Kathleen is serving her VISTA year with AIDS Interfaith Residential Services (AIRS) here in Baltimore, as the G.E.A.R. (Growth, Empowerment, Advancement, and Recognition) Workforce Development Client Services Specialist. G.E.A.R. is AIRS’ workforce development program for youth and adults. Residents receive an interest, skills and education assessment prior to the development of an individual plan for preparation, placement, and mentoring to enter the workforce.
Ten years ago, I could have never imagined myself as an AmeriCorps*VISTA member. Born and raised in an upper-middle class family in the suburbs of Tampa, Florida, I was largely sheltered from poverty. My mother worked as a teacher and school administrator and my father in finance. I spent most of my childhood immersed in academics and dancing ballet. I dreamed of being a doctor, primarily because I was fascinated by science and math. When I took a trip to El Salvador when I was fifteen, my mindset, interests, and life goals changed drastically. Since both my sister and I were interested in medicine at the time, we decided to volunteer on a two-week medical mission in a rural town. It was the first time I had ever traveled to a developing country or immersed myself in an impoverished setting. Through working with the patients, I learned the value of understanding others’ life experiences and discovered the joy of helping and sharing with others. The trip challenged me mentally, physically, and spiritually and proved to be one of the most important learning experiences of my life.
Fascinated by international development and Latin America after my experience in El Salvador, I decided to study Anthropology and Global Health at Northwestern University. I even returned to Latin America to study abroad in Chile and then in Bolivia. While abroad, I discovered I was deeply interested in women’s health. I conducted ethnographic research on women’s experiences during childbirth in Santiago and the interaction between indigenous beliefs and biomedical contraceptive use in La Paz. The time I spent in South America not only inspired me to pursue a career in international women’s health, but also got me hooked on world travel, language learning and Latin dance.
After graduation, I caught the travel bug again and returned to South America to intern at an arts NGO in the slums outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina. I taught dance classes to pre-adolescent girls and developed a health curriculum that I incorporated into my instruction. Although I really enjoyed my time in Argentina, I was burnt out from direct service and had a desire to learn more about inequality and poverty in the US. AmeriCorps VISTA seemed like the perfect fit for me! Since I love exploring new places, I wasn’t picky about my service location and thought Baltimore, with its high poverty rate, would be a great place to help out. I also branched out by taking a position with a workforce development program run by AIRS, an organization that provides housing for populations affected by homelessness and HIV/AIDS. Workforce development is not my primary passion, but this position has already taught me so much about program development and evaluation that I know will be useful in my future public health career.
As the G.E.A.R. Workforce Development Client Services Specialist, I am helping to develop and expand the G.E.A.R. program and eventually produce a program manual that will help structure the program after my service year.I really value the opportunity to get to know the clients and begin to understand the complexity of homelessness as one of Baltimore’s major obstacles. As I’ve developed personal connections within the community, I feel so dedicated to the success of the G.E.A.R. program and helping our clients find work so they can transition into stable, permanent housing and self-sufficiency. I’m looking forward to seeing the positive change in our clients’ lives during and long after my service year!