2020-2021 VISTA Project Bios

CCMA VISTA Leader

Bio: Jake Hurner is a Portland, Oregon native looking to live in Maryland for the first time with the AmeriCorps VISTA program. Armed with a BFA and a can-do attitude he hopes to gain skills with CCMA to create actionable community engagement, promote responsible and ethical solutions, and support VISTA members as they look toward development both as professionals and global citizens. Jake can often be found in the kitchen refining a new recipe, exploring the limits of gouache, or hunting for a great glass of cold brew coffee.

Project: The CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA Leader works directly with the members placed at higher education institutions across the Maryland-DC-Delaware region to encourage and promote the expansion of service and quality campus-community partnerships.

Carroll Community College

Bio: Kierstin Klimas graduated from Temple University in 2019, where she earned her MA and BA in English with minors in both French and Theatre. During her time in Philadelphia, PA, she provided resources for academic success at The Temple Writing Center, as well as served in multiple internships at The Arden Theatre Company, a nonprofit arts institution. She worked to develop and secure funding through grant-writing for Arden programs to provide communities with needed resources and opportunities in education and the arts. During summers, she served military families at the Youth and Children Services at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

Project: The Community Resource Liaison CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA project targets low-income students at Carroll Community College who are experiencing barriers to achieving their educational goals. The CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA member will help connect students in crisis with community resources by creating a clear process of intake, referral, follow up, and support. The member will also create proactive programming to connect students with resources prior to crisis points, as well as a website with community resources for students, faculty, and staff.

CCMA Collective Impact – Grants

Bio: Sarah Lal grew up in Frederick County, Maryland, where she began working with community empowerment from a young age. She carried on her commitment to social change while living in Boston, MA; Coronado, Costa Rica; and San Francisco, CA. Sarah then went to Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, where she completed a Bachelor’s focused in Social Enterprise with an emphasis in Social and Ecological Resilience. Her favorite projects have included establishing food forests, working with Indigenous sovereignty, and using natural building methods for free community housing.

Project: This CCMA Collective Impact VISTA initiative will “complement and expand” current CCMA VISTA efforts in the communities they serve. Community partners have been engaged in the planning of all CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA proposals and are critical to the development of a sustained and supportive “collective impact” network. This Collective Impact VISTA member will offer support and additional resources that may be required through researching, applying to, and managing relevant grants; assisting in the development of policies and procedures to integrate sustainable grants processes; and providing support to coordinate effective assessment processes and the development of sustainable community networks.

Central Kenilworth Avenue Revitalization CDC

CKAR Affordable Housing in Prince George’s East Communities

Bio: Anirudh Prabu recently graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a BA in Biology. As a student, he was involved in undergraduate research in gastroenterology, advocating for measures to improve racial disparities in maternal health, and working as a medical scribe in an Emergency Department. In the future, he hopes to work at the intersection of clinical medicine and public health with a focus on addressing health disparities and uplifting underserved community voices.

Project: Central Kenilworth Avenue Revitalization (CKAR) is lead partner with Kaiser Permanente to develop a Place-based initiative in Greater Riverdale to lift residents from poverty and identify affordable housing opportunities and avoid displacement. The key objective of the CKAR Affordable Housing CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA project is to assist CKAR CDC to collect analytical data, record community interests and priorities, measure data against community input, and identify volunteers from community meetings. This project will create new opportunities for housing and develop a model for Community Resource Centers.

CKAR Improving Operations

Bio: Emily McGarey graduated from Virginia Tech in 2020, where she earned her BA in National Security and Foreign Policy. Her degree was supported by minors in both Global Leadership and French, as well as a Washington Semester. In addition, she has interned for multiple nonprofits around the DC area, concentrating on refugee resettlement in both reception & placement and match grant, as well as volunteer outreach/ coordination.

