Students Return as Vista Volunteers

Building barns and gardens, organizing service projects and helping Southern Connecticut State University students become more connected with the community. These are just a few examples of the charitable dedication that has encompassed the lives of two full-time AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and SCSU alumni, Jonathan Ruiz and Alix Lawson.

Founded in 1965, VISTA is a national service program designed to fight poverty in America, and was integrated into the AmeriCorps network in 1993. The network consists of AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps VISTA and AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, and targets the human, educational, environmental and public safety needs of the United States.

Ruiz, a Milford resident, studied psychology at Southern. Lawson, a Wallingford resident, was a political science major. Both say they didn't want to continue their education immediately after receiving undergraduate degrees last May, but didn't know what to pursue in lieu of graduate school.

With the encouragement from friends involved with VISTA, Ruiz began his volunteer journey last August. Lawson began in March after her former academic adviser suggested joining the program.

"I wanted a gap year, and I was interested in stuff that would give me actual work experience," Lawson says. "Through this program I would be working, doing a good deed, and developing as a professional."

AmeriCorps places VISTA members with non-profit agencies where they contribute to community projects. Lawson says she assists in several community service tasks outside of SCSU, but she's also working to bring service organizations to Southern to help increase student awareness of volunteer opportunities.

In addition, Lawson says she has arranged a campus tour for a local school, Common Ground High School, which will attend the upcoming "SCSU Take-Over." The program is designed to give high school students a flavor of the college experience. "I wanted them to see the fun side as well as the academic," Lawson says.

Lawson says one of the things she loves about VISTA has been meeting various people by being a liaison between the university and the non-profit world. "We work for the university but we also work for the Connecticut Campus Compact," Lawson says. Campus Compact is a national association that works with universities to incorporate community-based work into student and academic life.

"Matt Farley of Connecticut Campus Compact has been such an amazing leader and he's a great role model," Lawson says. "I love all of my AmeriCorps co-workers – they're a really interesting group of people."

Ruiz says he likes the VISTA environment, as well. "We're all passionate about helping others and improving communities in Connecticut. It's nice to be around like-minded people."

In association with the New Haven Police Department, Ruiz says he organized an on-campus Halloween project in October, where volunteers dressed up in costumes, made pretend doors for kids to knock on and gave out candy. He said he enjoys working with students and creating service programs such as these.

Recently, he created an "Alternative Spring Break," where students committed to a week of serving the community alongside the VISTA volunteers. The week of service included a barn renovation for Animal Assisted Therapy Services, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides special needs individuals with the opportunity to bond with horses and dogs as a therapeutic technique. Ruiz and the students re-painted and replaced windows during the reconstruction of the barn.

He also has collaborated with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, and Wexler-Grant Community School, as well as having worked on gardening projects with Mitchell Branch Library and Brookside Apartments.

Ruiz says Dawn Cathey, his supervisor and an assistant to the dean of student affairs, has given him advice and guidance throughout his experience with VISTA. "She's definitely a person who has a positive outlook on so many different things," Ruiz says. "She has such a big heart, which creates a great atmosphere to work in."

Both volunteers will finish their commitment to VISTA in August and plan to attend graduate school. Ruiz says he would like to study clinical mental health counseling, obtain a Licensed Professional Clinician Certificate and continue to help others through his career. Lawson says she plans to pursue European studies at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.