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UCF VISTA Project Enhances Seminole County's Ability to Serve Homeless Students

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At the Families in Transition program, a small, dedicated staff works tirelessly to meet the needs of homeless students in Seminole County. This school year alone, FIT has served more than 2,000 homeless students, 20 percent more than last year.

Fortunately, FIT has had some help thanks to an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America) project hosted by UCF's Center for Public and Nonprofit Management.

"The center's faculty and students have a deep passion for and experience in finding solutions to tough social and community challenges," said its director, Thomas Bryer. "We saw a partnership with AmeriCorps VISTA as a way to help address the issue of homelessness."

Last year, the center secured funding from VISTA's parent organization, the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, to launch a three-year VISTA project designed to build the capacity of organizations that serve homeless students in Central Florida.

The center recruited 12 college graduates to serve a one-year stint as a full-time VISTA member. All shared an eagerness to learn new skills and willingness to sacrifice and work hard in the interest of serving others, said Maria-Elena Augustin, the center's assistant director.

Since late August, the VISTA members have been serving in homeless-student programs, homeless shelters and churches in Orange and Seminole counties.

Four have been serving at FIT, which is housed on the Tuskawilla Middle School campus in Oviedo. They work out of a single classroom, partitioned into office spaces, a tiny conference room, and a pantry packed with food and clothing.

Among them is Sagirah Knight, a UCF social work graduate. She has been responsible for reaching out to registrars, guidance counselors, social workers and other SCPS staff to ensure they are well informed about the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which protects the rights of homeless students. The experience has reinforced her desire to work for a school district after completing a master's degree.

Emily Bachman, a graduate of Spring Arbor University in Michigan, has managed FIT's website and social media content. She also has collaborated with VISTA colleague Laura Flanders, a UCF psychology graduate, to plan events and launch a newsletter to raise awareness and recruit volunteers.

Bachman said her experience at FIT has been eye opening: "I went to Oviedo High School, which is in Seminole County. I feel I'm someone who's very aware of the issue of poverty, and I had no idea of the number of homeless students in the county. So I think just helping people to understand that there is an issue is really important."

Both she and Flanders plan to enter graduate programs after completing their one-year positions with UCF's VISTA project. They will cover their tuition in part with a $5,000 education grant awarded by the CNCS to VISTA members who complete one year of service.

The fourth VISTA member at FIT, Kayleen Hernandez-Gray, has focused on developing relationships with community organizations, including those offering employment resources and homeless shelters. She is a University of Illinois graduate who also holds a master's degree and plans to pursue a doctorate with the tuition grant from CNCS.

Beth Davalos, coordinator of FIT, said the VISTA members have been "fabulous." "They've exceeded my expectations," she shared. "They're really helping us become more efficient and effective in helping families become stabilized and giving students the foundation they need to succeed in school."

The success of an organization's VISTA project depends on how well it recruits its members, said Hue Jacobs, a state program specialist with the CNCS Florida State Office, located in Orlando. "When we look at the VISTAs in UCF's project and the work they're doing, Tom and Maria are picking the right people to make it a successful project," he said.

Bryer is very pleased with the VISTA team as well. "They will emerge in the years ahead as exemplary public servants," he remarked.

The CNCS likes to collaborate with universities for AmeriCorps VISTA projects because they are good at collecting and analyzing data, as well as meeting the reporting and fiscal requirements of a federal agency, according to CNCS Florida State Office Director Suzanne Richards. "We need to be sure the federal government is getting a good return on its investment," she said.

Universities also are more likely than a federal agency to have relationships with community organizations that lead to the delivery of services to underserved communities, she added.

Jacobs said he launched his career by serving as a VISTA member. He found the experience "life changing," and he thinks many former VISTA members would say the same.

"VISTA members receive a living allowance that is 105 percent of the poverty level in the county where they serve," he noted. "Experiencing this firsthand made me really understand that we have to help people in poverty. It really changed my perspective - and my entire career path."

Both he and Richards think the VISTA experience also gives VISTA members a much greater appreciation for the difference they can make in communities.

"You cannot pay enough people in a community or in a school district to do all of what's needed," said Richards. "You absolutely have to have volunteers."

To learn more about the VISTA project based at UCF, contact cpnm@ucf.edu.

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