Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

Impact Taskforce: What Was Learned, What Comes Next

In July 2015, three months after the Baltimore Uprising that drew national attention to our city, the Corporation for National and Community Service approached Strong City with the unique opportunity to host a group of AmeriCorps VISTA service members in Baltimore. This goal of this group would be to build capacity and improve the effectiveness of, and connections among, youth programs and services in Baltimore to address youth violence prevention and workforce development, with a focus on the tenets of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

This resulted in the creation of the AmeriCorps VISTA Impact Taskforce, an initiative unlike any other in Strong City’s more than 20-year history as a VISTA sponsor. For the last 18 months, VISTA Program Coordinator Kate McGrain has been the Strong City staff person most closely involved in the work of the Taskforce: identifying its primary partners, recruiting its members, overseeing their work, dealing with challenges that cropped up along the way, evaluating the program, sustaining relationships, and working on next steps.

Now that the Impact Taskforce members have finished their year of service, we asked Kate to spend a few minutes reflecting on why the Taskforce was created, what it accomplished, and what’s next.

Q: How did you decide on an area of focus for the Taskforce?

A: In the initial planning process, I conducted informal interviews with over 30 local community organizations, government agencies, and other interested stakeholders who were serving youth. From these interviews, organizations indicated that they needed increased staffing resources – program development, volunteer management, curriculum development. More even than a desire to receive the support of a full-time volunteer for a year, the partners we met with expressed a desire for increased connectivity.  “We’re doing good work,” they all told us, “but I’m not sure anybody knows what we’re doing, or how they can get involved with us.”  Similarly, many of these groups were interested in getting involved collaboratively with other groups who were working in their sector.  So, this idea of connectivity among youth service providers became a central focus of our Taskforce.

Q: What was Strong City’s response to this need for greater communication and awareness?

A: We identified 15 partner organizations who agreed to engage in a collaborative exercise over the next 12 months. A VISTA member would partner with each individual organization, working toward specific goals unique to each site, and also to bring their lessons learned and their organizational perspectives back to a collaborative group discussion.

Q: Can you give a few concrete examples of how the Taskforce’s work made a difference?

A: Sure! The Taskforce member partnering at the Inner Harbor Project helped develop a year-long leadership curriculum for eighth-graders, and she then leveraged partnerships with fellow VISTA members and Strong City programs to recruit students. Another example: The Taskforce member at Strong City’s Adult Learning Center developed a new volunteer program, the Learner Advocate Program, to provide learners with wrap-around and barrier-removal services, as well as important soft skills through one-on-one relationships with professionals with whom they were matched. In addition, VISTA Taskforce members supported Strong City in leading the community engagement effort of Baltimore’s Participatory Budgeting pilot process for the new City Council-managed youth fund, connecting with over 300 individuals and youth-focused organizations.

Q: Are any of the Taskforce members remaining in service beyond the initial year?

A: We have one member who is doing a second year of VISTA service to continue the work of the Taskforce. Another Taskforce member will be joining the team at Strong City in the coming month as an AmeriCorps VISTA Leader. Several other Taskforce members, although they will not be serving as VISTAs, indicated that their year of Taskforce service was transformative, and that they are committed to continuing to serve and give back to their communities, which is awesome.

Q: Now that the Taskforce’s year of service has ended, what’s the plan for making the work sustainable?

A: Sustainability is all about making sure that the impacts the VISTA members made are put to good use for the long term.  We are closing out the Taskforce right now by documenting their findings on collaboration, synthesizing the data they collected at their individual sites, and maybe most importantly, we will be producing a database and map of all the youth service provider partners with whom the Taskforce interacted. This information will be shared with the existing network of 250 organizations and individuals, as well as an emerging network of stakeholders who are interested in continuing this collaborative conversation, helping to increase the capacity of youth service providers and programs by providing tools and resources to support collaboration.

Q: You mentioned the creation of a map of youth service providers. Can you tell us a little more about that?

