Monday, November 22, 2010

AmeriCorps*VISTA Presence at the IDA Collaborative of N.C. Part I: At the State Level

A mix of direct quotes, summary, and turning their words into story, this article is about the VISTA role in the Asset Building and IDA Collaborative of North Carolina. I conducted phone interviews with VISTA members, supervisors, and the Executive Director of the Collaborative, for a period of two weeks in November.

Part I has interviews I conducted with Executive Director Donna Gallagher and AmeriCorps*VISTA Leader Zarak Khan. They explain what the Asset Alliance and IDA Collaborative is, along with why there is a VISTA presence.  Part II is interviews I conducted with VISTAs placed at innovating asset building and IDA programs throughout the state, and Part III is all about the New Century IDA and my and Alexandra's role within this groundbreaking IDA working group.  -Andriana Bicanin  [AmeriCorps*VISTA].


There are currently ten VISTAs placed throughout the state of North Carolina supporting the Asset Alliance’s partner organizations. These high energy, service minded individuals have devoted a year of their life to helping build capacity at their sites, and helping those in poverty rise above and empower themselves. The goal of the AmeriCorps*VISTA project is to help the people in America rise out of poverty and create a lifetime of knowledge and empowerment. Welfare can get a person only so far, what sets them up for independence is asset building, and that is exactly what these amazing organizations are doing.

The Organizations who House the VISTAs:

New Century IDA: Experiment in Self Reliance

New Century IDA: Forsyth County Department of Housing. Winston Salem

Kingdom Community Development Corporation: Fayetteville

Eagle Market Street Development Corporation: Asheville

Community Link in Charlotte

Durham Regional Financial Center in Durham

Prosperity Unlimited in Kannapolis

Gaston Community Action in Gastonia

Choanoke Area Development Association in Rich Square

Beyond Academics at the University of North Carolina Greensboro

Donna Gallagher is the Executive Director of the North Carolina Asset Building Collaborative (NCIDA), and is part of a four state coalition with West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. As executive director of the NCIDA she works to develop programs and solutions for North Carolina through participating with partners, raising money, and working with the asset collaborative board.

Before working as executive director of the NCIDA Donna was a banker and CPA (Certified Public Accountant). She left that world in order to go into child welfare. For eighteen years she worked in child welfare, housing and juvenile justice; it was during this time she saw a constant trend of emergency needs, and very few long term, sustainable, move out of poverty, types of programs that give families a path to take care of themselves either through education training or long term planning. She felt that government assistance, in some ways, does not place emphasis on long term solutions to staying out of poverty because welfare recipients are not able to accumulate assets through this sort of aide. She went into the Individual Development Account field because it is one of the major answers for upward mobility. Donna constantly saw families in poverty and a lack of resources for upward mobility and staying out of poverty. Seeing this motivated her to go into asset building, and continues to motivate her today. As she told me,

“Working in asset building means you work for an Equitable States of America. Liberty and justice for all is not just words, it means something. Public policy many times is geared to provide resources to the wealthy, so working in asset building means that you are working for an equitable America.”

The North Carolina Asset Building Collaborative:

The North Carolina Asset Building Collaborative works with programs and organizations around the state to build wealth for low to moderate income North Carolinians. They do this through: public policy advocacy, support programs like AmeriCorps VISTA and N.C. Saves, and work with other organizations where savings programs and financial education is the focus. Asset building overall is a huge field and they are trying to take the niche of savings- that of IDA and matched savings, and an array of other wealth building programs and ventures.

How was the NCIDA formed?

The collaborative is fourteen years old. When organizations were applying for the initial grants for the American Dream Demonstration, a group of service minded individuals applied for it but were initially rejected. This was seen as a blessing in disguise because the North Carolina Asset Building Collaborative was later able to get funding from the North Carolina General Assembly. This allowed them to create a program modeled and structured specifically to address the needs of the people and communities of North Carolina, rather than having to follow a federal model. After not getting accepted for the federal grant, the group went to Raleigh and said they wanted to bring this sort of asset building grant to North Carolina. A group of them wrote an AFI grant and were able to bring matched funding to North Carolina. The funds were sub-granted across the state into programs that wanted to do IDAs, with the collaborative still in the role of training and technical assistance with IDA and other capacity help. From there came the birth of the IDA collaborative.

