Past and Present AmeriCorps VISTAs Reflect on Their Terms of Service in the IndyEast Promise Zone

Since the summer of 2016, the IndyEast Promise Zone (IEPZ) has been supported by the capacity-building efforts of AmeriCorps VISTAs. Below are reflections from members of the three cohorts of VISTAs who have served the IEPZ so far.

2018-2019 Cohort


Kira Zagorc | Economic Development Planner

“As the Promise Zone’s Economic Development Planner VISTA, I build capacity for local business owners and community partners to create vibrant commercial corridors for our neighbors to enjoy.

The highlights of my year of service so far have mostly been collaborations with small business owners to plan and promote events, resources, and programs in ways that have broad appeal to neighbors and people across Indianapolis. I particularly enjoyed serving local businesses during Raiders of the Lost Antiques and the Pogue’s Run Trail Bike Tour, which brought people together to celebrate the Promise Zone’s unique assets. In 2019, I look forward to building capacity for the 10 East Art + Design District by assisting Near Eastside neighbors and artists in their efforts to transform the Near Eastside into a lively cultural hub.

As I begin to think about life after my term of service, I reflect on my experiences, the lessons I have learned, and the relationships I have cultivated over the past six months. Because of my experiences building capacity for small businesses in the Promise Zone, I am more comfortable and confident in my professional life. My term of service has taught me many transferable skills such as time management, project management, and group facilitation, which will help me succeed in whatever my future career is. Most of all, the genuine kindness and love I have experienced in this position will make me more focused on and aware of how I can be an active and giving neighbor in my future communities.”

Ellen Bankston | Neighborhood Engagement Specialist

“As the Neighborhood Engagement Specialist, I build capacity for organizations and initiatives that improve access to affordable housing, public safety, and neighborhood engagement. Some of the highlights of my term of service have included hosting a dinner and dialogue on food accessibility, creatively engaging neighbors in the development of a refreshed Quality of Life Plan, and working with youth at Stop the Violence Indianapolis to develop and implement strategies for engaging their peers through violence prevention programs. I have also enjoyed supporting the development of the Moving Forward 2.0 project, a low-income housing development that is designed to integrate energy efficiency, multimodal transportation, and food accessibility in order to minimize costs to residents. My position has helped me to recognize the immense value of inclusive, resident-led engagement.

During my undergraduate career, I studied Public Health with concentrations in Behavioral Social Sciences and Epidemiology. It was my passion for social determinants of health and the vast health disparities between low and high income communities that led to my interest in community development. Through my position as a VISTA, I have come to recognize the deep connections between seemingly unconnected concepts, the way the work of the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership, the Indianapolis Arts Council, and the Chamber of Commerce impact the health of the Indianapolis population.

After my year as a VISTA, I plan to continue to work in community development, although I am not yet sure what that will look like. I really enjoy the challenge that systems-level change presents and I plan on pursuing a master’s degree starting in August in order to further develop technical skills in data analysis, policy and budgeting.”

Danielle Gerlach | Research and Data Evaluation Associate

“I currently serve as the Research and Data Evaluation Associate VISTA, focusing on collecting and managing data over time in order to show that things have been and are continuing to change in the Promise Zone.
 
Thus far, I have truly enjoyed my position. One of the larger projects that is underway is creating a database that houses all of our data. I am attempting to create a streamlined process to disseminate aggregate data to our partners and use it for reporting and informing further decisions that impact the Zone. Moreover, I enjoy creating fact sheets that display data in accessible and aesthetic ways.
 
On a more personal note, and despite only being halfway through the service term, this position has led me to realize that community development is the career path that I would like to pursue, especially if I can find a position that includes some data management. Serving the Near Eastside alongside the John Boner Neighborhood Center has provided a unique opportunity to see a successful community development agency in action. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to serve. That being said, I also have an attachment to the Near Eastside and its residents. There is a culture here that is distinct and endearing. I would really like to stay here, circumstances permitting.”