A: Yes, the VISTA Impact Taskforce developed an initial map depicting the youth programming services and providers they identified or interacted with during their service year. Moving forward, our goal is to use this map to further foster interconnectivity among programs, organizations, and individuals. The map will be in an accessible format so that organizations will be able to easily access its information and locate similarly focused potential partners, to increase collaboration.  We are also excited that the collaborative stakeholders are interested in pooling their data to increase the breadth of resources represented on the map.

Q: What is Strong City’s role going forward?

A: Strong City has the resource of one full-time staff member and one VISTA member during 2017. We hope that our work will support the development of a shared agenda among youth service providers to identify and connect with one another. While Strong City will serve as a support to this network, we will not be leading the effort; our goal is that our partners become the leaders and decision-makers. Our ideal vision is a dynamic and inclusive network of youth service providers that will identify and help to implement a citywide agenda, and corresponding strategic plan, for youth service providers in Baltimore.

Q: What additional outcomes are envisioned?

A:  We anticipate that the benefits will eventually include less duplication of services, more high-quality programming, and more effective use of funds from donors, philanthropies, and government agencies in supporting youth. We also anticipate increased connectivity among providers of services to the benefit of the youth being served, and to the City of Baltimore as a whole.

Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced as Taskforce coordinator?

A: Collaboration is hard; you’re managing different perspectives, backgrounds, passions, and interests all while keeping the work at the center and moving forward. It takes time to build relationships, to coordinate schedules and often, to let ideas marinate before action can happen. There’s discomfort, ambiguity, and things are changing constantly. But ultimately, that’s how collaboration is successful: Acknowledging the time it takes, seeing the value added by different perspectives, being flexible, and knowing when and how to take next steps.

Q: What was the most rewarding (or surprising) thing for you about leading this program?

A: It has been an honor to connect with and learn from people every day – the VISTA Taskforce members, my coworkers, and most significantly, the incredible network of youth service providers in Baltimore. There is so much good work happening in this city. I am grateful and humbled to be in a position that allows me to meet and connect with the folks doing this important work.

Q: Did anything interesting arise from your recent meeting with people around the city who are doing similar/related work?

A: The group of stakeholders expressed shared interest in working together to continue to connect people and organizations at all levels throughout the city. We’re taking next steps under their guidance.

AmeriCorps VISTA Spotlight: Laquesha Wright

VISTA 019Laquesha Wright is a GHCC sponsored AmeriCorps VISTA serving at Maryland New Directions (MND) in Baltimore City to improve client relationships through a client focus program and increasing the effectiveness of the community partner outreach process as well as improving its relations with current employers.

My service experience as an AmeriCorps VISTA has been very influential in shaping my perspective on social policy issues.  Being an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer opened my eyes to the possibilities of what service can be. AmeriCorps VISTA has been a great outlet for my passion of giving back. I have been able to explore the possibilities of service beyond direct service and I have learned ways to strengthen and support the initiative of an organization by coordinating community service programs, raising awareness, promoting justice work, and providing logistical/administrative support.

CAB MeetingI have been able to work alongside MND to create sustainable resources that can be used to better impact the Baltimore community and contribute to its elevation. My work at MND has enabled me to focus on how to combine different skills and ways of thinking to help the community to achieve a common goal. Due to the service work I have done, I have developed a strong sense of connection to the people and things around me. Through these service experiences I have been able to work with many diverse people, which have changed, my current perception of the world and of social justice issues. My service work compels me to understand the origins of structural injustices and the policies that have perpetuated them on a global as well as national scale.

AmeriCorps*VISTA Spotlight: Dominiece Johnson

GHCC-sponsored VISTA Dominiece, serving with My Sister’s Circle in Baltimore, shares about what led her to service and what she’s learned since.

1st Day Photo2My name is Dominiece and I am currently serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA with My Sister’s Circle (MSC). MSC is a long-term mentoring organization that works with at-risk middle and high school girls in Baltimore. MSC strives to provide opportunities and experiences that empower our girls to define success on their own terms, and ultimately become self-sufficient young women.