What are some projects ya’ll are working on?

The NCIDA is putting a lot of effort into economic security forums. There are two forums scheduled for: Kannapolis and Durham (there was just one on November 16th in Williamston). These are facilitated presentations about asset building, and are broken up into small groups to drill down on housing, financial services and savings, education and small business.

NC Saves week: February 20th 2011.

Conference planning for 2011 Asset building conference. In addition to four state savings partnership.

NC Asset Alliance: The session starts after the 1st of the year. Advocacy on behalf of an equitable, which is hard this year because of the budget deficit. She is hoping the gains they made these past few years don’t get cut to plug the budget deficit. The assets alliance will be taking a leadership role in the ongoing efforts over policy and communications- there will be a lot of activity in early spring with the North Carolina General Assembly going into session.

Upcoming Events:

If you would like to attend any upcoming events, please go to the North Carolina Asset Alliance website and register. The events are free because of these wonderful sponsors: CFED, Bank of America, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Why were VISTAs brought in, what is the VISTAs role in asset building, and why is it even necessary to have a VISTA presence?

AmeriCorps VISTAs were brought in to support and create a strong asset building awareness in communities throughout the state, which in turn helps create a lasting movement. Those in the NCIDA know there is work that has to be done on a lot of levels, and CFED has done a wonderful job nationally by providing good research through the scorecard, as well as learning opportunities and assistance on a lot of levels, but the VISTAs are here to help create awareness and build capacity at a local level.

Only five years ago the IDA collaborative received a grant to build the assets alliance- and now the assets alliance has almost 60 partners, as well as groups around the state that work on some piece of the assets agenda. There is a strong group of experts and advocates at the state level, but what was missing was drilling down the program and movement at the community level.

Understanding the economic split in N.C. is important when looking at why VISTAs were brought in, as well as understanding the needs of the communities and public outreach on behalf of the community.

The N.C. Rural Center works in 85 counties that are considered rural (where there are fewer than 250 people per square mile). Half of the population lives in rural areas, that is four million people. Rural center gets lots of resources they can bring in to small towns and communities. The collaborative met and asked themselves where they needed to put resources in community building, because there was already support in rural communities they decided to focus on urban areas. They looked at research done by the N.C. Center for Poverty Work and Opportunity; they looked at those pockets of poverty that are resident in urban center. Seeing as half of population of North Carolina lives in these areas, this is where they chose to place VISTAs. They wanted to provide additional resources for what they believe is a sustainable solution to poverty in urban areas of N.C.

More about VISTAs in the Asset Building Movement:

The IDA Collaborative houses the VISTAs for a term of three years. In this three year period they will:

1) Raise awareness of the organizations where they are placed.
2) Bring engagement
3) Create lasting solutions and build capacity.

The network of VISTAs across the state are a high energy group and they provide an outside view, objectivity, and bring fresh eyes into what’s going on with this movement. The accomplishments of this group are long range. Through the VISTA efforts they will be able to share what works well across the state. This is already happening. In the short three months the VISTAs have been with the NCIDA they have been sharing their efforts and energy and accomplishments. Donna is excited to see where the VISTAs take the organizations in three or fours years from now, and how their connection with the assets movement for N.C. creates a stronger link to the nonprofits, and asset building movement. She is hoping this will result in stronger laws, stronger public policies, and local actions that will support shared prosperity and connections so that everyone in N.C. has the opportunity to build assets. Assets are not an income solution, assets are a broader and more comprehensive view of families economic security.

Four State Asset Building Collaborative:

Donna is busy not only helping the people of North Carolina, but those in our region, through a coalition effort in executing the best asset building techniques and programs. The four state coalition is comprised of: the North Carolina Asset Building Collaborative, Virginia Community Capital (capitalized by the state of Virginia), South Carolina Association of Community Development Corporations (CDCs), and the West Virginia Kanawha Institute for Social Research and Action (KISRA).