Emma Berryman-Moore | Education and Workforce Development Strategist

“My time as the Education and Workforce Development Strategist VISTA for the IndyEast Promise Zone has allowed me to explore two areas that are different, but fundamentally interconnected. A comprehensive educational system sets youth up for success in the workforce, either in college, a career, or the military. Working with the Learn Committee, which focuses on improving educational outcomes, and the Work Committee, which prioritizes industrial site reuse, workforce development, and transit, has given me greater insight into the intersections of education and employment, along with the importance of students finding and pursuing the paths that meet their interests and skillsets. My capacity-building efforts with the Promise Zone’s partner organizations and agencies have exposed me to many opinions and best practices that have broadened my knowledge and worldview.

My favorite experiences in 2018 were those which improved my ability to effectively engage with diverse speakers and audiences during meetings, conferences, workshops, and webinars. In particular, I enjoyed collecting data through a survey that I developed pertaining to employer engagement and hiring practices, serving on a transit-oriented development taskforce, and building capacity for college and career readiness initiatives.

Serving the IndyEast Promise Zone has been instrumental in my professional and personal development. I know that the things that I am learning, the experiences that I am gaining, and the people I meet every day will inform my next steps as I solidify my professional goals. After studying environmental economics and international affairs in college, I knew that I liked where the intersection of community, identity, and experience met with pragmatism, analysis, and social science. This year has cemented that interdisciplinary combination for me, and I plan to continue in that vein in the coming years as I determine my next role.”

Leah Berti | Communications Coordinator

“The first half of my term of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA has been as rewarding as it has eye-opening. As a newcomer to Indianapolis, travelling to sites across the Near Eastside to report on places, events, and resources related to education and workforce development, small business incubation, and housing have taught me a lot about the joys and challenges that different people face while navigating the social, economic, and political spheres of Indianapolis life. The spotlight pieces that I write, resources that I share information about, and successful grant awards that I report are reminders that in spite of the immense challenges that they face, Near Eastside communities are moving forward in major ways.

I am excited for the new opportunities and challenges that 2019 will bring. Specifically, I am interested in getting to know more Near Eastside neighbors and finishing up a community profile that I am developing to quantify gaps in prosperity between the Near Eastside and Indianapolis as a whole. The end of my term of service in June will undoubtedly be bittersweet, but by that time I am sure that I will be ready to continue my personal and professional growth in new settings.” 

2017-2018 Cohort

Kylie Schreiber | Housing and Workforce Strategist


“I served the IndyEast Promise Zone and John Boner Neighborhood Centers as the Housing and Workforce Strategist. I worked on affordable housing and workforce development projects and initiatives.

Some of the highlights during my year of service included three grant applications, several new partnerships, a successful industrial site bus tour, and other capacity-building efforts. I enjoyed working with the Promise Zone’s partner organizations in the community and learning about the many great things happening on Indianapolis’ Near Eastside. It was interesting to learn how community development works, and I feel honored to have contributed to the efforts of the Promise Zone’s partner organizations, which were very collaborative and have led to the achievement of many neighborhood goals. 

After a few months of service, I decided that I wanted my next step to be in direct service, so I looked for roles within and outside of the Near Eastside. When a position opened up at the John Boner Neighborhood Centers, I was interested because of the opportunities that it presented to remain active in local workforce development initiatives. Two weeks after my VISTA term ended, I became the John Boner Neighborhood Centers’ first Career Pathways Specialist.

For the past six months, I have connected clients to education and training opportunities that move them along career pathways to earning higher wages in sustainable industries. Most of the time, I am in my office offering individualized coaching to clients and getting them connected to services, but I also advocate for them in the greater community and develop partnerships with education and training providers.”

Brianna Dines | Economic Development Planner

“Serving as a VISTA for the IndyEast Promise Zone was an important experience in my professional development. I was able to learn about community development in general and Indianapolis’ particular dynamic in a supportive environment. I was allowed to explore my interests and capabilities and learn from those around me while contributing to the longer-term goal of the Promise Zone designation on Indy’s Near Eastside.

The perspectives I developed by working with community groups and institutions with different levels of influence in Indianapolis’ non-profit and community development landscape allowed me to see how these different spheres worked together in the larger whole. I developed skills that helped me read the variety of situations that interactions between these groups engender and how to contribute effectively to shared projects and goals. These interesting dynamics drove me to look for similar work so I could continue to develop skills in grassroots community work toward local solutions. In the process of looking for work, I focused on positions that provided a diverse set of duties that would keep the day-to-day work interesting and involve direct work with community residents.

