BY KATHRYN RYAN, COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, THE HUB
“When I started as a VISTA, my expectation was for this year of service to be a transitional step,” says Bethany Smiley, a VISTA-turned-Development Director at On Eagles’ Wings Therapeutic Horsemanship, based out of Fairmont, WV. “I had been looking at grad schools but didn’t know what I wanted to do. I loved volunteering here before I was a VISTA and I had been doing similar stuff anyway. So, I thought a year of VISTA service could be a good transitional step as I figured out what I wanted to do.”
Bethany Smiley served as a VISTA with On Eagles’ Wings for one year before she became a full-time Development Director for the organization. The nonprofit works with children and adults with physical, cognitive, emotional, and social disabilities and challenges. The program provides a space that empowers these individuals to enrich and enhance their lives through equine assisted activities and therapies.
“Being a VISTA meant I had the opportunity to gain experience and skills that I wouldn’t have been able to find in an internship or another entry-level job,” Bethany says. “When you’re acting as a VISTA, you’re doing real work – not just paperwork or delegated tasks. Often, you’re pushing your own personal comfort zone. A year and a half ago, I never would have thought I would be able to apply for a grant. But as a VISTA, you do things like that. And then you realize, ‘Okay actually, I’m pretty decent at that.’”
By getting involved with the organization at such a deep and extensive level, Bethany became driven to turn her VISTA project into all it could be and more. “I’m passionate about this work because this small nonprofit has such a massive impact. Although we’re serving anywhere from 60-80 participants per week, I know each of those participants because I get to work directly with them. That makes the impact feel even larger to me. It feels personal.”
About 3 months into her VISTA year, Bethany realized how interested she was in development work. It had become one of her primary responsibilities as a VISTA, and she was starting to get the hang of it. She was starting to feel that she could bring true impact to her organization.
Bethany started letting the idea bounce around in her head that she might be able to turn this into a full-time gig and continue building the On Eagles’ Wings program after her year of VISTA service. She realized that development was what she wanted to do.
After 7 or 8 months of being a VISTA member, Bethany was approached by her VISTA supervisor, the executive director of On Eagles’ Wings.
“Carol asked me what my plans were after VISTA. That’s a really open-ended question,” Bethany reflected. By that time, she knew she wanted to turn this into a full time position if she was able. Around April, Bethany and Carol started making a plan and applying for grants. They carried out fundraising efforts and thought about how they could work with the budget to bring Bethany on board.
It was the dedicated work that Bethany brought to On Eagles’ Wings as a VISTA that landed her this job – a job she’s truly passionate about, where she’s making a palpable impact in the lives of others. She feels that being a VISTA gave her a unique opportunity to dive in and build these strong, marketable skills that she couldn’t have gained in a different position in just one year.
“My VISTA service really gave me a chance to grow,” Bethany says. As the Development Director, Bethany is still doing a lot of the work she was responsible for as a VISTA: “Keeping the office running, keeping the program sustainable… I still use a lot of the tools that I learned from VISTA.”
“Being a VISTA means serving your community while developing yourself and getting results,” Bethany says. “It means gaining skill sets on the job that you wouldn’t get the opportunity to receive elsewhere. I’m grateful that my VISTA service came with a lot of freedom for how I wanted to structure things and build the program for my project. It allowed me to really grow as a professional.”
After speaking with Bethany about her experience with VISTA and listening to her reflections, I asked if there was anything else that she’d add in telling people about AmeriCorps VISTA.
“Obviously the pay is not the best,” she began. “But the experience itself is worth 10 times that. What you’re going to get out of it in the end is every bit worth the year of living stipends.”
In so many ways, Bethany’s story is similar to other VISTAs’ stories across West Virginia and across the country.
At The Hub, we’re proud to sponsor VISTA Members within our organization and for other nonprofits and government entities. This unique program allows individuals to serve in their community, build experience and skills, and build a network across the state in their field of interest, all while gaining resource connections that can last a lifetime and develop professional growth. Throughout this experience, these individuals are becoming further invested in their communities, which, as well all know, is exactly what West Virginia needs right now.
If you’re interested in becoming a VISTA with The Hub, reach out to us! We can let you know about what opportunities are currently available and what opportunities are coming up. Just email me at email@example.com.
As Bethany found to be the case, being a VISTA means having true impact in West Virginia. Because as the slogan says, VISTAs get. things. done.