Originally Posted to the IRC in Seattle:

Each year, the Refugee Support Network (RSN) helps hundreds of refugees in the Seattle area find homes and start new lives after relocating to the United States. The network is composed of seven agencies working together toward this common goal. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Seattle coordinates the network, along with Asian Counseling and Referral Service, the Coalition for Refugees from Burma, East African Community Services, Jewish Family Service, School’s Out Washington, and the Somali Community Services Coalition.

Much of the work undertaken by the RSN is performed by AmeriCorps VISTAs (Volunteers in Service to America). The VISTAs are college graduates who’ve agreed to donate a year of service to one of the RSN organizations.

VISTA workers are responsible for building connections in the community, coordinating outreach programs and events, recruiting and managing local volunteers, raising money, and doing the research and planning to help relocate and settle incoming refugees. They commit to live in poverty during their year of service, surviving on only a small monthly stipend, but in exchange they gain valuable and life-changing experience working in the non-profit sector.

AmeriCorps VISTAs who’ve volunteered with the RSN say the experience helped them grow both professionally and as individuals. For some it changed the entire direction of their lives.

“I wasn’t familiar with the breadth of opportunities available through AmeriCorps, nor did I know what type of position I was looking for,” said Adrienne Ramm, who originally joined AmeriCorps to gain some “real-world” experience before returning to school.

Adrienne had not even heard of the IRC before becoming a VISTA, but her time there convinced her to stick with the organization once her term was up. She became their first full-time Volunteer Coordinator. She’s now been working with them for two and a half years.

“Serving as a VISTA at the IRC was a great opportunity for me to gain professional experience,” she said. “It’s also been great exposure to the field of refugee services and, more generally, the non-profit landscape in our region.”

Most volunteers move on to other things once their year is complete, but all gain experience that helps in whatever career they choose.

Yvette Sumner was the VISTA Leader at the RSN from May 2012 through May 2013. During that time she helped manage other VISTAs, coordinated meetings and learning opportunities for them, and acted as liaison to the Corporation for National and Community Service, AmeriCorps’ parent organization. She now works as a Development Assistant for YouthCare, a nonprofit that works with homeless youth in the Seattle and King County Areas.

“I was looking into a career in the nonprofit sector and wanted to gain experience and learn more about working at a nonprofit ,” she said. “I think this knowledge is important information to have in any job.”

Her time with the RSN reaffirmed her commitment to a career in the nonprofit sector, but it also taught her how much she would enjoy this kind of work.

“All of the AmeriCorps and VISTA members that I’ve met in my time in AmeriCorps have been really fantastic to work with. All have been very intelligent, passionate, and committed to their work.”

For some VISTAs working with the IRC, volunteering for a year is a way of repaying the organization for past kindnesses.

“The IRC actually resettled my family here from Bosnia in 1998,” said Denis Rajic. “I wanted to start volunteering at the IRC.”

Denis didn’t know much about AmeriCorps when he graduated, but he definitely wanted to give back to the group that helped him find a home in the United States. He heard about the VISTA program through a family friend, and decided to go for it.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” he said, reflecting on his experience. “I honestly had no idea what to expect. Part of me thought I was in over my head since I didn’t have much experience.”

“I grew immensely. I went from someone who was always unsure in what I was doing, to being very confident in my abilities, and in my job.” 

Denis now works as an employment specialist for TRAC Associates in the King County Homeless Employment Project. He helps homeless people find work or enroll in job training programs. He’s still not sure what he wants to do long-term, but his time with the IRC helped him realize how much he enjoys working with people.

“I love working in teams and having people bounce ideas off each other. I love working with my current clients.”

Each VISTA position is different, and most involve more behind-the-scenes work than direct contact with the refugees served by the network, but that doesn’t mean the experience doesn’t impact volunteers personally. Yvette began tutoring a young refugee during her time with AmeriCorps, and the two still get together now that she’s left the organization.

“I’ve had a really great time working with her,” Yvette said of her pupil. “She’s extremely intelligent, hardworking, and has incredible perseverance. In my experience, these are traits shared by many refugees and immigrants. I think this has made me respect even more the challenges faced by people coming to this country and the incredible resiliency refugees and immigrants have.”

Adrienne continues to work with refugees in many aspects of her job with the IRC. She’s learned a lot about the challenges faced by individuals and families trying to resettle in the United States.

“The first time I heard a client say that being resettled in the U.S. was harder than fleeing their home country, I was taken aback. Considering many of the IRC’s clients have experienced violence, persecution and unthinkable atrocities in their home countries, the statement was very impactful to me.”

Despite the challenges faced by the organizations and their clients, Adrienne says she loves the work she’s doing.

“Between my coworkers, our clients and our team of remarkable volunteers, I had never before been exposed to so many unique and interesting life experiences.”

The RSN is currently recruiting new VISTAs for year-long terms beginning in April. They are looking for service-oriented people who are keen to gain life experiences and adventure over immediate employment out of school. VISTA positions change every year, so it’s important for volunteers to be flexible and willing to learn and adapt to whatever circumstances they encounter.

Amanda Addington is the current VISTA Leader at the Refugee Support Network. She said her time here so far has exposed her to both the challenges and opportunities of organizations like the IRC. She may be less idealistic than when she started, but has become “realistic, not pessimistic.” She’s learned how to work within her means both at work and personally, and how to succeed with limited resources.

“VISTA teaches us to be resourceful in a lot of ways,” she said, reflecting on her growth through nearly two years in the program. “You realize just how much work it takes for an organization to run.”

Much of the work involves a variety of tasks that may not seem exciting at first, but they are invaluable to the success of these organizations. They are skills valuable in any career.

“The IRC is a big name in the refugee community,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t do the mundane activities like writing emails, making spreadsheets, and printing flyers.”

For AmeriCorps VISTAs working for the RSN, it is a chance to change both their own lives and the lives of those who need help the most.

“My work has given me the opportunity to learn about individuals’ backgrounds and life experiences that I may have never come into contact with otherwise,” said Adrienne. “I get to expose people to learning experiences that can have long-term effects on how they think about the world and how they live their lives – how awesome is that?”

“I’ve never worked at a place where the staff got along so well,” Denis said. “Work never felt like work and I honestly loved going in every day. It was fun.”

Not only was it fun for Denis, it broadened his understanding of the world. He said he was always surprised by how similar people are no matter where they come from.

“We are all the same.,” he said. “We like to laugh. We go through hardships. We try to build a better future for ourselves and especially our children. People are more alike than they realize, whether they be from the U.S., Nepal, Somalia, or Bosnia.”

Story by Shane Clyburn/IRC Volunteer Writer Corps

Photo of Denis Rajic by Cameron Karsten/IRC Volunteer