After my term of service, I accepted a position as the Waterways and Communications Coordinator for collective impact initiative Reconnecting to Our Waterways (ROW). I work with resident committees along each of Indianapolis’ waterways to plan and implement projects that increase the quality of life (including non-human life) in those areas. My experience in the Promise Zone gave me a leg up because I had experience working with lots of different kinds of people with distinct personalities and passions.”

Celia Healy | Research and Data Evaluation Associate


“After attending college in Washington, D.C. and developing an interest and work history in public policy and community development, I became an AmeriCorps VISTA to participate in the field from a different angle than what I was able to do in D.C. My work in D.C. was distant from the end-clients and communities it served, and I wanted to work closer to the front lines of community development.
 
As such, the IndyEast Promise Zone and the John Boner Neighborhood Centers provided an ideal environment for me. My term of service allowed me to contribute meaningfully to neighborhoods and other communities in ways that enhanced my professional development through the pursuit of diverse objectives and collaborative projects that pushed me to expand my technical skill set and learn new programs and tools.
 
I returned to D.C. after my term of service and have found the skills that I exercised as a VISTA to be invaluable. I knew that I wanted to go back to the research and policy world, and serving as a VISTA gave me a deeper, broader understanding of the reach of public policy. At American Institutes for Research, I draw on my experiences at the local level and the technical skills I developed there to guide my work as a Research Assistant in education policy.”

Timmy Morgan | Communications Coordinator


“From July 2017 to July 2018, I was the Communications Coordinator for the IndyEast Promise Zone. In that role, I curated and distributed monthly newsletters, compiled and released available information on upcoming grants, wrote stories for our blog highlighting the work in the community and some of the Near Eastside’s small businesses, attended a handful of neighborhood meetings, and shared stories and information over social media.

I took on the role of Communications Coordinator to build my experience and marketable skills. More importantly, I wanted the Communications Coordinator VISTA position because the IndyEast Promise Zone is housed at the John Boner Neighborhood Center, an institution serving the neighborhood that I grew up in and called home. I had very high regard for the Boner Center and was thrilled to work alongside the people committing themselves to making my neighborhood survive and thrive. The building at the corner of 10th and Jefferson is a landmark in my mental map, and a jewel making our community stand out. I felt some authority behind my position because of the backing of the Boner Center.

As the end of my term of service approached, I began to contemplate my future and identified members of Promise Zone partner organizations whose work inspired me, including people who worked he ReEntry Entrepreneurship Development Initiative (REDi), Public Advocates in Community Re-entry (PACE), the Edna Martin Christian Center, and RecycleForce. I applied for and was accepted as a Case Manager for Marion County Community Corrections, where I have served clients who are on home detention, alcohol monitoring, and GPS monitoring for several months now. I also work with the Indianapolis Office of Sustainability and Southeast Neighborhood Development (SEND) as a Resilience Ambassador to educate residents of the Twin Aire neighborhood about environmental sustainability and help them design a project or projects to promote environmental stewardship.

The Promise Zone and AmeriCorps Vista prepared me for these positions. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to meet my former co-workers (my newest friends). They guide me in my work and life decisions, and our shared experience helps us grow together, changing Indianapolis and our communities for the better.”

2016-2017 Cohort

Rebekah Wood | Housing Development Planner


“My year serving as the Housing Development Strategist VISTA with the IndyEast Promise Zone was a catalyst for my growth both professionally and personally. I was given the opportunity to learn about affordable housing and development for the first time. I built relationships with industry experts, local businesses, advocates, and community residents. I was shown what it meant to be a good neighbor, and each interaction challenged me to think more critically about my assumptions and beliefs of the world. The Near Eastside’s community values defined my VISTA experience and continues to impact my work today.

I took the position as Housing Development Strategist VISTA with the goal of gaining experience in affordable housing. At the beginning of my term of service, my interest in housing was still new and stemmed from a sudden realization that healthy development only occurs in safe and stable home environments. The VISTA position was a chance to shift the career path I was on and learn more about housing development. I also got to meet a lot of local community and government leaders involved with the Promise Zone and formed relationships with many of the leaders in housing.