Project: This CCMA VISTA member will assist CKAR to complete the application for Standards for Excellence, programming for the continuing Capital Campaign for the Sarvis Café, and grant writing. The CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA will also support the work of a consultant to prepare an operations manual to assure the improvement of operations of the nonprofit to better serve the impacted area. CKAR CDC will open the Sarvis Empowerment Café in 2020. This CCMA VISTA member will assist with efficient operations to adequately deliver services such as culinary arts training, health and wellness programming, and working with affordable housing developers.

The Catholic University of America

Bio: Kara Feidelseit was born and raised in Germantown, MD. She attended St. Mary’s College of Maryland where she played on the school’s field hockey team for four years. She graduated in 2019 with a BS in Psychology and plans to pursue a Master’s Degree of Social Work following her year of service. Kara is deeply committed to the ideals of social justice and is excited for the opportunity to serve her community with her AmeriCorps VISTA service.

Project: The CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA will develop a comprehensive campus pantry program (Cardinal Cupboard) at The Catholic University of America that will provide nutritious and healthy food, resources, and referrals for additional resources, to reduce the effects of food insecurity for at least 150 members of the campus community the first year of the grant and then expanding to 400 and becoming fully sustainable by the third year.

Frederick Community College

Bio: Zia Ashraf graduated from Salisbury State University in December of 2019, where he earned his BA in Political Science and International Relations, with three minors in Philosophy, Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution, and South-Asian studies. Zia did extensive research on the opioid epidemic in Salisbury area. Based on his dedication and commitment to this issue, he was nominated as a 2019 Truman Finalist. In addition, he interned with multiple state and federal agencies, including the Maryland Lieutenant Governor Office, the Maryland Secretary of State Office, and the United States House of Representatives. Zia was born in Pakistan and moved to the US with his family in 2014.  In addition to English, Zia also is fluent in Hindi and Urdu.

Project: Career and College Readiness of Underrepresented Student Populations and Completion Initiative (ELLTCI) is the result of a commitment to ensure that outreach and programming meets the needs of English Language Learners by developing messaging and support systems that engage the interests of immigrants, their families, and their communities. The primary audience is first generation students, students identified as at-risk, and English Language Learners.

Friendship Public Charter School

Bio: Salma Rashid graduated from William and Mary University in May 2020 with a BA in Government and a minor in Management and Organizational Leadership. While at William and Mary, Salma combined what she learned from classes with experience and built relationships both on and off campus by interning at a nonprofit in Williamsburg and engaging with active citizenship programs.

Project: The Friendship Alumni Affairs CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA project will provide program design, coordination, and support over three years for three key objectives: the development and implementation of the Class Connectors program; the design and launch of the Alumni Board and Alumni Association; and the growth of our Alumni Day/Week programming. The VISTA project will grow and strengthen the Friendship alumni community by increasing engagement and supports offered across the college and career spectrum for all alumni.

Italian Cultural Center

Bio: Kiana Pena-Acosta graduated from Towson University in 2020, earning her BA in Health Education and Promotion. During her senior year, she interned at the Towson University Health Center and worked for Student Health Services. There she had the opportunity to create her own on-campus events, manage the Health Center’s social media, and create workshops that would be used in future Towson health courses.

Project: The Italian Cultural Center’s “Be a Chef for a Day” (BACFAD) program will share the Italian culinary tradition as a means of teaching Baltimore children to cook healthy and delicious foods on a modest budget. Through hands-on pedagogical methods, BACFAD will nurture culinary skills, knowledge of sustainable food sources, nutrition education, acceptance of diversity, empowerment, and hope for low-income youth who live in the heart of Northern Baltimore’s York Road Corridor. The CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA will develop a comprehensive educational strategy to systematically recreate healthy eating habits for students and for the school’s communities providing the students and their families with resources to create a more food secure household, nutritionally healthier lifestyle, and essential life skills.

International Rescue Committee, Baltimore Office

Economic Opportunities for New Americans – Data

Bio: Sana Wiqas graduated from Cornell University in fall of 2018, where she received a BS in Industrial and Labor Relations. Passionate about refugees and immigration, she held internships at the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and the Pakistani Mission to the UN’s Social and Humanitarian Affairs section. She also worked in a refugee camp in Thermopylae, Greece, where she taught English to refugees. Since graduating, she has continued to work with refugees and volunteer in her community and is excited to learn more about refugee issues with the IRC.

