Jay Cook, Grants Evaluation Specialist for HUD and former HOPE Fair Housing VISTA

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A passionate fair and affordable housing advocate for years, I became a VISTA for several reasons.

My long term goal was to use my past housing programs experience and knowledge of federal grants to gain employment with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). However, I quickly discovered that despite having a Bachelor’s degree and significant prior work experience, to qualify for the positions I was most interested in, HUD said I would need a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Administration.

So, at 59 years young, having already enjoyed a successful career in mortgage banking and real estate, it looked like I was headed back to college. What I also needed was a job that would accommodate my school schedule, that I could feel good about, where the employer could benefit from my skills and experience, and would align with my current and future goals.

As luck would have it, HOPE Fair Housing was looking for a VISTA. A great fit, as not only was this organization all about supporting issues I was already involved with and very passionate about, but they needed someone with a strong understanding of grant research and grant writing. They were also hopeful their VISTA would have strong fundraising skills as well, an area I was familiar with but not highly experienced in.

Long story short, while I brought my grant expertise, they helped me develop my fundraising skills. During my term as their VISTA, I assisted in writing and submitting over a dozen grant applications. At last count, we were successful in three of these attempts with grant funding totaling over $50,000, and, I took a lead position in coordinating a walk/run event that helped raise over $5,000 and positioned the organization to successfully participate in this event for years to come.

I’m sorry to say I was unable to complete my full 12-month commitment with HOPE, but for very good reasons. In my ninth month as a VISTA, I received a call from HUD. They told me a position I had interviewed for some months prior had opened, and they were willing to hire me if I promised to complete my graduate work once on board. I eagerly accepted the job and am now only one term away from completing my Masters in Public Policy and Administration (MPPA).

My experience as a VISTA continues to serve me well. My current position with HUD involves fair housing law and affordable housing issues, and I am working regularly with many nonprofit organizations. One thing that still excites me is that when people learn I was a VISTA—especially later in life, unlike most VISTA volunteers—it provides instant credibility, allowing me to more quickly gain the trust and admiration of my coworkers, supervisors and clients.

Being a VISTA was a great experience. I am hopeful the program continues to receive much deserved support and funding, I would highly recommend considering volunteering for a year (or two) for anyone considering a career in public service or the nonprofit sector—even if they are “older” than the typical VISTA. Hey, ever consider a second career…?

Jay C. Cook
Grants Evaluation Specialist (GES)
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development