While finishing up college in Wisconsin, Joe Spiwak faced the daunting question most college graduates struggle with: what now? He asked that same question to a career counselor at his school, who pointed him in the direction of AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).
NCCC helps solve community challenges through direct service to the community, an approach distinct from VISTA’s focus on indirect service. NCCC projects range from fighting fires to clearing hiking paths to caring for children. NCCC volunteers are never alone — they travel together in groups around a specific region about, relocating every two months. The volunteers move in a van with other people aged 18 to 24, all of them wearing official AmeriCorps uniforms.
As an NCCC volunteer, Joe was assigned to clear hiking trails, a role came as a surprise to everyone he knew. Joe confesses that he’s not outdoorsy guy by nature. He signed up because it was something different, something he would have not tried otherwise. “I did it to be contrary to myself,” Joe admitted. There were some other benefits to pushing himself to work outdoors — during his year with NCCC, Joe lost 40 pounds. “Now I’m working on keeping that off,” he said. “There was a lot of physical work.”
After NCCC, Joe signed up to do another year of AmeriCorps service, this time with the VISTA program. He had met several VISTAs during his year with NCCC, which introduced him to some of the activities available to VISTAs. “I looked online and I saw a bunch of opportunities across the country that excited me,” said Joe. He ended up applying for twenty positions, which was the largest number he could apply for.
He found Bienestar, his current host site, by searching the key phrase “micro,” for “microfinance,” which was the field in which he most wanted to serve. With a growing popular interest in microfinance, entrepreneurship and economic development, it seemed like a field that field “opens up a lot of doors in terms of experience.”
Bienestar covers a lot of ground in terms of community services— as nonprofit housing development organization located in Hilsboro, it offers job skills training programs, IDA funds for small business owners, plots of land for community gardening, family development and financial literacy courses, and nutritional eating and cooking classes. Joe’s project as a VISTA, known as Recetas, falls into that last category.
Recetas is Bienestar’s response to a need for job-skills training programs in the community. Its unique focus on cooking and serving food in a professional environment sets Recetas apart from similar programs. “A lot of our residents have excellent cooking skills,” said Joe.
“Sometimes their skills fly under the radar when they try to sell their food. They don’t really have the necessary skills in a professional culinary setting, so we’re trying to change that by offering training opportunities that work with our LLC, which will be the Recetas Café in Hillsboro.”
The Recetas Café will provide a multilingual head chef to teach residents of Bienestar’s housing community how to cook, clean and “all the things they need to know to work in a professional kitchen.” Recetas will act as a restaurant and catering company provide employment opportunities and real work experience—all of which have been proven to support upward mobility and long-term financial stability. But more than that, Joe hopes his programs will encourage “everyone to have a real stake in the community.”
Joe’s current project goals are to find funding for his project so he can establish a system that will ensure the project’s sustainability and continued growth. Until then, he is working on researching the market and other restaurants and catering companies in Hillsboro to identify best practices and look for gaps that the Recetas program can fill.
Though it’s been a transition from working outdoors with NCCC, Joe said he is comfortable with his new position and office life. “There are parts of it I miss,” said Joe. “I miss being around people all the time. Now I have to socialize and be out on weekends and be the driving force behind everything I do.” Despite that, he is more comfortable being in a city with a trustworthy transportation system, as he does not drive a car. “This position pertains more to my personality.”
With all this experience under his belt, Joe has moved a little further away from that daunting question he faced a little more than a year ago: what now? “There’s a ton of opportunities that are available to me. VISTA offers a lot of great opportunities of alumni services,” said Joe. Nonetheless, he is still in the process of developing a path. “I don’t have a direction, but for now I am just happy to be along for the ride.”