Project: Over the course of one year, a Data Analysis Coordinator CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA member will strengthen the IRC Baltimore office’s ability to track and analyze data across its poverty-reduction programs, develop and implement surveys to gather beneficiary feedback on program effectiveness, and recommend improvements to EEPs based on the results. This VISTA member will build organizational and community partnerships in Baltimore to ensure the projects continue at the conclusion of their service period.

Economic Opportunities for New Americans – Communications

Bio: Josh Geary graduated from Central Michigan University in 2019 with a BA in Integrative Public Relations with minors in Public Affairs and Leadership. His passion for storytelling comes from his experiences at CMU, his prior work with a major metro-Detroit PR firm, and his previous service year as an AmeriCorps VISTA at a mental health nonprofit in Greenville, SC. Josh believes a compelling story or data visualization can drive meaningful action within a community and beyond. He loves learning about history and is a devoted baseball fan.

Project: The CCMA Communications Coordinator VISTA member will build capacity within the IRC to raise awareness of, and ultimately affect change in, the underlying systemic and structural issues that limit economic mobility for low-income, credit-thin immigrant households in Baltimore.

Loyola University Maryland

Bio: Maura Elwood is a 2020 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where she earned her BA in Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences and French Language. While earning her degree with the intention of becoming a Speech-Language Pathologist, Maura became involved with Loyola’s Center for Community Service & Justice and The York Road Initiative as a volunteer, and later, as an intern and student leader. Inspired and pushed to action by the community she found there, Maura is committed to community-building, racial justice, educational equity, and food access in Baltimore and beyond.

Project: Loyola University enhances capacity for youth development and education by working closely with local public schools in transition in the Govans community. Through the 21st Century Schools process, two of the local public schools are being reconstructed. The CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA member will support healthy transition during reconstruction at Walter P. Carter and Guilford Elementary/Middle Schools and engage students, teachers, staff, and community in planning for a positive school culture and climate in the new school building.

Notre Dame of Maryland University

Bio: Rhea Guzman graduated from Notre Dame of Maryland University in December 2019, where she earned her BA in International Relations. She interned at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism and continues to develop her interest in foreign and domestic affairs. In her senior year of college, she volunteered as a literacy tutor for the York Road Education and Service (YES) program. Her hope is to give back to her community and transfer the knowledge of capacity-building and ending poverty into the field of international development.

Project: Supported by personnel at the partner schools, community organizations and nonprofits, parents, and NDMU faculty and staff, the York Road Education and Service (YES) Program strives to improve academic outcomes and eventual college trajectories of students from Govans Elementary and Tunbridge Public Charter Schools. The CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA member will serve as a key member of a YES Program implementation team, charged with maintaining and expanding an existing academic tutoring and student teacher internship program, planning and initiating a mentoring program for partner school students, and exploring and researching health and wellness needs and opportunities for future implementation in partner schools.

Prince George’s Community College

Bio: LaToya Robinson has continuously made contributions towards public service and community partnerships as an educator, strategist and a connector of people over the past 15 years. In a commitment to inspire learning in academe and beyond, her teaching strategies inspire critical thinking along with self-reflection as vehicles for change. As a community organizer, LaToya works with community-based projects that promote education, artistic and cultural awareness, and relationship building. She holds a BA in arts in sociology and a Master’s of Public Administration & Policy Management.

Project: The CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA member at PGCC will develop a web-based resource center that will empower families, especially those with low and moderate income and minimal education, by providing a tool to assist with their decision-making process. The site will address a variety of topics that affect families, such as education, employment, personal finances, childcare, housing, and other relevant topics. Education to make well informed decisions is a factor that empowers low-income community members and supports their growth out of poverty.

