Charlie Eichelman serves as an AmeriCorps member with Campus Compact VISTA at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Tell us about your project!
My project consists of me acting as the Build United Coordinator for United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. Build United is a section of United Way which helps with repairs for low-income homeowners. Through repairing homes, we hope to provide a stable and safe environment for our clients in the Harrisonburg and Rockingham County communities. In my day-to-day, I manage volunteer groups and clients in hopes to get clients the best help possible and as quickly as possible. Homes are a necessity for every person in our community and with the affordable housing crisis in the US, it’s getting harder and harder to find housing. This crisis has forced people into staying in dangerous housing where floors are falling through, holes in the roof, steps that are broken, pipes that are broken, ramps needed, etc... Many of our clients cannot do the repairs themselves and cannot afford to pay someone else to, this is where Build United and I come in. Once a client is accepted by our Family Selections Committee, I am able to find volunteer groups that are willing to help our client in need. The average cost of each project for a client is $950. Our clients are desperately in need and all these repairs are interconnected. When there is a hole in the roof or a broken window, then the average cost of heat/air conditioning skyrockets, which many of our clients cannot afford, which will then force them to make decisions that will hurt their health, work, relatives etc... The goal for Build United in the future is to continue to expand to work with the ALICE population in our community. ALICE stands for Asset Limited Income Constrained, Employed. My long-term goal is to work on a system that allows us to expand our work in our community to clients that desperately need our help.
What have you learned from your AmeriCorps VISTA service?
During my VISTA service year, I have learned what it means to be part of a community and helping those in our community. It has given me opportunities to lead and learning how to lead for the future. This position has shown me the importance of uniting our community to empower one another. I have been able to participate in the Leadership of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County program from the Chamber of Commerce which has allowed me to grow as a person and as a leader. The program provides connections to our community and educating us on the past of Harrisonburg-Rockingham County. I think one of the most important skills I have learned is how community organizations interact, being in meetings with our mayor once every two weeks is something I would have never dreamed of when first coming to Harrisonburg. I could go on and tell the skills it has given me but the most important thing I have learned during this year is security in knowing what I want to do in my future and I will be eternally grateful.
What advice would you give to a new AmeriCorps VISTA?
My advice for new VISTAs would be to take every opportunity to learn and lead that you can. You will get out what you put into this year and it will be well worth it. (b) Take care of yourself, many VISTAs, like me, are coming into this position right outside of college and may not have the wisdom to not overwork. Remember to take time to care for yourself physically, mentally, and spiritually. (c) Enjoy your AmeriCorps community. While you are building your relationship with your community, also take time to build your relationship with your AmeriCorps community, they will help you through your struggles. (d) Don’t get discouraged if you don’t see any direct impacts of your work. The work we are doing is capacity building which sometimes can be discouraging because you may not reap the rewards now but remember to celebrate the little victories. (d) Don’t let imposter syndrome set it, you are capable and you growing in your capabilities, give yourself time to learn.
What is your proudest achievement from your time with AmeriCorps VISTA?
I think the greatest physical achievement so far in my VISTA year has been the modification of Build United’s database in order to be more efficient in loving and serving our clients. I created a system called “Google United” which allows Build United to pull up any client’s information quickly and all in one place. However, the achievement I am most proud of is not a physical achievement but learning and growing in my ability to adapt to such a difficult year. This past year has been so incredibly difficult for so many and work life has shifted to a chaotic lifestyle and encountering difficult struggles due to COVID-19. Help from my community into shaping me to deal with these struggles in a healthy way is my greatest achievement this year and I am so thankful for those who have helped me along the way.