Emma Ruby serves as an AmeriCorps member at a VISTA project at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She has served with Campus Compact VISTA since August 2020.
Tell us a bit about your project!
I serve at Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, the largest organization alleviating hunger in western and central Virginia. My service project focuses on child hunger and community engagement in Harrisonburg City and Rockingham County, VA. With 72% of students in Harrisonburg City public schools and 41% of students in Rockingham County public schools qualifying for free or reduced-fee meals, we know that many households in the service area are experiencing food insecurity. The Food Bank reaches public school families through school backpack programs and their network of food pantries. We know that these avenues do not work for all families with participation in backpack programs decrease as students get older and many families not utilizing food pantries because they think they do not qualify, or they worry that there will not be someone there to translate. My project focuses on populations that traditionally face barriers to accessing food assistance. These populations include high school students, rural families, and foreign-language speakers. By engaging these communities in innovative ways, like offering Neighborhood Produce Markets, having translators available, and offering pop-up food markets open to all high school students, we expand the reach of our services.
What have you learned from your AmeriCorps service?
I have learned so much from my AmeriCorps service! The two biggest lessons have been in adaptability and relationship building. With COVID-19 restrictions, all three of the programs I directly oversee underwent big changes during my first three months of service. Being adaptable to the changes allowed me to focus on solutions rather than the problems at hand. Bringing this perspective into program planning led us to think about the core goals of the program and how we could accomplish those in a COVID-safe environment. Relationship building has been my biggest asset during my service year. Taking the time to get to know folks, beyond just networking, creates a support system that can help your project when obstacles present themselves. It can be hard to center the community in your work when you have just moved into a community, so making one on one times to meet with folks from a variety of organizations and parts of my own organization helped create a universe of community members I could reach out to with questions about things like housing or language access that I am less familiar with.
What advice would you give to a new AmeriCorps member?
Bring humility and respect for the community with you everywhere you go! Centering the work around the community and sustainability for the folks who will be here after the VISTA project is done helps to keep everything in perspective. Humility can also keep you curious. Once you know that you do not have all the answers, you can ask questions and receive answers that add great value to your work. This might seem like a silly one, but write everything down! Taking notes during trainings, saving particularly well-written emails, and keeping track of assignments on paper helps retain the sheer volume of new information we receive as VISTA’s, especially during our first 4 months.
What is your proudest achievement from your time with VISTA?
The Broadway High School Good Food School Market in Rockingham County has a very special place in my heart! When I started at this VISTA project, they were serving 75 people each month through a small room in the school counseling office, and everything was run by one assistant principal. Now they serve about 300 each month doing home deliveries in their large, rural county and have so much community buy-in that they always have a waiting list of staff and students who want to volunteer to pack meals or make deliveries. This VISTA project is in year 2, so the goal of my year was to take programs the AmeriCorps member before me started and make them self-sustaining. By October, Broadway High School was ordering their own food, tracking their own data, planning their own delivery routes, and recruiting their own volunteers. Apart from regular check-in meetings and coordinating food delivery, Broadway manages their program without contact with the Food Bank. The Food Bank can use Broadway High School as a model on how to move programs to self-run.
Emma Ruby (pictured right) with her supervisor, Eileen Emerson