Towson University

Fair Chance Higher Education

Bio: Tiera Lee graduated from Towson University in May 2020, where she earned her BS in Mass Communications with a track in Journalism and New Media. She focused on the intersectionality of Black Life in Media portrayals with a Minor in African and African American Studies. While at Towson University she found a calling in volunteering with multiple organizations where she served as Vice President, Director of Higher Education, and as a Community Service Coordinator. As she completed her undergraduate degree she interned and volunteered with multiple nonprofit organizations in Prince George’s County and Baltimore. She is an advocate for education reform, prison reform, and social justice movements, including Black Lives Matter.

Project: The CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA serving with Fair Chance Higher Education at Towson University will play an integral part in establishing and coordinating a sustainable educational program to support formerly incarcerated youth and adults in their pursuit of higher education. This project includes awareness-building, program creation and implementation, and mentorship. Formerly incarcerated individuals have significantly lower rates of higher education completion and higher rates of unemployment in comparison to their counterparts in the general population. In addition, those most impacted by mass incarceration tend to be people of color from disadvantaged neighborhoods. Increasing access to higher education (and to the employment opportunities that result) for returning citizens has the potential to improve their individual outcomes as well as the outcomes of the neighborhoods from which they come.

Food Security Initiative

Bio: Luke Birdsong graduated from UC Berkeley in 2020 with majors in Geography and Society and Environment and a minor in Conservation and Resource Studies. He tied these fields together through a thesis concerning internet accessibility in rural America titled “Invisible Internet, Dangerous Division: The Implications of Economics, Law, and Policy on the Digital Divide.” Luke became interested in this topic through his time as a research assistant, his experience interning at Comcast NBC Universal in Business Development, and his interest in pursuing a career in law. Luke has previous AmeriCorps experience serving as a JusticeCorps member in California.

Project: The CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA Food Insecurity Initiative at TU expands the campus food pantry (Food Share) along with additional programming and resources that are currently offered on Towson’s campus. The CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA member will develop curriculum for a workshop series around financial and food security, including topics such as meal planning, cooking demonstrations, and budgeting. Additionally, the CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA member will work to build the capacity of the Food Share by creating and implementing a training curriculum for pantry volunteers.

University of Baltimore

Bio: Gabrielle Wilson is originally from Naugatuck, CN, and received a BA in entrepreneurship with a concentration in marketing communications and a minor in environmental sustainability from the Providence campus of Johnson & Wales University. It was while working on her minor that Gabrielle became interested in food sustainability and specifically, food security. Gabrielle served as a CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA in 2018-2019 for Coppin State University, researching and building the foundation for a campus pantry. She is currently working on her MPA at the University of Baltimore. Besides food, Gabrielle is also passionate about music, tap dancing, disaster preparedness, volunteer mobilization, and embroidery.

Project: The CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA with the Food for Thought Initiative at UB offers additional programming and resources beyond what is currently offered by the existing Campus Pantry. Through a series of workshops and educational programs, members of the University of Baltimore community will learn about financial security and food security and form peer connections, with the goal of reducing food and financial hardship.

The University of the District of Columbia

Bio: Victoria Harper has volunteered for the communities of veterans and active duty in different locations all over the world. She has coordinated meetings for military spouses so that they could come together as a family to prepare boxes for the soldiers that were deployed, play dates and/or activities for the children, as well as to help military spouse who were not aware of the resources that were available for military families. Victoria has also helped veterans in her community with direct contacts for issues they were experiencing at the VA. Her plan for this year of service is to be an open listener, mindful, intentional, compassionate, and to help build on resources to be of service to our veterans.

Project: Serving the Whole Veteran CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA project aims to increase student veteran engagement and support withing the university community and the DC community at large. The AmeriCorps VISTA member will continue to build a strong and sustainable culture of care and support for military and veteran students who already or may eventually attend the University of the District of Columbia. They will conduct outreach to veteran students and veterans in the community at large to help inform and build a network of responsive training, services and supports that strengthen the recruitment, persistence and graduation of veterans.

