Combatting food insecurity, overseeing middle school gardens and organizing mentors and afterschool activities are some of the ways that AmeriCorps VISTAs (Volunteers in Service to America) are making a difference in the Athens community.
The University of Georgia VISTA Network was created through the UGA Office of Service-Learning in 2013 to support local non-profits, community organizations and schools. Since then, VISTAs have been placed in the Athens Community Council on Aging, all Clarke and one Barrow County middle schools, Campus Kitchen at UGA and the student-run UGArden.
“I wanted to do a year of service as a school garden VISTA to share my passion for sustainable agriculture with middle school students in my community,” said Tess Lambertson, a UGA VISTA assigned to Clarke Middle School. “My favorite part has been getting to know students and sharing knowledge with each other. We’ve had so many milestones, from seeing a kid try a leafy green for the first time to seeing LID (Low Incidence Disabilities) students planting in the Connect to Protect pollinator garden.”
VISTAs must be at least 18, and can serve in a position for a summer or a full year. VISTA applications are now open. Contact Beth Deroshia AmeriCorps VISTA Leader for UGA’s VISTA Network, at firstname.lastname@example.org, for more information or to apply.
VISTAs at area middle schools help students learn about healthy food and nutrition and food insecurity through their work in school gardens and produce stands. Two Clarke County middle schools have launched food pantries to provide nutrition to students and families who may not have enough to eat over the weekends.
VISTA Lynette Casemen, assigned to the Athens-Clarke County (ACC) Library, creates programing for students who frequent the library after school. One activity is a book club for African American teenage girls interested in science fiction led by Stephanie Renee Toliver, a UGA doctoral student in the College of Education’s Department of Language and Literacy Education.
VISTA Jim Warrner started a food redistribution program at Burney-Harris-Lyons Middle School this year. Each day he collects uneaten fresh fruit from the school cafeteria and redistributes it to students who are still hungry. Leftover fruit is bagged for after-school programs. On days there is an abundance of fruit, Warrner takes leftovers to the Athens Community Career Academy where high school students in the culinary program make banana bread or jam—which they send back to Burney-Harris-Lyons for after school snacks. This year Warrner has redistributed over 3,500 pounds of produce that would have otherwise ended up in the landfill.
UGArden is a student-run sustainable farm. Produce grown there year-round is donated to Campus Kitchen at UGA (CKUGA), which provides prepared meals and a bag of groceries each week to more than 800 food insecure seniors, most of them Grandparents raising grandchildren. VISTAs work at UGArden and at Campus Kitchen.
This year, the UGA VISTA network expanded into Barrow County with the Grow It Know It school garden program, which introduces students to garden, healthy food and nutrition. VISTA Josh Truitt and the Barrow middle school students created raised garden beds for vegetables and offered many students their first opportunity to use a power tool.
VISTA Katie Stanhope, at Hilsman Middle School, and Mackenzie Stewart, VISTA at Coile Middle School, both in Clarke County, established food pantries for students who often had too little to eat at home. Local companies Kroger and Aldi contributed to the pantries.
VISTA Tess Lambertson at Clarke Middle School harvests collards in the school garden with students. Lambertson and the studens run a weekly produce market where harvested food is given away to students. Members of the community are welcome shop and pay by donation to support the market.
On National Service Recognition Day, UGA VISTAs were honored for their service with a proclamation by Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz and Winterville Mayor Dodd Ferrelle.
Shannah Montgomery Public Relations Coordinator