My story begins at Howard University.  While at Howard, I discovered my love for serving others through the work I was able to do with my sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. I was fortunate enough to participate in many service projects, but one of my proudest accomplishments was co- chairing Stop the Violence, an educational rally for middle school students in the district.  It was at this time that I recognized my passion for working with youth and knew that I always wanted to serve youth in some capacity.

039After graduating from Howard, I went on to pursue a career in retail working for Macy’s corporate office in New York City.  After two years, I left Macy’s and ventured to China to teach English as a second language. My days in the fashion industry were short lived because my passion and purpose involved helping others.

Upon my return from China, I learned about AmeriCorps VISTA from a previous colleague and friend who was serving in Tennessee. Immediately after I learned of the VISTA position as Program Coordinator with MSC, I knew this was where I was meant to be. I was instantly drawn to the organization because I so strongly believed in their mission. I could relate to the young women they served and deeply believed that my experiences coupled with life’s lessons, meant that I had so much to offer.

Dominece- My Sister's CircleAs Program Coordinator, I developed MSC’s first-ever after school program for sixth grade students. I have built relationships with my students and their families, school staff, volunteers. I have assisted with planning monthly events and have become somewhat of a social media ‘guru’.  I have gained so much experience in my current role. Greatest of all and certainly the most rewarding part of my position has been the opportunity to build relationships with the girls. One could say that it was love at first sight; we were instantly drawn to each other. They have changed my trajectory in more ways than I could have ever imagined. I have been inspired and forever changed.

While this position has been more rewarding than I ever anticipated, it has not been without its challenges. I have been called to expand my personal beliefs in order to understand the challenges and circumstances of the girls that I am serving. One of the hardest things to do in this role has been to share my personal values without projecting my own cultural beliefs onto my students. Through it all, I am so thankful to be an AmeriCorps VISTA. I have been tested, yet inspired.  Best of all, I have had the opportunity to work alongside many amazing individuals, all committed to improving the lives of others.


Each year, GHCC brings together a cohort of emerging nonprofit leaders who are passionate about service and community development to serve as AmeriCorps VISTA members.  GHCC-sponsored AmeriCorps VISTA members receive a solid foundation of skills they can use as a springboard for careers in government, non-profits, education, and much more. To learn about applying for the 2015-2016 GHCC VISTA Cohort, click here.


AmeriCorpsVISTA Spotlight: Christophe Valcourt

Christophe Valcourt is a GHCC sponsored AmeriCorps VISTA serving at The St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center in Baltimore City to expand the scope of the financial education program to help low income residents of Baltimore realize their financial goals and create sustainable housing.

I grew up in Havre de Grace, Maryland, a small town along the Chesapeake Bay. For 17 years, I lived a relatively comfortable life there, one without much want or need. I first encountered poverty in my junior year of high school when I began volunteering at a local food pantry. My experience serving the site’s patrons opened my eyes to a new, complicated issue that I wanted to learn more about.

100_05051From 2010 to 2014, I attended Capital University in Columbus, Ohio and received a degree in sociology. Outside of my classes, I enjoyed reading the works of researchers who studied poverty in the field and recounted the stories of everyday people affected by the issue. A fascination with this line of research propelled me into a two-year project in which I studied a lower-income neighborhood in Columbus to better understand the socioeconomic issues that the area was experiencing as well as what was being done to improve living conditions there. I talked with residents at a local church, conducted focus groups at a neighborhood policing center, and conversed with small business owners.

That research experience would leave an indelible impact on me. The chance to understand neighborhood issues from the perspectives of people who experienced them was both humbling and enlightening. The stories of the individuals I spoke with formed a complicated, yet dynamic picture of human life that I wanted to continue engaging with. After college, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do for a career, but I knew that I wanted to further study poverty or urban issues in my work. The VISTA program caught my eye as it offered an opportunity to dip my feet into the nonprofit world and join organizational efforts at relieving poverty with a cohort of like-minded individuals going through the same experience as myself.