Likewise, I got to know several of the residents and small businesses of the Near Eastside. I loved that so many people knew each other and were willing to help each other out when necessary. My involvement as a VISTA on the Near Eastside led me to a place-based, grassroots initiative called House Life Project which was led by resident artists. The group met at a vacant home in one of the neighborhoods on the Near Eastside to connect with neighbors and draw attention to the issue of transience and housing. My involvement with the House Life Project had a big influence on me and my role as a VISTA, imparting me with a deeper understanding of the reality of community development.

The vast and diverse network of teachers I had access to as a VISTA was an integral part of my growth throughout the year. The experience gave me a sense of belonging and empowered me to take ownership over my responsibility to the community. Ultimately, I was able to leverage my experience as a VISTA for my current position as Program Manager with HAND, Inc. where I continue to build on my knowledge and practice of community housing development.”

Mary Clanton | Economic Development Planner

“I am currently a Great Families 2020 Community Connector for the John Boner Neighborhood Center. Before transitioning into this role I served the Boner Center as the Indy East Promise Zone’s Economic Development VISTA. During my year of service I gained exposure to the dynamic intricacies of the Near Eastside and was pulled into a whirlwind of passion, gratitude, and excitement to make the Near Eastside a community with a better quality of life neighbors could feel proud of.

After my term of service, I joined the Great Families team, where I have have been the Community Connector for more than a year and am very happy with the work I do. The Great Families 2020 grant allows DayStar Childcare and John Boner Neighborhood Centers to collaborate and strengthen the services available to families. Through 2-generational work, children receive high quality early childhood education and parents receive tools to build their network, economic assets, increase their level of education, and address mental and emotional health concerns. I have the honor of serving the families of DayStar Childcare and learning more about each family as we work toward goals which will help the parent to be successful and in turn support their child’s growth and development.”

Whitley Wynns | Social Systems Analyst

“My experience as a VISTA provided me with a lot of professional development opportunities and skill sets that led me to interview for my first job as a Project Consultant with Transform Consulting Group, which specializes in working alongside nonprofits and public agencies to write grants, build capacity organizational capacity, and facilitate meetings and committees. Along with this full-time position, I remained on one of the projects that I worked on as a VISTA, the Indianapolis Best Babies Zone. I accepted a part-time position with the Indiana University School of Medicine as a Pediatric Practice Specialist working on the Infant Mortality project.

Currently, I hold a full time position with the Indiana University School of Medicine as a Pediatric Practice Specialists managing the infant child care project under the umbrella of our Infant Mortality work. As a VISTA, I fell in love with public health work, and after about half of a year working part time with the IU School of Medicine, I knew that I found my calling and this was the work that I wanted to dedicate my career to. Although our Infant Mortality work is based in Marion County, majority of the impact and focus remains to be on Near Eastside of Indianapolis. I fell in love with this neighborhood as a VISTA and feel blessed to be able to remain connected and make an impact for a better future for the children and families of that community and beyond.”

Bailey Shannon | Job Creation Specialist

“During my time as an AmeriCorps VISTA member, I gained a lot of workplace skills, immersed myself in the world of community development, and met some of the most incredible movers and shakers in Indianapolis. Additionally, I learned how to be plugged into both boardrooms and coffee shops, since my role as a VISTA was to connect these worlds. I was able to participate in events and activities outside of the office that helped and served my work as the Job Creation Strategist VISTA. Some of these events include the House Life Project and the Mobile Garden Initiative, the more ground level, neighborhood focused work of Englewood Community Development Corporation, field trips, bus tours, and festivals, the list goes on and on. Through these experiences I was able to connect to exactly the right crew of people to help me in my professional development journey.

Right after my AmeriCorps service year (June 2016 – July 2017), I continued my work with the House Life Project and the Mobile Garden Initiative, worked for an organic vegetable farm part time, and slowly on-boarded to a full time position at Englewood Review of Books (ERB) as Associate Editor. I worked at the ERB full-time between October 2017 and May 2018, at which point I started patching together various kinds of work that spoke more to my interests, passions, and skills. I currently work as the Market Manager for a local apothecary called Naptown Flo and at White Pine Wilderness Academy as a Lead Instructor. For Naptown Flo, I operate booths at farmers markets Downtown and at Garfield Park and help make herbal tea, tinctures, salves, insect repellents, and other plant-based products. With the White Pine Wilderness Academy, I teach children between the ages of 4 and 18 years old traditional survival skills and using mentoring to guide them to a deeper and richer relationship with the natural world.”