Expanding the Impact of Volunteers at Meals on Wheels People

AmeriCorps VISTA Story of Service

August 2018


During his year of VISTA service with Meals on Wheels People, Emilio Cantu-Gil found numerous creative ways to build capacity within the organization’s large volunteer program. From learning and implementing video production skills to building the foundation for a new volunteer-led outreach project, ‘Community Connectors’, Emilio’s positive energy and willingness to “get things done” has left a huge impact on his organization and the hundreds of volunteers they work with every day.

Getting Started at Meals on Wheels People

Before VISTA, Emilio spent more than a year teaching English throughout Central America and volunteering with various NGOs in the region. After his return to the States, Emilio sought to take the next step in a career that fueled his passion for getting involved in the community and his goal of working in nonprofit. In his search, Emilio took some good advice from his parents—both of whom are Community College counselors—and applied to AmeriCorps VISTA. After doing research on different VISTA positions around the country, Emilio was especially excited about the Meals on Wheels People position with the Mercy Corps Northwest VISTA Program. Meals on Wheels People (MOWP) is a nonprofit organization in Portland with a mission to enrich the lives of seniors, and assist them in maintaining independence, by providing nutritious food, human connections and social support. Emilio was familiar with the MOWP organization, but had little experience working with the senior population it serves. Learning and working more with this population was exciting to Emilio, and he saw a great opportunity for growth in implementing the VISTA project itself that focused on volunteer coordination, training, and outreach. Emilio explains that “not only was this an opportunity for me to challenge myself, but it was an opportunity for me to really put myself out there in an organization that affected a lot of lives in a city that I was really interested in living in.” With that, Emilio moved from his hometown of Santa Cruz, California to start a year of VISTA service in Portland, Oregon as the Volunteer Outreach and Training and Coordinator at MOWP.


Emilio at the MOWP “Donate Dinner” Event.

During his year of service, Emilio’s VISTA project has three main objectives:

  1. Build a network of resources for nutritional health education for seniors at the dining centers
  2. Design and implement training procedures for MOWP volunteers
  3. Develop a volunteer base that would help MOWP conduct outreach in the community

Emilio accomplished all of these objectives beautifully, using some of his biggest strengths: creativity and resourcefulness, to think outside the box to get things done.


Biggest Challenge of the Year:

Emilio’s biggest challenge this year was coordinating with people and managing various relationships, while remaining patient in implementing his yearlong project. Oftentimes, Emilio’s biggest roadblock was just waiting for other people to “reach back”, managing external relationships, and mobilizing people towards a goal without any financial incentives. One thing Emilio learned quickly was to use the well-recognized and respected brand of Meals on Wheels People to encourage community partnership and support. The mission and impact of Meals on Wheels People incites a positive response in the community, and Emilio tackled his greatest challenge by leveraging the influence and positive impact of his organization to get things done for his project.




“AmeriCorps gave me the opportunity to really focus my efforts

towards my goals in a way that was really exciting and fun and let

me build experiences and make connections.”   – Emilio Cantu-Gil


Biggest Successes of the Year:

Emilio had two major successes that he is very proud of: creating training videos for the MOWP volunteers and establishing the Speaker’s Bureau volunteer group, Community Connectors. When he started as a VISTA in August 2017, Emilio had no experience with multi-media video production, but one of his VISTA project objectives was to design and implement training procedures for the volunteers, and MOWP wanted him to do this by creating several training videos. Not only would these videos be seen by thousands of volunteers, but they were also supposed to be “evergreen”—meaning they could be used for years to come, regardless of organizational changes and be relevant to each one of the dozens of dining centers around the Portland Metro Area. This was a huge task and Emilio got started right away. Each MOWP dining center operates a little differently, and Emilio worked with each center manager to captured their various needs and ensure the training videos were relevant to each dining center. To make the videos, Emilio attended trainings at the local media arts center, Open Signal, to learn cinematography and video editing skills and rent video equipment. He also established a partnership with a Portland State University multimedia studies professor to get some help from his students on creating these videos. In the end, Emilio created two training videos that will now be used to orient and train all new MOWP volunteers!

Emilio’s second big success—establishing MOWP’s first Speaker’s Bureau, Community Connectors—was a huge logistical project. To get the Speaker’s Bureau up and running, Emilio had to navigate the logistics of developing and training a MOWP volunteer group that would then conduct outreach on behalf of the organization in the community. To complete the project, Emilio had several huge steps to take. First, he had to determine what direction the organization actually wanted the Community Connectors project to take/outcomes they wanted it to achieve. Next, he had to determine how to structure a sustainable Speaker’s Bureau program and have the right people involved in the process. Understanding how the volunteer network operates and building up a group of committed Community Connector volunteers to carry the program forward was also vital to creating a sustainable Speaker’s Bureau program. Lastly, Emilio had to implement and actually get this project off the ground and operational.

It was not easy, but after careful research in the community, interviews with other nonprofits that had a similar Speaker’s Bureau programs, and many internal organizational conversations, Emilio was able to launch MOWP’s first Speaker’s Bureau program: Community Connectors, and conduct the first few training sessions for outreach volunteers.

Emilio’s Advice to Others:

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help; ask for clarification. Go back to people, have meetings, take your time and be thoughtful. You are going to spend a lot of time sitting there trying to figure things out—it’s going to be a lot of thinking through things, and that’s OK. Try to be as resourceful as you can and don’t be afraid of asking for help. One of the best things I could have done was ask other organizations and other people around the organization for advice and reach out to whatever networks were available to me.”

What’s Next for Emilio?

Emilio is going to grad school! He will be moving to Washington DC to study Development Management at American University’s School of International Service. He hopes to continue to work in the humanitarian field and is thankful for his AmeriCorps VISTA experience and the skills he gained while serving. As Emilio explains, “AmeriCorps gave me all the opportunity in the world to do this. I don’t think I would have been as competitive to go to school had I not become a VISTA.” Eventually Emilio hopes to work for what he calls a “BINGO” or “Big International Non-Governmental Organization”, like Mercy Corps Global.


My Name: Emilio Cantu-Gil

Service site: Meals on Wheels People

Hometown: Santa Cruz, CA

Fondest Oregon experience: Visiting Crater Lake and exploring the Umpqua River with some of my closest friends.

Unique contribution: I am creative and resourceful

Proudest accomplishment: Getting into graduate school at my #1 university of choice.

Music of choice: Too hard to choose!

Current sacrifice: Money!

Indulgence: Adventures!

Favorite movie: Secario

Self-care regimen: Lots of adventures, hikes, and time in nature.

Wildest dream: For travel to be a part of my career.

My inspiration: My family and friends.

Next steps: Moving to Washington D.C. for graduate school at American University to study Development Management.

Advice to future members: Be thoughtful and resourceful; do not be afraid to ask for help or clarification.

Favorite quote:Good citizens are the riches of a city.” – Charles Erskine Scott Wood (or maybe Matthew Cramer? Not sure, the truth has been lost to time…)


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