College-hosted VISTA volunteers work to improve community

Pellissippi State has been host to five AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteers this past academic year, and those volunteers have spent months reaching out to community partners in support of food access, environmental stewardship, and community schools. Here’s a little bit about each VISTA volunteer’s service experience:

Nicole Lewis, Great Schools Partnership

“I’ve spent the past few months building bridges between community partners and Pellissippi State students seeking volunteer opportunities,” Lewis said. As part of Great Schools Partnership, Lewis does a good deal of work with community schools, or schools in the Knox County Schools system with an integrated focus on academics, supportive health and social services, and community development to improve learning and strengthen families.

Originally from Virginia, she fell in love with community service while a student at George Mason University.

“I became involved with the campus Habitat for Humanity. It opened my world and I found out that I wanted to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector.” When her year as a VISTA ends in August, Lewis will continue working for the Great Schools Partnership.

Caley Hyatt, Knoxville Permaculture Guild

“At the Knoxville Permaculture Guild,” said Hyatt, “I’ve been planning workshops in the Park Ridge community, where there’s a community garden. We’re helping people there integrate permaculture principles into their neighborhood. We hope it will wake people up to the possibilities of permaculture by focusing our efforts on one community.” Permaculture is an approach to sustainability that has as its core principles care for the earth, care for people and a return of surplus into the ecosystem.

Hyatt, who hails from Bristol, has been in Knoxville since 2011. She’s an RN and has worked at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, but she entered Pellissippi State’s AmeriCorps VISTA program to pursue her passion for community health and food access.

“So many people lack basic access to things like healthy food. I’m really passionate about that. After this year as a VISTA is over, I’d like to go back to school in student ecology, perhaps teach and continue working in the community.”

Elias Attea, University Assisted Community School at Pond Gap Elementary School

“Since the community garden here was founded in 2013,” Attea said, “we’ve strived to integrate the garden with the school’s culture. It’s a lot of work to communicate with school staff, develop programming, recruit and manage volunteers, remember every child’s name, and meet with parents, plus take care of a close-to-a-third-of-an-acre garden. But at the end of the day, I’m excited about what I do.”

This year, Attea has overseen a new initiative in “therapeutic horticulture.” He works with Pond Gap’s school counselor to offer children behavioral opportunities in the garden, providing them a place to recalibrate from the stresses of school.

Attea hopes to stay on at Pond Gap long enough to get the next Pellissippi State VISTA acclimated, then return to his home in the Southwest. He says he might pursue a career in teaching or in horticultural therapy.

Jennifer Hurst, Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee

“I work as a rural liaison, helping expand Second Harvest’s capacity in rural communities to improve emergency food assistance,” said Hurst. “I try to plug in Pellissippi State Service-Learning student volunteers to help with this goal, particularly in a new program called Healthy Harvest, which will distribute produce from Second Harvest’s garden and from local farmers’ markets.”

Hurst has a family tradition of community service: her grandmother served in both AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, and her mother encouraged Hurst to attend political volunteer events.

“When I was looking for a change in my life, it was only natural to look to AmeriCorps.” Hurst’s plan when her volunteer stint is over? “When my VISTA year is up, I’ll probably go to Disneyland.”

Charlotte Rodina, The Center for Urban Agriculture at Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum

“I’ve spent time organizing volunteer days at the Knoxville Botanical Garden to get healthy food to nearby residents,” Rodina said. “We are located in a food desert, so the gardens are really concerned about food access and being able to get healthy food. Having access to fresh and healthy food is a human right, so I love working with people to help them to grow their own.”

Rodina also will spend time in the coming months at the Hardin Valley Campus establishing a community garden. That vegetable garden will be run by volunteers and will be open to classroom use. Food from the garden will be served in the Cafeteria and also donated.

The Virginia native is a newcomer to Knoxville and formerly worked as a journalist.

The VISTA volunteers are sponsored by Pellissippi State’s Service-Learning program,