VISTA Strong Communities – Program Updates

Curious about what our VISTA members work on?

Each month, we’ll profile one of our VISTA members here, shining a spotlight on the amazing work that they do for the community. Check back regularly for more updates!

November: Sarah Malala

This month, we’re highlighting Sarah Malala (left), a VISTA member serving at the John and Jill Ker Conway Residence. As a former intern, the team was thrilled to get her back as a VISTA member. Sarah helps tenants form a Peer Leader group, a cohort of District residents who identify and address community needs, increasing resident satisfaction and well-being. Sarah says of the work, “It’s been great to see the peer leaders’ efforts contribute to a deeper sense of community within the building.”

Sarah chose to be a VISTA member because it aligned with her personal philosophy. “While implementing systemic change and addressing social injustices can be a slow process, I believe increasing capacity and empowering individuals and communities are crucial parts of that process.” She also highlights fantastic advice for people considering national service: “Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. As cliché as it sounds, it’s important to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

October: Katherine Donovan

This month’s highlighted VISTA member is Katherine Donovan. Katherine serves at Wacif and is helping them develop an impact report for the last thirty years of work. She’s proud of what she’s learned so far – “Before becoming a VISTA, I didn’t know anything about lending or small business. I also didn’t know what a community development financial institution was, and now I will be attending the CDFI industry conference the week of October 20th!” She also presented her research at an AmeriCorps research summit, showcasing the work she’d done at Wacif.

Being a VISTA has also helped Katherine learn more about what she wants to do as a career. “I was narrowly focused on working at an international NGO,” she explains, “but I realized that I also enjoy working at domestic nonprofits.”

September: Cecilia Urrutia

Cecilia Urrutia, wearing a blue VISTA polo, hands an older woman a dandelion to make a wish on.This month’s spotlight focuses on Cecilia Urrutia, a VISTA serving at Mi Casa, Inc. Cecilia was one of five VISTA members to attend last month’s In-Service Training in Chicago and bring back valuable insights to strengthen her work. In-Service Trainings are opportunities provided by AmeriCorps to give VISTA members a chance to gain skills and meet VISTA members serving at different sites.  “I had the opportunity to meet incredible individuals and hear all about their humbling work all over the country,” Cecilia said of her experience. “I found the planning and leading effective meetings workshop to be especially useful because now I know that there is a better way of having meetings.”

When asked what she was most proud of from her time at Mi Casa so far, Cecilia struggled to pick just one or two – “the 3 biggest accomplishments that I’m incredibly proud of right now are my capacity-building work developing the Genesis Community Strategic Work Plan, restoring our organization’s information management database, and lastly, initiating and leading weekly walks with Genesis residents that strengthen our community-focused relationships and overall health!” At nearly six months into her service, there’s even more to come.

August: Raquel “Rachel” Echeverria

Building Bridges Across the River

Raquel Echeverria standing behind a desk, holding a binder that reads "Volunteer Sign-in Sheet".

This month’s VISTA Spotlight focuses on Raquel “Rachel” Echeverria. She joined VISTA because she wanted to “make a positive and meaningful impact in underserved communities”. Prior to coming to the VISTA Strong Communities cohort, Rachel served in Florida and as a Peace Corps member in Armenia. She currently serves at Skyland Workforce Center, a project of Building Bridges Across the River, to build their volunteer program. 

While evaluating their existing program, she says, “I found that while volunteers have the desire to help people, there were not enough participants for them to work with, which resulted in low retention rates.” In order to resolve this, she created a weekly Job Search/Resume Help day, which boosted participation by 400%.  “Now I am working to balance the equation by recruiting more volunteers to assist all the people coming in for help!”

As a second-term VISTA member, Rachel brings a broader perspective to her position. “VISTA volunteers provide a great value to organizations in the short term and long term…I have seen how the work of VISTA volunteers has been impactful and has built organizational capacity through sustainability efforts that have lasted years after VISTA volunteers complete their service.”

July: Sheila Naya


Sheila (right), one of the inaugural VISTA Strong Communities members, serves at MANNA, Inc. “I joined VISTA because I enjoy serving people,” Sheila says of her service. “Since I was a young child, I enjoyed community service.” At MANNA, Sheila works with their project management and acquisition teams, as well as expanding MANNA’s Young Professionals monthly meet-ups. “The experience I gain from each department is excellent,” she says, saying that one of the best parts of working at MANNA is the chance to work independently without distractions and micromanaging.

However, when she first started at MANNA, she was a little alarmed – the scope of her project seemed too big for her to complete, so she talked to her supervisor and he amended it to be less overwhelming. “The ability to amend my VAD alleviated most of the fear I had,” Sheila says. “I would encourage anyone who likes to serve others to join AmeriCorps VISTA because it educates you on domestic problems, allows you to network, and gives you an opportunity to experience different cultures.” Sheila is also attending an AmeriCorps-sponsored training in Illinois in August to help expand her skills.

In addition to her regular work, Sheila is also coordinating a care drive for families at the National Center for Children and Families. Families need shoes, clothes, bedding, baby items, and toiletries – you can drop off donations at MANNA’s office, 6856 Eastern Ave, Suite 100, or purchase items off of their Amazon wish list.

If you are interested in learning more about MANNA’s Young Professionals group, please visit

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