This four state collaborative came about when Donna was having a conversation with the program officer at the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation around their work in asset building. He talked about the fact that they had done some grants together with asset building programs, and asked if she was interested in leading a group on how the different states can come together and benefit from each others work. The foundation provided a grant in the fall of 2009 and invited representatives from the other three states to come together. Dan Kornelis, the Director of Housing for Forsyth County (N.C.), hosted the training at the Forsyth County government building.

After coming to terms as to what their shared goal was and discussing each organizations strengths, they came to the common goal of increasing the savings of low wealth residents in their states. They surveyed everyone they knew involved with financial education and savings programs, and through these findings savings gaps were identified in respect to geography; common findings and dialogue: not everyone has access to financial institutions where they can save, the institutions can not be supported without costs, specific populations needs, and a lot of dialogue around the need for youth savings, need for education savings, and seniors were also mentioned.

They found that a savings product or program with small savings goals is needed especially in groups that serve very low income folks. They also found commonalities with home needs, appliance and furniture, and transportation. The NCIDA is trying to build emergency funds into North Carolina Saves. They left their efforts at this and went back to the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation and told them that they felt they could take this effort regionally.

In order to promote assets for all, they are reaching out to employer groups, financial institutions that are across the region, and other advocacy groups, on the regional level. The regional collaborative recently received word they will be funded for two more years. In 2011, the NCIDA is taking the N.C. Conference in Asset Building regional by inviting the three others states to this normally North Carolina only conference.

Any more thoughts or parting words?

“Overall, if we needed a lesson on how interconnected our economic survival is, the economic downturn is a perfect example. North Carolina has a bright future- there is a 1.5 decrease in unemployment- the question is how to we make it bright for all residents.” She is very optimistic that they can, “Continue to make North Carolina the best state in the country to Live, Work, and Play.”

Zarak is the AmeriCorps*VISTA Leader for the North Carolina Asset Building Collaborative. Having already done a year of AmeriCorps*VISTA with Campus Compact at Clemson, and enjoying building community partnerships, he decided to spend another year serving as a VISTA*Leader. He supports and coordinates ten full time VISTAs placed throughout the state at partner organizations. He also makes sure the project stays on target and supports the broader goals of the Collaborative. Zarak works at the same office as Donna and provides an outsider’s view of the organization, and just as us VISTAs are doing, he helps build capacity and support for stronger community ties and partnerships, and reaching the goal of asset building and independence.

His interview is much the same as the one I conducted with Donna, but he is able to provide us with an outsider’s view on what the movement in North Carolina looks like, what the role of AmeriCorps is, and his efforts with the organization. His role as supporter and coordinator for the VISTAs, as well as his previous VISTA experience, provides a unique perspective and insight into our roles and endeavors in North Carolina.

What Drives You to Help this Cause?

His background is heavy in volunteerism. He worked with Habitat for Humanity in Jacksonville, FL. (Habijax), and worked around poverty education as an undergraduate. He views his current role as VISTA Leader and talking to partners and collaborative members about their experiences as a “crash course” in capacity building for this type of nonprofit work.

Zarak chose to join this effort because of his background in partnership creation and sustaining such relationships. What drives him is the aspect of working with all members of the collaborative and helping them run smoothly. He finds the process of getting to know different people and organizations, seeing how their strengths work well together, partnering them, and seeing how those partnerships are fruitful and productive for everyone involved, very rewarding.

What is Your View of the North Carolina Assets Building Collaborative?

The Collaborative works with several different partners around the state that participate in IDA programs or are interested in IDA programs, the Assets Alliance, and those who build assets. It is a mix of working with partners on the ground, as well as state and national advocacy and education. They participate in state and national conferences and forums such as the CFED conference. They also talk to lawmakers about asset building programs and things that North Carolina legislators can do to support such a program.

A prime example of how the Collaborative helps the state is through the VISTA project. The VISTA project works to build capacity and keep lines of communication open with those who work on asset building and IDAs.

He said he is learning more and more about what each individual agency does and how much each agency knows about other collaborative members. Because of the connectedness of the VISTAs and the efforts each are putting into their organizations and with each other, the collaborative will be drawn closer together.

Nationally, North Carolina is ahead of other states when it comes to consumer protection and policies. Along with success comes struggles such as indexing minimum wage to inflation and support of state IDAs, but overall North Carolina is doing a great job with its asset building movement and IDA programs. North Carolina is actively bringing in modes of support and means to increase the success of its programs.

