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My Time as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the C&O Canal Trust

I’m 10 months into a year-long internship as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) with the C&O Canal Trust. Towards the end of college, I knew I didn’t want to go straight into another degree program. I was interested in program evaluation, policy research, community, and international development. I was keenly aware that there was a disconnect between the theories and case studies I was reading about and the reality of community development and the nonprofit world. I strongly wanted experience in the nonprofit or public sector before I continued my education. For these reasons, I applied to the AmeriCorps VISTA program and accepted a one-year position working with the C&O Canal Trust and the Canal Towns Partnership.

AmeriCorps VISTAs are matched with nonprofit and public agencies with the goal of building capacity and alleviating poverty. The Trust partners with the Canal Towns Partnership (CTP), a group of volunteers who represent the towns along the C&O Canal to promote trail tourism and economic activity in the towns. Much of their trail tourism comes from cyclists who are biking anywhere from a short 10-mile day trip to the 334.5 miles from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. In college, I spent much of my time (some might say too much) biking, and I was excited by the prospect that a hobby and passion could be relevant to my job. Being a cyclist gave me an understanding of what cyclists want and need when coming into the canal towns.  I was able to share this knowledge in blog posts I wrote, including one about my favorite routes and another in response to the recent e-bike rule change.

This was the first year the Trust hosted an AmeriCorps VISTA. I had never worked with a volunteer organization similar to the Canal Towns Partnership, and the CTP has never had a staff person. We were all figuring it out together and, at times, having no road map and no former VISTA to guide me was confusing. But it was ultimately a chance to create my own position and projects, an opportunity I don’t think I would have had in many other positions. The members of the Canal Towns Partnership were always welcoming and encouraging. I got to meet and work with people who are passionate about their towns and the natural and historic resources of the region. I saw how they had a positive impact on their communities through their dedication and advocacy.

This was my first “real job” and my first time working in an office. I got a small and intimate office feel working for the Trust while also being part of the larger C&O Canal National Historical Park headquarters. I will always remember the chili cook-offs, Halloween trivia and costume contest, potlucks, and piñata party. I also attend National Park Service meetings, chat with the Superintendent, learned about the natural and cultural resources the Park works to protect, and see what daily life can be like for a Park Ranger.

One of the most unique things about my VISTA year is that I got to see two organizations from bottom-up and top-down perspectives. With the Trust, I attended to many small details such as what to bring to a tabling event, what pictures need to be taken, and whether a restaurant might donate a gift card. With the Canal Towns Partnership, I looked at the organization from a leadership perspective, asking myself how we could recruit lasting volunteers, where funding might come from in the future, how we could streamline our communication, and how we could reach our target audiences.

Because of the collaborative environment fostered by the Trust I learned about and contributed to my coworkers’ projects, which include creating a diversity equity and inclusion plan, and marketing the Canal Quarters program, and a Latino Conservation Week event. In turn, they help me brainstorm ideas for the Canal Towns Partnership and include the Canal Towns in their work whenever possible.

I gained valuable experience with organizational development, grant research and writing, marketing and communication strategies, and large scale fundraising events, all while being given the flexibility to incorporate my interests and ideas into my work. Serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the C&O Canal Trust was a great way to start my career.

The C&O Canal Trust and the Canal Towns Partnership are now hiring a second VISTA volunteer to continue the work I have begun. Interested? Click here to apply: https://my.americorps.gov/mp/listing/viewListing.do?id=87204&fromSearch=true