Friday, June 26, 2015


Cat Lenis is serving as a Montana Campus Compact AmeriCorps VISTA with Sparrow's Nest of Northwest Montana.  I was lucky enough to get in touch with her and ask questions about the amazing work she has done and is continuing to do for the Flathead Valley.

What is your background that led you to serve as a VISTA member?
I was born, raised and went to undergrad and grad school in Worcester, Massachusetts.  Although I love it there I was ready for something new once I graduated with my Master’s in Community Development and Planning.  I knew some people that did a year of VISTA and it seemed like a good post-college transition and opportunity to test out my skills. For some reason-- although I knew no one here, Montana popped into my head. So I looked for positions here. I’ve worked with youth in various capacities—from teaching middle school girls to working at a residential youth home for teens with various mental health challenges, so knew I’d want to work within that realm. I liked that VISTA wasn’t direct service and I liked that the organization I ended up working for—Sparrow’s Nest of NW MT, was a startup at the grassroots level.

Describe a typical workday at your host site.
My day typically runs 9:00-5:00 but there are the occasional community presentations at varying times: e.g. a 6:45 am Rotary meeting or a 7:00pm Women’s group potluck. My office is on the second floor of a local church’s parish house so when I’m not there (which again, really varies) I’m often at a meeting or presentation or picking up or dropping off donations (both monetary and not).
When I am at the office I answer a lot emails, social media messages and phone calls as I manage those three contact portals. I’m also always trying to stay up to date on federal and state policy surrounding youth homelessness as well as best practices. There’s also the occasional grant-writing, agenda writing, newsletter making, planning and just general organizing.

How have you incorporated your campus partner into your work efforts?  
Our campus partner liaison, Wendy, at FVCC has a seemingly endless supply of knowledge regarding volunteer recruitment, creative donation drives and cool fundraising ideas. She has also helped supply us with some great college student volunteers. There are so many more ways we can partner with FVCC and we plan on doing so in the very near future: mainly our upcoming April awareness campaign of which I will not currently divulge. 

What are your motivating factors that justify this type of work?
With great power comes great responsibility. No, but seriously. I was privileged enough to go to university and work at some amazing places and don’t want to “waste” my education or experiences. Also, there’s a lot of injustice in this world and I can’t possibly sit idly by. There are so many innovative and great ways to solve issues and I just love seeing communities using their unique strengths to aid their current needs. The possibilities are endless and just so beautiful.

What are your plans after VISTA?
Travel! Hopefully. Move farther West or abroad. Work for a place that I believe in. Do a lot of activities outdoors, build something, continue to meet inspirational people… challenge myself towards something that means something for something infinitely larger than myself. Or something.

Keep up with Sparrow's Nest of Northwest Montana and all of the amazing strides they're making on FaceBook.  We wish you the best of luck with the conclusion of your service as well as your future endeavors. We know you'll do amazing things wherever you go.

Monday, June 15, 2015


Bess Pallares, MTCC VISTA Alum
This year marks the 50th anniversary of VISTA.  In celebration of this special anniversary we will be featuring alumni periodically to see where they are now.  We checked in with Bess Pallares who served as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the University of Montana and Missoula County Public Schools.  Check out the amazing things she has done and is currently doing below.  Thank you for your service, Bess and good luck with everything you do!

Where did you serve?
I served with Missoula County Public Schools and University of Montana as a VISTA with the Partners In Education project from July 2010 to July 2012.

What was your service experience like and how did your project address the poverty problem in your community?
My service experience involved a lot of capacity building, program evaluation, and community partner development. Coming from a journalism background these were new challenges for me, but I had great support from my supervisor and the other excellent folks with Missoula County Public Schools and its partner organizations. My work focused on two main areas: the Graduation Matters Missoula campaign and addressing volunteer policies and involvement in the schools. These issues play a huge role in not only assisting students and families currently experiencing poverty, but in providing a strong foundation for students to succeed and stand a better chance of moving out of poverty as adults. The earning potential and quality of life for high school graduates is significantly stronger than those who drop out. My work was centered around partnering with community organizations to support school initiatives in support of graduation and making sure more volunteers can be involved safely in the schools to provide much-needed assistance for teachers with over-crowded classrooms and few resources.
During your service, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
In my first year of service I helped develop a new district policy that requires MCPS volunteers who work with students unsupervised to undergo a criminal background check. I researched background-checking systems and developed print and digital forms for volunteers to register with the district and submit to the checks, as well as a database to track volunteers and keep schools updated on volunteer permissions. Keeping the importance of parent involvement and affordability to families experiencing poverty in mind, we chose a system that cost just $6.50 per check, and any parent or volunteer who was unable to pay for their background check had the fee covered by the district or special Parent Teacher Association funds. This was a fundamental step in allowing the district to increase community involvement while helping to ensure student safety in schools.