In July, I began working with St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, a nonprofit housing agency in north Baltimore.  I was placed in their foreclosure department to help them expand their financial education program. Learning about community development and tackling somewhat perplexing topics like housing finance have helped me better visualize the broad mission of my organization. More recently, I have gotten deeper into the program evaluation side of my position, creating surveys to help St. Ambrose track data on clients who go through their informational workshops. I am currently helping them refine their methods of assessing client needs and tracking client outcomes so that their services are adequately adjusted to the stated needs. In the future, I will help St. Ambrose run a series of in-depth workshops that will enhance their clients’ financial capability.

What I like most about AmeriCorps VISTA is the ability to take ownership of a project. Even though the position is one that involves a lot of background responsibilities, I am excited by the opportunity to help an organization expand in new directions and to envision that growth having an impact on an issue that I care deeply about.

Each year GHCC sponsors a diverse selection of AmeriCorps VISTA projects that build and strengthen vibrant urban communities throughout Baltimore City and now across Maryland. Our VISTAs develop K-12, college, and career opportunities for at-risk youth; create access to healthy options through community organizing and gardening; improve programming that empowers refugees and the homeless, and much more. Our next class of 22 VISTA volunteers will enter service on July 25, 2014, and we’re very pleased to announce the nonprofit, community, and city agencies where our incoming members will be serving. To learn about their service sites and projects, click here.

AmeriCorps VISTA Spotlight: Tina Olayimika

Tina Olayimika is a GHCC sponsored AmeriCorps VISTA serving at The Intersection in Baltimore City through the development and implementation of a college and career preparation program.

My name is Tina and I am currently serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA with The Intersection, a youth advocacy organization that empowers Baltimore youth by giving them the tools and opportunities to advocate for themselves and their communities.  While there are countless reasons I decided to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA, I find my own childhood to be the most compelling. Having grown up in Anacostia, a once poverty and violence stricken neighborhood in the southeast of Washington, D.C., I know what it’s like to feel as if you don’t matter.  The sting of inequity and the pain of invisibility was an all too familiar feeling.  Though there was a lot that I wanted for both myself and my neighborhood, I believe the one thing I needed was someone who cared.

Tina Blog PictureAs a VISTA with AmeriCorps, I wanted to be that someone for kids who grew up like me.  My goal was not to be a savior or a helping hand, but a partner and co-laborer.  I was drawn to GHCC VISTA because it embraces this ideology and challenges us to not only serve in a community, but to embrace it, work to understand it, and become a part of it.  I was challenged to not work for a community, but to work with it.  This concept, though simple, heightened a new awareness within me.  I could no longer think of myself as a lonely, brave soul who was coming to create change; I was now a small, but important, piece of a puzzle that was already working for change.  I began to see my community not as a detriment that I had to work against, but an asset that I was privileged to work with. This newly broadened mindset led to a year filled with growth, both personal and professional.  I made friends, formed partnerships, experienced new people, places and things.  I was encouraged, corrected and challenged (all in love of course).  Greatest of all, I was the opportunity to work alongside youth who truly care and are willing to work to make a difference in their community.  They are leaders and conquerors, doing things most people never attempt and accomplishing things that were once deemed impossible for them.  I am forever inspired and forever changed.  I went into my year of service wanting to be the one person who cared, and ended up meeting tons of people who care and who have lit within me a fire that I hope to carry with me in everything I do.

Each year GHCC sponsors a diverse selection of AmeriCorps VISTA projects that build and strengthen vibrant urban communities throughout Baltimore City and now across Maryland. Our VISTAs develop K-12, college, and career opportunities for at-risk youth; create access to healthy options through community organizing and gardening; improve programming that empowers refugees and the homeless, and much more. Our next class of 22 VISTA volunteers will enter service on July 25, 2014, and we’re very pleased to announce the nonprofit, community, and city agencies where our incoming members will be serving. To learn about their service sites and projects, click here.