Crow Wing County who do.

For those living in poverty, or those going through a prolonged illness, unexpected injury, or other rough spot, spending decisions are much more limited–generally based on the largest bills and basic needs.

Just consider your household’s monthly expenses for a moment: do they add up to $3,000? $4,000? More than that? The Jobs Now Coalition estimates that the basic monthly household expenses for a family of four in Crow Wing County (with two adults working full time) are around $3,900–or that their income would need to be just over 200% of the Federal Poverty Guideline. Last year, Bridges of Hope worked with over 1,500 households who were living below this 200% threshold. Families right here in our community struggle every month to make ends meet.

For many of these families, there simply isn’t enough left over at the end of the month, which, at this time of year, means no Thanksgiving dinner, no traveling to Grandma & Grandpa’s house, and not a single toy, book or new piece of clothing under the tree for their children.

That is why Bridges of Hope, with the help of our local human service agencies, churches, service clubs, individuals, and businesses, offers the Thanksgiving Basket and Christmas Gift programs. Through these programs, families in need are supplied with food for a Thanksgiving meal and Christmas gifts for their children. The programs exist entirely due to generosity of the sponsors, who volunteer to receive the name of a household (or several households) they are sponsoring, go shopping, and then deliver a basket or gifts to a family.

In 2010, Bridges of Hope coordinated the distribution of Thanksgiving meals for 198 households and Christmas gifts for 222 households. This year, as I write this post, we are just finishing up coordinating the distribution of Thanksgiving meals for a record number of 270 households: a 36% increase over last year…and if this trend continues, our Christmas program could serve up to 300 households.

As a student in the College of St. Scholastica Social Work program, part of my senior internship experience included coordinating these Bridges of Hope programs. During this experience I have gone through a rollercoaster of emotions: nervousness, since I have never been in charge of something this large; excitement as I saw families matched to sponsors; and extremely touched too, as I watched the generosity of our community pouring out through these programs.

Last Friday when I left Bridges of Hope, 210 families had been sponsored for Thanksgiving. That meant that yesterday morning I came into the office with 60 families still awaiting sponsorship. By 10:30 am, thanks to several local churches putting out the word over the weekend and a couple of businesses making one last announcement on Monday morning, every single family who had signed up had a sponsor for Thanksgiving. 

I am proud to say that I am a member of a community who reaches out their hands to a stranger, to ensure that they may have a memorable Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday too.

Thank you for your generosity this season.

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Want to become involved too? We have approximately 100 households sponsored for Christmas so far. Learn more.

It’s a Partnership

There are many families right now facing very difficult times. So many, in fact, that to be frank, I realize many of you have probably grown a little tired of hearing about the tough stuff going on in the lives of men, women and children in our community. I understand. It can wear on us, too. But it got me thinking…

What does it really mean to live in poverty in the Brainerd Lakes Area?

Well, technically speaking, for a family of four, you are considered “living in poverty” if your household income is $22,350 or less. That is approximately equal to two employed caregivers working 30 hours per week at minimum wage. If a family with this income followed “the rules,” they would need to find housing for only about $550 per month (or about 30% of their income). That would leave them approximately $1,100 for food, transportation, childcare, insurance, utilities, and all of the other things in life that add up–never mind the emergencies in life.

But is poverty only about financial capital? What about social capital?

What we see over and over is that so many families who reach out to Bridges of Hope are not just struggling financially: they are lacking the kind of support network that many of us have. We know that money alone isn’t the answer AND a support network alone isn’t the answer: but having some of both can make life a whole lot easier.

Bridges of Hope was established just over nine years ago to act as a bridge between families in crisis and the support & resources that can help them alleviate that crisis. We served around 150 households that first year and over 2,000 households last year alone.

It may be difficult to imagine, but every single day we come into contact with families and children who have been through hunger, abuse, homelessness, abandonment, and more. The good news? Bridges of Hope is here to help.

When you have car trouble, an ill family member, a furnace that breaks down or your children simply have a day off of school, what do you do?

I call my husband or father for car trouble, my best friend when I need support to help me deal with the fact that my mom is battling leukemia, a trusted neighbor to consult about the most reliable furnace repair person; and luckily, I have another trusted neighbor who will watch over my kids for a couple of days so I don’t have to disrupt my work schedule.

For the families who are going through these and many other kinds of crises, we do offer financial support in some cases (when all existing resources have been tapped), but long before it even gets to that point, what we really have to offer families is a partner: a partner they might not otherwise have.

At Bridges of Hope, we are also proud to partner with local churches and other area nonprofits to deliver needed services to families in Crow Wing County. It can be overwhelming and confusing to seek help, and we aim to act as a bridge between families and what they need to be successful. We aim to see that our area resources are utilized wisely and without duplication. We never want to offer a service that is already available–and when a gap IS identified, we try to fill it or work with our partners to find a creative, collaborative solution.

We do have some specific programs (you can read more about them here), but to keep it simple, what I can tell you is that on average, we can act as a partner to a family for just $150, and we have been working hard this year to make sure over 6,000 men, women and children in the Lakes Area don’t fall through the cracks when they are experiencing a crisis in their life.

Our life-changing and life-saving work helps women like 39 year-old Connie: a working single mom who needed to leave her home with her two school-aged children because she was being beaten by her husband.

We also help people like Francine and George: Francine reached out to Bridges after George had a stroke and became paralyzed. They needed help paying for a van that could transport George to his many, many medical appointments and to family gatherings that were so important to them. Francine and George were able to pay for most of the van, Bridges chipped in for the difference, and George hasn’t missed a medical appointment or any of his grandchildren’s school programs since.

As I mentioned before, it costs on average about $150 per household for Bridges of Hope to be there when Connie, Francine, George, you, your sister or your elderly neighbor needs us.

Recently, Poverty Bound was held in Crow Wing County. It gave many of us service providers a way to tell the stories of these amazing clients we work with on a daily basis. Not all of the stories have a happy ending, but here at Bridges of Hope, we continue our work to help more and more families create happier endings to the stories they call us with.

Between now and December 31, we are working to eliminate our $60,000 year-end funding gap. This will allow us to change the lives of 400 more families we are expecting to serve between now and the end of the year. 

I hope you’ll help us as a partner in this mission. You can get involved here