February AmeriCorps*VISTA Spotlight: Sunny Calhoun and Victoria Latham

AmeriCorpsVISTA Member Spotlight

The Winston-Salem Community Action Coalition consists of 18 AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) members sponsored by the Office of Civic & Community Engagement (OCCE) at Wake Forest University. 

Members are placed in full-time, capacity-building roles with community organizations throughout Winston-Salem in the areas of educational equity, economic empowerment, and health and food justice. United by their passion to make a difference, VISTA members have vowed to complete a year of national service and create meaningful change in Winston-Salem and beyond.

Since August, VISTA members have helped Winston-Salem community partners engage with over 500 volunteers and leverage over 300 thousand dollars in cash and in-kind donations.

This month the OCCE is happy to introduce Victoria Latham (‘20) and Sunny Calhoun (‘20), the 2020-21 AmeriCorps VISTAs with The Forsyth Promise. A local nonprofit, The Forsyth Promise facilitates education-focused collaborative, community-wide planning and action; providing a framework to help all community stakeholders work together toward the goal of improved educational outcomes for Forsyth County’s students — from cradle to career. 

Both VISTA members work closely with the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Inspire 340 network – a group of schools that have been designated as a Priority or Focus school, many of which are Title I schools that receive additional federal funding. 

In her role, Calhoun provides support for the Inspire 340 schools, in addition to serving as a liaison between the network, The Forsyth Promise and business partners in Winston-Salem. Latham, on the other hand, establishes community connections with The Forsyth Promise and provides wrap-around support at Inspire 340 schools for CARES teams – which provides resources and support to help improve learning outcomes for students.

Calhoun,-SunnySunny Calhoun, 2020-2021 AmeriCorps VISTA at The Forsyth Promise
Hometown: Lexington, N.C.
Alma Mater: Wake Forest University (‘20)
Degree: Bachelor of Arts in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, minor in English
Favorite place in North Carolina: Asheville, N.C.

Latham,-VictoriaVictoria Latham, 2020-2021 AmeriCorps VISTA at The Forsyth Promise
Hometown: Kennett Square, Pa.
Alma Mater: Wake Forest University (‘20)
Degree: Bachelor of Arts, Politics & International Affairs and French Studies
Favorite place in Winston-Salem: Hidden K Stables

Why did you join AmeriCorps VISTA?

Calhoun: I joined AmeriCorps VISTA as a foray into nonprofit work, particularly nonprofit work on a local level in Winston Salem. I graduated from Wake Forest so I already had connections in the community, but wanted to continue to grow those connections in an impactful way, and AmeriCorps*VISTA afforded me that opportunity after graduation. 

Latham: During my time as an undergraduate at WFU I was a part of a lot of different service organizations and clubs, both through the Office of Civic & Community Engagement with programs like Dash Corps, and through my service fraternity – Alpha Phi Omega. 

I felt like I made a lot of connections in the Winston-Salem community that I wasn’t finished seeing through. I decided that I wanted to use the connections I’d made in school to improve the community I came to love over the past four years. AmeriCorps provided the opportunity to do that, plus it has the additional benefit of the education award that will help me pay for graduate school in the future. 

What would you say is the highlight of your 2020-2021 VISTA year so far?

Calhoun: Seeing people come together and work hard to create fast, new solutions for students has been amazing. I have enjoyed supporting the Inspire 340 schools and their teachers as they navigate COVID-19, and come up with new, innovative solutions for their students. 

This is a year where we’re seeing the innovation of both the education and nonprofit sector work come together quicker than it ever has before. We’re seeing great new solutions come out, and so many caring people working diligently to change things for the better as quickly as they can.

Latham: I’ve been able to help Kimberley Park Elementary School with two events this year, and in a virtual year, they have stood out. They’ve been community-facing, so it gave me the opportunity to meet the people that I work with every day via the computer, in person. It also afforded me the opportunity to meet the students and parents that I’m serving through The Forsyth Promise, which was wonderful. We had an outdoor open house a week or so before the school was originally scheduled to resume in-person learning, and all the parents and kids came through to meet their teachers and collect bookbags that we had prepared for them. Community partners came to talk about the services they provide as well, and it was just great to finally put faces to names and meet the families that I had been hearing about.

In December we had another event where we held a Christmas toy store. We received over a thousand donated presents, and parents could then shop for toys for the children at reduced prices. Those two events allowed me to meet both the students and teachers, and that has definitely been the best part. It’s more in line with what I had expected this year to be, and I’m glad that even with the pandemic we’ve been able to host two safe events where I’ve been able to meet students, families, and educators.

What would you want people to know that want to get involved in AmeriCorps VISTA?

Calhoun: There are so many different positions, so people with all different skill sets can find a place that suits both their skill sets and interests. VISTA is a program that takes the skills you already have and not only works with them but helps to develop a whole other set of abilities in your professional toolbox. Not only is it a great stepping stone for developing new skills, it’s also a place where people value the experience that you bring and the unique perspective that you have.

Latham: Although it’s challenging, especially this year where we’re not able to meet people and are sometimes struggling through the digital landscape, it is one hundred percent worth it. 

The work we do is hard, and the stories I hear about the families we serve are sometimes difficult to listen to, but being able to serve the community and improve the lives of so many people is worth it. This year has opened my mind to the hardships that I knew existed but had never seen, and helping create solutions has changed what I want from my life. AmeriCorps instills passion in you for your community wherever you live, and I would encourage people who are looking for that to consider AmeriCorps.