University of Maryland, Baltimore

Bio: Quinn Jiles was born in Chicago, Illinois and recently served as an AmeriCorps VISTA with Lansing Art Gallery & Education Center in Lansing, MI. Quinn has served as a commission member with the Mayors Arts & Culture Commission of Lansing, and as a board member of the Peace Education Center. She enjoys collaborating and creating around community arts advocacy and racial equity with a commitment for social advancement.

Project: As part of the programming at the University of Maryland Baltimore’s (UMB) Community Engagement Center (CEC), Emerging Leaders Academy (ELA) will prepare young people (ages 12-16) from low income, largely African American households in Southwest Baltimore for civic, career, and college readiness. In fall 2015, under the leadership of then UMB President Jay A. Perman, MD, the University crossed MLK Boulevard and opened the Community Engagement Center (CEC), a shared space providing services that promote neighborhood and economic development in West Baltimore’s Poppleton/Hollins Market neighborhood. The ELA CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA project currently offers youth programming for children ages 8-12. ELA will expand programming, creating a pipeline of leadership development opportunities for neighborhood young people.

UMBC

Bio: Rebecca Ferguson graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with a BA in Geography and Environmental Systems in 2019. Her intellectual and professional interests focus on sustainable food production and community development at the intersections of gender, race, and class. As an undergraduate, she used various internships and volunteer experiences, as well as research on community land and food security in Baltimore, to prepare for Peace Corps service in Zambia as a Rural Aquaculture Extension Agent. After being evacuated from service due to the global pandemic, she is now serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer at her alma mater, where she is a coordinator for Retriever Essentials, the campus community’s food pantry.

Project: The UMBC CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA project will work with campus and community partners to address food insecurity on the UMBC campus. The goal of this work will be to partner with stakeholders to create a comprehensive and sustainable campus and community solution to food insecurity by giving students, faculty, and staff access to nutritious and healthy food, resources, and referrals for additional resources in effort to reduce food insecurity in our community.

University of Maryland, College Park

Fostering Terp Success

Bio: Alexander Elliott is a recent graduate of Hood College and decided to do a year of national service because he saw it as an opportunity to do something meaningful for other people and use the skills he developed during his degree.

Project: The Fostering Terp Success Program addresses the struggle of college students to meet the basic needs of housing, food, transportation, and school supplies that are compounded by limited support from a stable network and lack of awareness of financial resources—which make it harder to pursue college and persist to graduation. With partner organizations this project will address the needs of University of Maryland students who have experienced foster care, homelessness, or lack a support network.

Nonprofit Prince George’s County Capacity Building 

Bio: Amy Engineer

Project: The University of Maryland, College Park/Non-Profit Prince George’s County (NPGC) capacity building project will increase the number of nonprofits in Prince George’s County who receive capacity building information and services from NPGC, increase the capacity building services that NPGC currently provides, and provide nonprofits in Prince George’s County with volunteers. The main focus will be on community health issues.

Terp Farm

Bio: Nicole Ziesing is a recent graduate from the University of Mary Washington where she earned a BA in Sociology and minor in Environmental Sustainability. Through her time at UMW she gained a passion for social equity and hopes to work towards a sustainable world. As a second year AmeriCorps VISTA at the University of Maryland Terp Farm, Nicole is dedicated to the health and food security of the UMD community. She hopes to build a stronger connection between UMD students and the Terp Farm while increasing produce donations to the UMD Campus Pantry.

Project: The University of Maryland, College Park Terp Farm is a sustainable vegetable farm which serves as a living laboratory – a place of learning and teaching about agriculture, food, health, and the environment. Terp Farm grows vegetables with the help of students, and donates a portion of each harvest to those in need in the community. This AmeriCorps VISTA project will equip low-income adults studying or working at UMD to develop fundamental tools to promote nourishment, health, equity, and empowerment.

