Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

Stories From VISTA Alums: Patrick McMahon

Know someone interested in making positive changes in the world? GHCC is seeking qualified candidates for our nationally-renowned AmeriCorps*VISTA program.  Sign on for a year of service with us and receive health benefits, a modest living allowance, and an end-of-service education award.  We have 10 positions available to start in August 2010 in the areas of improving public schools, strengthening neighborhoods, and adult literacy.

We’ll be featuring several VISTA stories in the coming weeks to raise awareness of national service.

Want to know more? Visit our website!

Submitted by Patrick McMahon

After getting my undergraduate degree in Political Science at Colorado College, I moved to Providence, RI with my girlfriend (now wife) and worked for a year managing a campaign office for the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs).  There were rewarding aspects to working on environmental and consumer advocacy.  However, much of the position focused on door-to-door canvassing, and after a year I desperately wanted to be involved in something concrete and local rather than having a minor influence on national issues.

Having spent a lot of time thinking about housing policy and neighborhood transformation while walking door-to-door, I took a position as an AmeriCorps*VISTA with the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate.  At that point I was one of two full-time staff members (both of us VISTA members).  Eventually I became the sole staff member, and the position gave me the opportunity to take on nearly every aspect of running the day-to-day operations of a non-profit organization. I supervised interns, recruited and scheduled groups of volunteers, and brainstormed and implemented fundraising outreach and special events. I also worked with City staff around permitting and inspections, and sometimes I even went out to the construction sites to manage volunteer labor.

Serving in some ways as an Executive Director just one year out of college seemed a little overwhelming, but it also was a crash course in skills that I’ve used throughout my career. Additionally, I was able to see close-up all the challenges of non-profit management and organizational development. I quickly learned the importance of having a diverse board of directors, defining a clear strategic plan, and coordinating with other non-profits and public agencies.  None of those were things my Habitat affiliate did well at that point, but my role helped the agency recognize some of its gaps and move toward a more strategic way of governing itself and using its resources.

Additionally, working on ad-hoc housing development led me to explore and eventually find my own career path in urban planning.  Once I had identified an interest in City & Regional Planning and taken a summer urban design seminar at Harvard to rule out architecture as a potential career path, AmeriCorps*VISTA provided me with another unique opportunity. I was able to start working in the field of planning while I was assembling graduate school applications and making school choices. I spent the next year working in a small non-profit think tank of sorts developing the Master Plan for an urban greenway project along a river not unlike the Gwynns or Jones Falls, neglected and surrounding by decaying industrial properties but with the potential to provide transportation connections and open space opportunities to the low- and moderate-income neighborhoods through which it travelled.

By the time I arrived at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of City & Regional Planning the experience I had working on affordable housing development, GIS mapping, site plans for parks along the greenway, and other tasks provided incredibly helpful context for the coursework.  It also set me apart from a number of students that had come directly out of undergrad or whose work hadn’t been directly connected to planning issues. Additionally, while the pay as a VISTA member was a pittance, when I was done I had two education awards that trimmed the cost of my grad school education by nearly $10,000, far more than I would have likely saved if I had been earning more and actively saving for my education.

I spent part of my time in grad school working as a recruiter for AmeriCorps, speaking with undergraduate and grad students about my experiences as a VISTA and the varied ways in which the different forms of national community service could provide hands-on experience, money for school, and the opportunity to help transform a neighborhood, public program, or school. As a former VISTA I can look back on my own experiences during the early years of AmeriCorps and connect it back to the long history of the VISTA program (founded in 1965).

The skills that I learned as a VISTA are still relevant in my work today, as is the commitment to address the root causes of poverty and build capacity in low-income communities. My AmeriCorps*VISTA t-shirt is still one of my favorites and I’m still connected with the non-profits for whom I served years ago.

Since moving to Baltimore more than a decade ago I’ve had a chance to observe the VISTA members working through GHCC, and it’s great to see the same sort of opportunities and transformation (both personal and in the areas they’re working) that I experienced.

Patrick McMahon now works part-time out of a spare desk at GHCC for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, advocating for policy changes that would increase the potential for students to safely walk and bike to school in Maryland. He can be contacted about that work at