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This August, we headed to Aurora to visit Hesed House, a comprehensive homeless resource center where five VISTA Summer Associates have spent the last couple of months working on a wide variety of projects. They’ve been running a kid’s summer camp, planning events for the daytime drop-in center, coordinating volunteers for the emergency overnight shelter, and creating a new system for organizing and storing donations of children’s clothes.

How and why did they end up at Hesed House for the summer? All four of the Summer Associates we spoke with were completing—or had already completed—a degree in Social Work at Aurora University and believed working with Hesed House would help shape their future career goals. “I didn’t have anything lined up after graduating college, and I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to be,” said Jetzemanith Campos. “I questioned if I wanted to work with kids, so having this temporary position helped me learn and decide what I want with just a short-term commitment.”

Jetzemanith (right) kept kids busy all summer with planned events and activities (Photos courtesy of Hesed House)

Jetzemanith created a safe, engaging environment for homeless children by leading a summer day camp. “Because of this position, doors have opened for me here and at other agencies. The Director of Case Management offered me a part-time sub position here [at Hesed House], and I also work at the call center for the Gateway Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center,” said Jetzemanith. “I’m able to take a lot of the empathy I’ve learned working with kids here to my position at Gateway because it’s all about getting people to trust you and share about their struggles and life.”

For Ty Schrempf, a VISTA who led events at Hesed House’s PADS morning center, the summer position broadened her ideas about practicing social work and helped her understand the population she hopes to work with in the future as a certified drug abuse counselor. “(As a social worker) sometimes you feel like you have to be counseling people and producing change all the time, but sometimes just sitting next to someone, being a listening ear, and letting them know you’re there makes all the difference,” Ty said. “At first, I was scared I would have trouble relating to and working with the adults here, but I’ve learned to adjust and really focus on building relationships. I came into this position with knowledge of the homeless population, but they all have such different stories. It was great to be able to sit down with each person and learn about their lives.”

Having a VISTA helped Hugo expand and improve Hesed House’s PADS Overnight Emergency Shelter

AmeriCorps VISTA members serving in our Summer Associate Program work full-time with an organization for 8-10 weeks on specific projects. Unlike the VISTAs in our network that serve for a year-long term, Summer Associates are able to participate in direct service as well as capacity building activities, which allows them to focus on different goals. Hugo Saltijeral, Associate Director of PADS OES and supervisor to Summer Associate Julianna Stroup, discussed how crucial the VISTA members have been in building the capacity of Hesed House’s programs. “From day one of the VISTAs being here, I was on board. The thing about a shelter that is primarily volunteer-run is that if a volunteer doesn’t show up, it’s not that someone else does it, but that it just doesn’t get done,” Hugo said. “Having a VISTA allowed me to think about where we can innovate and bring to the foreground all that has been put off because we previously had no resources to do it. The only thing I can say is to keep doing the VISTA programs and keep offering it year after year. We need this.”

Read more from our Summer Associates at Hesed House by checking out our VISTA Spotlight on Sonia!

Marissa Diekhoff, Communications & Development VISTA at Housing Action Illinois