VISTA Presence

When I asked Zarak what he was most excited about when it came to working with the collaborative, his voice was upbeat as he said, “Easy answer. The VISTA project.” His interest and excitement over this project is clearly evident. This is the aspect that he’s most intimately familiar with, and a program he truly enjoys.

He just finished compiling the quarterly VISTA report, and the accomplishments and stories the VISTAs shared in their reports really excited him for where this project is going. The quarterly report required that each VISTA write what they have done at their service sites from the start of their service term in August, up until the beginning of October. The fact that the report only reflects the first five weeks of service shows the enthusiasm, energy, and strengths of this group of VISTAs. They have already gained “amazing” accomplishments that have not even been slated for completion for another six months.

He finds it is exciting to see how these things have been put into place, how effective and dedicated the VISTAs are, and how they have easily slipped into the groove of the agencies pretty early on. It will be interesting and exciting to see how these organizations have expanded, grown, and been supported two and three years from now, due to the efforts of the VISTAs.

In his view, the reason VISTAs are necessary is because nonprofits in general have the tendency to be overworked, understaffed, and under-funded. They help create sustainable new programs and with building capacity for those that already exist. With nonprofits that do emergency assistance the focus is on getting by and making sure people have absolute necessities- VISTAs have the time and perspective to see where change can help the nonprofit, they can also implement plans, and build new ways of offering things through the organization.

The majority of his time is spent working with the VISTA project. It encompasses a lot of planning and implementation of the VAD (VISTA Assignment Description). The VAD is put together by site supervisors and unique to each organizations needs. It is the assignment descriptions the VISTAs are trying to accomplish throughout the year. He makes sure that everyone, VISTA and supervisors, are comfortable, confident and understanding of their project descriptions. He also works to build relationships with financial institutions, and works with other coalitions in Raleigh and out of state to try and bring more resources to the project and collaborative.

What are some of the goals for this year, how about long-term goals?

This year:

1) Increase organizations’ capacity to serve low wealth individuals and families.

2) Improve communities’ asset building and engagement. Done through establishing local asset building coalition- if already there build around what’s already there.

3) Increase the financial knowledge of participants through the sites programs. That’s why a lot of the stuff this year is to get a baseline of where the sites are at- what they can put into place

4) Recruit and train volunteer wealth coaches who will provide financial education and advice to low income or asset poor families.

Long term:

The projects, goals, and accomplishments of the VISTAs are not just a one, two, or three year thing. One of the long-term aims of the project is to create a replication plan for projects statewide.

What are some current projects y’all are working on?

NC Saves- is a social marketing campaign to encourage North Carolinians to save. There is a lot of work to be done there. This project is good on several levels because it builds important relationships between agencies that offer financial education and financial institutions. The act of saving is something that most if not all people can be encouraged to do. Someone may not be ready for an IDA program but through this project they can receive both education and a savings account to put them on the right track to financial independence and asset building.

One of the best ways to get involved in this awesome venture is to work with one of the local partnering agencies. Please refer to the list of partnering agencies at the beginning of this blog post, or email Zarak at:

Any more thoughts or parting words?

When I asked him if he had any parting words or thoughts, he expressed his excitement over what AmeriCorps*VISTA can accomplish this first year, and the position for which the current AmeriCorps members are creating for their host sites; the energy, excitement and talent in capacity building and support shown by the VISTA members, is setting up a successful three year presence of AmeriCorps*VISTA. The work done today is creating potential for a strong tomorrow.

Friday, November 5, 2010

In Their Shoes- The Journey from Renter to Homeowner: A Spritual Journey- James

This is the first interview I conducted with James.  His energy and drive is absolutely inspiring, and I really look forward to talking to him and interviewing him throughout his homebuying experience.  -Andriana Bicanin