Campus Pantry

Bio: Brian Meko is originally from Nashville, TN. He attended college at Elon University in North Carolina where he received a BS in ecological and environmental science with minors in biology and sociology. Before joining Americorp VISTA, he taught English and science to 1st through 6th graders in Thailand and then adult English classes in Argentina. He is interested in both social and environmental sustainability and wanted to refocus his efforts back towards the US to make an impact in the community.

Project: The UMD Campus Pantry will partner with the Capital Area Food Bank and Maryland Hunger Solutions to implement an innovative project to address hunger in the UMD community through programmatic interventions led by students who have experienced food insecurity as well as through strengthening policies on campus for sustainable change.

Universities at Shady Grove

Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success (ACES) -Career Readiness Expansion

Bio: Alisa Smedley earned her BS in Criminal Justice from the University of Maryland. Her background includes workforce development and academic preparation for disadvantaged populations. She worked for nine years at a maximum-security jail preparing inmates for release. Most recently Alisa was Site Director for a Second Chance Pell Grant program with a University partner. She is passionate about helping to empower men and women through education and employment.

Project: Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success (ACES) is a partnership with Universities at Shady Grove (USG), Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), and Montgomery College (MC) to address multi-generational poverty by increasing baccalaureate degree attainment among underrepresented students, especially African American and Hispanic youth. The ACES partnership recently agreed to the addition of career readiness programming for all ACES students (an expansion of the current work with approximately 100 students to over 2,000 students at full capacity) beginning in high school and continuing through university graduation. This programming will provide students with workforce skills and professional experiences that will help to ensure that they can attain and succeed in high demand careers.

Grover Essentials and Beyond

Bio: Mahmoud Nofal was born in Marquette, MI and raised in Damascus, Syria. He received a BA in political science from the University of Michigan in 2018. Mahmoud is passionate about fostering individual political development, and hopes to help increase the impact of Grover Essentials on the community by raising awareness of food insecurity and building financial literacy.

Project: The Universities at Shady Grove Grover Essentials and Beyond project will establish an onsite pantry to increase overall well-being and address food insecurity of students at USG. The goal of the project is to grow and improve Grover Essentials by strengthening operations, researching and developing education interventions, and identifying and establishing internal and external partnerships.

Wesley Theological Seminary

Bio: Alexia Antunez is a 2017 graduate from Kansas State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education and a concentration in English as a Second Language. She taught in the Kansas City area for two years as both a special education paraprofessional and a second-grade classroom teacher. As a special education paraprofessional, she worked with classroom teachers making modifications and accommodations for students with special needs and behavioral disorders. Alexia then brought her passions for both teaching and learning to a second-grade classroom of 23 multicultural students, including ESL and special education students. In 2019, Alexia served nine months with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia as a TEFL/English Language Teaching Specialist, working primarily with high school students.

Bio: Ana R. Ventura-Molina earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland, College Park in Government & Politics and Spanish Language, Literature, and Culture. She is a recently evacuated Peace Corps Mexico Volunteer, who served at a public technological university as an English as a Second Language teacher. Through collaborative work with host country nationals, she helped increase students’ capacity to speak in the target language. Prior to her Peace Corps service, Ana did extensive youth development work with non-profits in the DMV area, such as CASA De Maryland. Ana is a dedicated advocate for social justice, who through fostering inclusive spaces, has empowered students, colleagues, and peers to channel as well as challenge their creativity, and knowledge to become agents of change in their communities.

Project: The two CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA members will assist in the overall development of the Let’s Make A Difference Project, a youth development program created by the Community Engagement Institute at Wesley Theological Seminary Downtown and Raising A Village Foundation for 9th-12th graders in District of Columbia Schools. The CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA member will work with on-site staff and Community Engagement Fellows from Wesley Theological Seminary to build capacity and recruit volunteers to provide educational support for DC students in the areas of social-emotional learning, social impact, and college and career readiness. This includes the development of curriculum, the creation of training seminars and resources for volunteers, as well as the implementation of best practices for volunteer recruitment and management of college volunteers and additional university and secondary school partners.