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This summer, four Summer Associates have been working hard on a variety of projects at DuPage Habitat for Humanity. They’ve been coordinating volunteers on construction sites, updating the organization’s website, collecting community feedback, expanding youth programs, and compiling a benefits package for employees.

The Summer Associates are part of a program that Housing Action Illinois launched for the first time this year. For 8 – 10 weeks, VISTA Summer Associates at more than a dozen organizations across the state have been doing a mix of direct and indirect service.

For most of the VISTAs at DuPage Habitat for Humanity, this summer was their first experience working in an office environment, which provided new opportunities for professional development while they’re completing their undergraduate degrees. “I wanted to work more hands-on with others and develop my people skills, since that’s what I’ll have to be doing after college,” said James Taff-Clay, who worked on neighborhood revitalization and community outreach in Hanover Park. “I’m a mechanical engineering major and have always liked working with children and families, so working on beautification sites and making an impact in the community has been a great experience that’s connected to my future and looks great on resumes.”

James Roberts has spent much of his summer at building sites, coordinating volunteers and helping create affordable homes

While their term of service may have been short, working with DuPage Habitat for Humanity provided lasting memories and perspectives. James Roberts, who helped supervise volunteers on site builds, spoke about remodeling a house for an elderly veteran as a time he won’t be able to forget. “We do a lot of work with veterans, and just last week we finished remodeling a house for a couple who was living in terrible condition—filth, bugs, anything you can think of—and it was affecting their health,” James R. said. This experience demonstrated first-hand just how much a stable home can impact a person’s overall well-being.

James T., who also conducted a community survey and led a summer camp for kids, was inspired and motivated by his work in Hanover Park. “I was surprised by how much people are willing to do for their family. I saw it firsthand from my mom and most of my family, but to see it from an outside perspective was a little different,” James T. said. “There’s one part of the survey that asks about how much people are working, so I saw what they’re really sacrificing and what they deem is necessary for their family. Every single home had someone with a different story.”

By working with families in Hanover Park, James Taff-Clay witnesses how stable housing helps grow stable communities

Joey Lasare, who worked with the Executive Director to develop capacity building strategies, noted that his growth went beyond just sharpening his professional writing skills. “I will carry with me the relationships I have built here and the experiences I’ve had,” Joey said. “From seeing day-to-day operations of how an office is run to carrying on a conversation and making the simplest friendship…these are things that will stay with me forever. I have a greater knowledge of poverty after this VISTA experience, as well as an even greater desire to do more and make even more of a difference.”

When asked about what he would tell someone interested in becoming a full-time VISTA or Summer Associate, Joey had an immediate answer. “Do it. Don’t second guess it, just do it,” Joey said. “You may be able to make more money somewhere else, but it’s an incredible experience. You’re giving back to your community, you’re giving back to your country, and you need to keep that in mind if you want to succeed as a VISTA.”

Marissa Diekhoff, Communications & Development VISTA at Housing Action Illinois