James is an eager new participant in the New Century program.  He comes into the program after years of struggling with homelessness and substance abuse.  He is now nearly five years sober, and wants to share his story with those who may feel like they have gone through too much or have experienced defeat.  When I sat down with James the feeling and emotion that kept repeating itself was that of surrounding yourself with positive people, how your life can be transformed if you allow it to, and to set goals and believe in yourself.  That first steps are setting out to make the change and seeking out the right services.  James decided to take that step and sought outside support.   He came from “a fairly decent family background, a military background” he stated, and ran into some problems and issues for which he sought help from social services to overcome.  Social services led him to ESR (Experiment in Self Reliance); which helped him through his rough patch, and recommended that he apply for the New Century IDA program.
He had at one time really wanted a house but resigned himself to renting for the rest of his life; with this loss of hope for owning his own home came a feeling that something was missing in his life.  The hardest thing for James was the fact that he was, “One of those people who were [sic] supposed to make it.  I was one of those people that had all the resources and had all the tools and had the education and I ended up on the street.”  James grew up in a home that his parents owned and feels an added pressure from himself because of that.  He mentions remarks from his family such as, “Are you ever going to get a place?”  He comes from a family of “Stoic men who had their little piece” and although this added pressure throughout the years, he needed to get to the point where he wanted to buy a house and where he was ready to take that step towards owning a home.  He found that time when he came to ESR.
James was very ignorant to what his availabilities were but the folks at ESR and CHO (Center for HomeOwnership) “Knew what they were doing and what questions to ask” him.  When he came in and spoke with the folks at ESR and found out that this was something that was attainable he was overcome with joy, cried, and said, “Praise God.”  He “didn’t know how to feel” because he felt like “it was a long time since anyone cared, that anyone really wanted for me to succeed.”  He watched (New Century IDA program director) Barbara’s video about her experience going through the program and buying a home, and was able to relate.
He firmly believes that no matter what you have gone through and what your struggles are, “If you take care of yourself, get with the right people, you can clean up if you just try.  This program helps with that.  If financial defeat, this program can help; if recovering from anything, this program can help; family decimation or dissolvement, whatever is negative holding you back , this program can help.  It’s not just economic it’s spiritual, emotional, psychological- everything.”  Most of the support that he experiences is through ESR.  The enthusiasm and support from the people at ESR is unwavering and is keeping him excited.  The communication and support are always there and the positivity is contagious.  He loves that even with delays there is support and follow through.
 James keeps his fear of going back to the dark moments in life as motivators for success.  He has no “grandiose” ideas of a huge house and yard, he knows he does not have to be a “hero”- he wants to make the most of this program and only move forward.  So long as he sets goals, stays focused, and stays in prayer, he knows he cannot fail.  His fears include that of becoming complacent and frustrated.  He also does not want fear of success to stand in his way; but, talking to people at ESR and CHO made him realize that he doesn’t have to fail, what he needs to do is work and keep focused.  He has decided to put his demons in the closet and move on and not give up on the dream or goal.  He feels that there is something spiritual going on with this program and it’s helping people like him.  He is very much looking forward to having security again.  He feels that having his own home makes him feel like a man and he wants to be his own man again.
            He is currently renting a home which he hopes to buy (through the program).  When I asked him if he had any plans for when he buys a house his mood lifted and I saw the possibilities flash through his eyes.  He shifts in his seat and throws out various possibilities for his future, some of those were the idea of having someone to share his home with, maybe getting a couple more animals, or he may join big brother/big sister.  He likes to sing and may bring people for karaoke- the options are endless.  He hasn’t thought too far ahead in what he would like to do once he buys the home, but the one thing he knows for sure is that he wants to create a home like his grandmother’s home.  He wants to create a place where no matter where in the entire world he is, he can think of that couch in the living room and know that he is home.  James also wants anyone who wants to visit to know that he has a door open and they are welcome.  James smiles and laughs at the fact that he realized he loves to cut grass.  He has to cut the grass at the house he currently rents, and feels that if he is going to mow a lawn it may as well be his own.
As a parting question I asked James what he wants to get out of the program, and he said he wants to gain discipline.  He wants to learn how to budget and how to make informed purchases.  He would also like the ability to pass on the knowledge he gains through this program to someone else.  He defines the New Century program as,  “People helping people to learn how to help people.”  He takes a moment to collect his thoughts, and with tears welling up in his eyes he tells me, “I don’t ever have to be ashamed again of who I am or of what I’ve done wrong.  This program along with the other things I have experienced the last four or five years is going to help me have that confidence back and not be ashamed, and say hey this is me, that I’m okay.” He says that it is “time to man up, make goals, and get through this.”
            I asked James if he had anything he wanted to say to those who may be reading this, and what he wants people to know, “Don’t let anyone tell you no.  No cannot be a part of your vocab.  Don’t let anyone else determine your dreams…Just do it, not because of anyone else, but because of you.”

