Paying it Forward

A wise friend once advised me that the key to happiness is serving others.  Ten years later and still unhappy, I finally took her advice to heart and began engaging in jobs and volunteer activities with a focus on helping others.  Since that time I have recorded textbooks for the visually impaired, been an acting coach for performers with developmental disabilities, and managed day programs for adults with severe and persistent mental illnesses.  As for happiness, my friend was right.

I was immediately intrigued when I saw an ad in the Albuquerque Journal announcing an available position at Roadrunner Food Bank.  I was familiar with Roadrunner Food Bank, as I had accompanied clients there (at its former and current location) to volunteer.  My clients reported enjoying playing their part in feeding New Mexicans experiencing hunger.  To this day, I am moved on a daily basis seeing so many people of varying ages, abilities and backgrounds volunteering at Roadrunner.

The one-year position I applied for and got was to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America).  VISTA is an anti-poverty program created as a domestic version of the Peace Corps.  My project’s goal is to increase awareness of and access to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) by identifying barriers and training community partners to conduct SNAP outreach in their communities.  This goal is very much in synch with Roadrunner Food Bank’s vision of permanently ending hunger in New Mexico.

SNAP is designed to respond to economic conditions and feed individuals and families most in need.  Unfortunately, many people do not know that they may be eligible or how to apply.  Increased SNAP participation takes some pressure off Feeding America’s network of food banks and agencies, which experienced a 46% increase in clients between 2006 and 2010.

According to Feeding America, 87% of SNAP dollars are spent within 2 weeks and 97% are spent within 1 month.  In addition to feeding the hungry, these dollars provide a rapid and much needed boost to our local and state economies.

Together with SNAP Outreach Coordinator Jason Riggs, we are making the best of an opportunity to build an effective SNAP Outreach program from the ground up.  There is the potential over time to reach people experiencing hunger in all thirty-counties in the state of New Mexico.

While we have learned and gained much from existing SNAP Outreach programs throughout the US, we recognize the importance of hearing about the experiences of New Mexicans firsthand.  Since beginning my year of service last March, Jason and I have visited a variety of sites including mobile food banks, ministries, and state and university program offices.  The stories we’ve heard have helped us  identify barriers to participation in the SNAP program, as well as SNAP successes.  We are currently in the process of organizing community leaders to participate in a focus group designed to help us better understand what their organizations and clients are experiencing.

I am very happy to be working towards improving access to SNAP and ending hunger in the state New Mexico.

Mark Hisler is with the AmeriCorps VISTA Program and assigned to Roadrunner Food Bank’s Albuquerque Branch.

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