When nonprofit professionals think of the “typical” member of AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), they often think of young adults who are just out of college and eager to improve their communities. This thinking can exclude those who have invested in our communities throughout their lives, leaving nontraditional AmeriCorps members overlooked and their talent, expertise and community connections untapped. To highlight the positive impact these people can have on a community, Rita Hockemeyer wrote the following blog illustrating her life of service. Rita, who was a teacher for 25 years, is now a first-year member with the Michigan Nonprofit Association’s Pathways to Employment AmeriCorps VISTA Program. Rita’s life of service truly exemplifies a passion for community and inspires each of us to improve our own corner of the world.
— Zekiye Salman, AmeriCorps VISTA Leader
By Rita Hockemeyer, AmeriCorps VISTA Member
Greetings, everyone! My name is Rita Hockemeyer. I am a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. I live on a 40-acre farm that raises animals for kids’ 4-H projects, cattle for freezer beef, and crops and vegetables. I am an investor in a foam insulation business that works all over the state. And I have two adopted children who seem to be the focus of my life outside of service. This year I am a first-year AmeriCorps VISTA member working with the Pathways to Employment VISTA Program at Carson City-Crystal Schools in Carson City, Michigan. This area has been my home for 19 years, and my former life consisted of teaching students with cognitive impairments in this same district. So, returning to Carson City has been great fun.
After not teaching at the high school for several years, I realized I missed making things happen within my community. Working with people at the school and in the community to offer events that will benefit our youth, our elderly and our local businesses has made me realize how important it is to get our students involved in what is happening outside of the school building.
I also work consistently with our high school’s student Leadership Team. Initially, I found the students were shy, busy and not very willing to come to my room. Our meetings seemed shallow, and I was concerned that things were not going to get accomplished, so I divided the team up into committees. I knew that being a good leader was about learning how to share the load and work together to make things happen, and our seven committees began to focus. After several weeks of activity, a young lady came to me during her lunch. She shared with me how the kids liked the structure we had put in place, and that they, as a whole, were feeling they were making much more of an impact. That was my “aha” moment. I was so relieved to hear this news. It warmed my heart as she thanked me that day for taking this position.
As time progressed, I found the goals listed on my VISTA Assignment Description were beginning to come together. How it would all get accomplished in one year I did not know. I have tentatively decided that I need to stay another year and that, in order to make this program sustainable, I need to get more of the school staff involved. When my assignment ends, will this program still exist? That is my ultimate goal: to serve long enough to make sure it continues.
One of the most exciting projects I've been working on has involved the board members of the Montcalm County Teen Center. They have a huge, old building right in the middle of the community. During the day, it houses the Alternative Education Program, but in the evening it becomes a youth center. In the middle of the fall one of the board members shared with me her idea of creating a ninja-warrior-style obstacle course on the second floor of the building. She took me on a tour of this 120by-21-foot area with 19-foot-high ceilings, so old it was falling apart. Her eyes sparkled as she described her vision. Recently we met with the owner of the local lumberyard and with an investor to discuss ways to finance this project, the only one of its kind in this community. To have a facility just for young people to hang out could mean turning some youth around before they head down the wrong road.
Other exciting projects I’ve been a part of include creating our Care Closet, a resource that provides basic needs such as clothes and personal hygiene products to students in our school. To date, we have had $1,900 donated to buy items for the closet. The students and I will be shopping soon, to restock our supply. Additionally, our ongoing recycling program, started by a former AmeriCorps VISTA member and sixth grade teacher years ago, will soon become a way to feed resources into a small business in our Alternative Education Program. The business will be using our recycled paper to create products to sell that will fund educational field trips for students who are at risk of not graduating. Lastly, a Heroes Dinner was held to honor those in our community who risk their lives for others. Emergency medical technicians, firefighters and police officers were among our guests. These are only a few of the projects I have worked on, but they are projects that make my service worthwhile.
As a young person, I had the privilege of serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. I always longed to do that again, but life would not allow it. My position as an AmeriCorps VISTA member has fulfilled my desire to serve. I can still be the parent and grandparent I am called to be and make an impact on my hometown community in one of the poorest counties in the state. I love service!