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The New Century IDA Reporter, and Winter Home Maintenance Tips:

Here is information on the distribution of our upcoming newsletter, and winter home maintenance tips.  Hope you enjoy!  -Andriana Bicanin. 

The New Century IDA Reporter is a quarterly newsletter and paper version of this amazing blog; it is currently in the works for a winter 2010 production.  We are embracing all forms of communicating to our wonderful participants, alumni, sponsors, and community.  This newsletter is for those old fashioned folks such as myself who prefer paper news.  Only this past year have I personally embraced the use of the internet for news sources and information I would otherwise have sought out in paper form.  But alas, it is the 21st century and a new decade in the 21st century, and these forums are an easier way to share information.  This blog and our upcoming newsletter are in a way conjoined.  Both will have seasonal maintenance tips.  Both will have interviews.  Both will have the same awesome writers, bloggers, and inspiring messages.  The difference is the content length.  Whereas the blog can be as long and drawn out as the blogger wishes, the newsletter will have an introduction for blog articles, far shorter articles, and will be more on the statistical side.  We realize that not everyone has the internet, so the newsletter is a relevant and informed news source that merely has shorter articles and is accessible to those without the internet.  If you would like to be put on the mailing list for our newsletter shoot me an email at:

Seasonal Home Maintenance Tips: Winter

            The following is the continuation of the “Seasonal Home Maintenance Tips” article in the first issue of the New Century IDA Reporter.  Maintaining your home and readying it for the upcoming season is important so you can avoid costly repairs down the road.  If you keep up with the maintenance of your home and get it ready for the upcoming season you are eliminating one more worry.  If you take care of your home with each coming season you can save yourself the high cost of repairs down the road, due to mother nature.  Plan for tomorrow by acting today!  I found the following home maintenance tips while perusing the internet and compiled what I thought were the best.  At the end of this blog you can find websites I found the tips at, in addition to webpages I think are relevant for home repair and maintenance.

Tip #1 - If you have outdoor furniture clean all parts of the furniture, including the cushions, prior to putting it up for the winter. If you cover your furniture, allow for airflow so you don’t get any mold or mildew.

Tip #2 - Check your home around windows and doors for air leaks. An easy way to check for leaks is to move a lighter around the window or door frame and see if the flame moves with a breeze. If you find a leak, you can caulk it or you may have to replace the wood frame.
*If you are unable to repair the leak around a window frame, you can buy a plastic sealing kit from any home improvement store that can be placed on the outside of the window to prevent air from getting in.          
*For door leaks around the bottom of the door, you can put on a new door sweep. By having these leaks repaired can save you money on your energy bill during the cold months.  
*While checking your insulation in the basement and attic, if you see any dark, dirty spots, it may indicate you have air leaks coming into your home. You will need to try and locate these leaks and repair them.

Tip #3 - You will need to drain the gas out of your gasoline powered equipment during the winter. If you are unable to drain the gas, there are products available in home improvement stores to put into your gasoline for the winter months.

Tip #4 - If you have a gas powered generator you keep on hand for possible power outages, make sure you have containers of gas for the generator. Keep the gasoline stored in a garage or outside storage unit. Also test your generator to make sure it is working properly.
Tip # 5 – Make sure you have a shovel or snow blower.  If you already have one make sure it is in good working condition.  If you do not currently have one right now is the best time to buy one as the stores may get sold out if a heavy snow or snowstorm occurs.  Also get salt for your sidewalks.  If you get it now you avoid getting overcharged and waiting periods that come with everyone else rushing out to buy these items.

Tip #6 – Have your heating unit checked to make sure it is working properly.

Tip #7 – Clean debris out of your gutters; this reduces the chance of ice dams forming.

For more home maintenance tips go to these websites:

If you have any questions, comments, or your own tips for home maintenance, feel free to utilize the comments box below!  Until next time, Andriana