Where are you today and what are you doing?
I live in Portland, Oregon, and I’m halfway through a master’s in book publishing at Portland State University. I work as a freelance comic book editor, and for the next year will serve as the acquisitions co-manager for Ooligan Press, the student-run publishing house based at PSU.

How has your service impacted you personally and professionally?
Personally, as a graduate student with limited means and a family to support, I have continued to use the lessons in thrifty living I developed as a VISTA. I’ve learned I can handle just about anything for two years! Professionally, the confidence I developed in building community partnerships and the problem-solving skills I learned during my service have helped me boldly pursue my dream career as a comic book editor. The job is vastly different, but through VISTA I developed fearlessness and faith in my own abilities. I am forever grateful for my Montana Campus Compact experience and friends I made in the program.

Keep in touch, Bess and good luck!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Twenty Nine MTCC VISTA Summer Associates were just sworn in, this is the Missoula crew.
Monday, June 1st, 2015, Montana Campus Compact  welcomed an unprecedented 29 AmeriCorps
VISTA Summer Associates to our campuses and communities across Montana! These Summer Associates will serve for 10 weeks in communities across the state, providing hands-on learning opportunities and educational programming for youth.  Each project is associated with one of four focus areas: K-12 success, college access, summer learning loss or summer food programming.

Some will be serving in tandem to strengthen current MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA projects like Jacquelyn Turmel serving homeless teens with Sparrow's Nest of NW MT in Kalispell, Others represent exciting new partnerships for MTCC, like Summer Associate VISTAs Lisa Nguyen and Scott Omundson with Sunburst Enterprises whose Gardens from Garbage summer lunch program is helping food-insecure kids with nutritious food.

These Summer Associates were sworn into service via webinar by Montana's state CNCS director, Jackie Girard after a Pre-Service Training session to help them understand the requirements, conditions and personal & professional benefits of their VISTA Summer Associate service.

Montana Summer Associates serving across the state are: Jessica Eiskant and Stephanie Kolb, with Girl Scouts of Montana and Wyoming (GSMW) in Billings; Allie Helterbran, Tara Gilsrud and Alicia Leitch with Human Resource Development Council IX in Bozeman; Amber Flores with Bitterroot Ecological Awareness Resources in Hamilton; Jaycey Ellis with Gallatin Valley YMCA in Bozeman; Lisa Davis with Children's Museum of Bozeman.  VISTAs serving in Missoula include: please list missoula VISTAs

Thursday, June 4, 2015


Alex Herlich served as a Montana Campus Compact AmeriCorps VISTA with Salish Kootenai College's Upward Bound program which helps first generation and low income students attend college.  Alex was responsible for developing public relations and community networks, overhauling recruitment policy, building at-distance summer curriculum, and piloting an arts outreach program with on-campus summer programs. In an effort to keep in touch with the amazing individuals who commit to a year of service, MTCC will periodically feature an alum or current member spotlight.

When and where did you serve during your term as an AmeriCorps VISTA?

I served from January 2014-January 2015 at Salish Kootenai College (on the Flathead Reservation in Pablo) with Upward Bound. Upward Bound is a federally funded program that exists to help low-income, would be first-generation college students through the college application process.

How did your year of service impact your life?

It reiterated my desire to work with people and be in the human service field. Beyond the work I was doing in the office, I had a really interesting and fulfilling experience immersing into a local community. Coming from a suburb of Boston and then going to college in the second biggest city in New England, I did not have any life experience living in a community under 30,000. Working and living on the Flathead Reservation gave me an opportunity to meet and get to know people from all walks of life within the community. So in that way, it gave me an appreciation for smaller communities and the difference that can be made in those places.

What did you do after your term as a VISTA?

I returned to the east coast to family and friends while applying to jobs and couch surfing for a month.

Where are you now and what is your daily work life like?

I am living in Worcester, MA where I went to college. I was recently hired as an Education Specialist for a program called Education for Employment. I am working with high school dropouts in Central Massachusetts to help them get their HiSET (the modern equivalent of the GED) and then figure out what the next step is, whether that is a job, trade school, or college. A typical day is three or four hours with students in the morning, tutoring, counseling, or taking them on service trips or college tours. After that, a lunch break and then time in the afternoon doing paperwork and working to connect with community partners and maintain/develop relationships with schools, the Department of Children & Families, and community centers.