BIIN’s AmeriCorps Members Lead On

Published by Program Manager on

BIIN’s AmeriCorps Members Lead On

BIIN has traditionally operated with a small staff, including a rotating cast of unpaid interns, and long relied on volunteers to serve not only on its governing board but also as program leaders. But with the growth in demand for certain programs and anticipated changes in its staff in fall 2022, the organization’s model was due for revision. Outgoing director Jaimi Washburn had foreseen the challenges of keeping all the plates spinning as the baton was passed to a new director. Aware of strategies pursued by other small nonprofits, Jaimi also had the wisdom to do research into what it would take for BIIN to host a couple of AmeriCorps members.

People who serve as AmeriCorps members are highly motivated individuals who are placed with nonprofit organizations and, under federal rules, compensated with both a modest monthly stipend and an end of term education award. For this reason, the program often appeals to people finishing college or preparing to pursue graduate or professional training, who are eager to clarify career goals or further develop marketable skills. Over the past year, Jaimi devoted hours to figuring out the requirements and the process for hosting AmeriCorps members. She and Janet Morford developed job descriptions, shared them with the board, and worked to submit several successful grant proposals, in order to fund the new positions. In summer 2022 Jaimi also led the process of advertising the positions, interviewing and selecting candidates for two new AmeriCorps positions: an IRA Coordinator and an English Program Coordinator.  On September 1, 2022 BIIN’s first-ever AmeriCorps members, Tania Barrios and Viviana Castillo, began their onboarding process and work, under Jaimi’s direction.

For many reasons, fall 2022 has been an unusual season for BIIN. Staff and volunteers had worked hard throughout August to pull off the organization’s first major in-person community service event since 2019, the Guatemalan mobile consulate held on August 27-28. September is also the point when outgoing board members step down and new board members come on. The BIIN board had known since spring 2022 that Jaimi Washburn and Janet Morford would be leaving their part-time roles, to facilitate the hiring of a new full-time director for the organization, but with many key figures away for part of the summer and the transition to a new board, the search for a new director was still underway as fall loomed. In anticipation of staffing changes and the difficulty of finding volunteers willing to take on the role of coordinator, BIIN had also entered into a new agreement with the Region 6 Education Service Center to partner in providing English classes at BIIN. The new partnership was promising, but like all new arrangements, there would be a steep learning curve for everyone involved.

In early September, Jaimi finalized and shared with the board the timeline for her departure:  October 15 would be her last day. In the few weeks she had left, working closely with the new AmeriCorps members, Tania and Viviana, to get them up and running, was a priority. Jaimi was also trying to do everything she could to leave information, procedures, and systems ready for the new director. By early October, Vannessa Rivera had accepted BIIN’s offer to serve in this role, but would only come on board in January, after finishing her master’s degree at TAMU. Given these timelines, remaining staff and members of the board stepped up to take responsibility for specific administrative functions in the interim.

It is in this context – one of significant transition for the organization — that AmeriCorps members Tania and Viviana came on board. That they were here at all speaks to Jaimi Washburn’s foresight and efforts to ensure continuity and leadership for two programs where demand had been steadily increasing: the IRA program and the Conversational English classes. Their presence and success in stepping into these roles also underscores Tania’s and Viviana’s many talents and their deep commitment to serving people who turn to BIIN for information, education and assistance.

Knowing how eventful the past few months have been in the BIIN-o-sphere, we wanted to check in with Tania and Viviana, to see what this period has been like for them: what they have learned and appreciated, what has been challenging, and what they look forward to, as 2022 ends and the holidays offer a brief chance to catch their breath, before launching into the new year. Their observations, in a Q & A format, follow.

Viviana Castillo (left) and Tania Barrios (right) began their AmeriCorps service term as seniors at Texas A&M. Both are deeply committed to serving immigrants and opening pathways to educational and economic opportunity for people who have historically been underrepresented, marginalized or disadvantaged.

Both of you are full-time students at TAMU. What was fall 2022 like for each of you, in your life outside of BIIN?

Viviana:  Fall 2022 has definitely been a memorable experience! I am a senior, planning to graduate in spring 2023 with a major in political science and a minor in sociology. I was extremely excited to have gotten the position at BIIN and believed I could manage it on top of coursework, my job at the TAMU libraries and my duties as a mentor for the first-generation community on campus.

A couple months into the semester I realized I was taking on too much. I asked the libraries to place me on a hold for the rest of the fall semester, proposing that we would see later if it is wise for me to resume that job in the spring 2023. I have decided not to return to mentoring in the first gen community in the spring, so I can focus on BIIN programing and graduation. I have been extremely lucky to have supportive supervisors/mentors by my side during this time.  

Tania:  Fall 2022 was definitely… a ride! I just graduated with a bachelor’s in Spanish and psychology this December! I want to become a Spanish-speaking mental health clinician in the future so majoring in those two fields seemed like the appropriate combination.

This fall, it took a minute to get back into the groove of working and going to school at the same time. For the spring 2022 semester, I had had the opportunity to study abroad at Tec de Monterrey in Mexico, so at that point, my only focus was school, school, and more school! However, I’m the kind of person that likes to keep their schedule packed, and I was very excited when I learned I’d be able to serve at BIIN. I also volunteer at a local nonprofit that serves pregnant women in unstable housing situations whenever I have extra time. Trying to juggle all these responsibilities on top of my coursework required a lot of time management, but I think having a team behind me to support me made it all the easier.

When you first came to BIIN, who or what helped with your transition into your new role?

Viviana: When I joined BIIN in September, Jaimi Washburn was the person who helped me understand my role. My time with her was limited but having the Trello board (a management tool that Jaimi set up for each program) was helpful, as I learned the ropes. The day-to-day experience at BIIN also helped me, as I discovered and learned to cater to the needs and concerns the community had. Although I had a lot of questions and it was frustrating at times to have to figure out how things would work in the partnership with Region 6, communicating and interacting over time also helped me to perform my role to the best of my ability. Everything this semester was a learning experience. Being patient and understanding with everyone was very helpful to developing a sense of community and teamwork.

Tania: So many people helped me! I think I relied on just about everyone within my vicinity. While I already had experience working in a nonprofit, there was certainly a learning curve for the IRA Coordinator position. I learned a lot for my role from the IRA volunteers that have been with BIIN for years. I believe it’s important that when you step into a new role or position, there should be a team of people helping you make that transition. The IRA volunteers helped tremendously.

Working with a team – the English interns and teachers for Viviana, and the long-term IRA volunteers for Tania – made the adaptation to their new roles easier.

Regarding the program you serve, what were some of the highlights of the past few months for you?

Viviana: I have been able to see growth in all the programs BIIN has. In my program specifically I have been able to watch individuals grow their confidence and improve their English skills. I enjoy it when people approach interns, volunteers, or me to ask questions. Tania, Jonathan Cortez (one of the fall 2022 English class interns) and I have done a few outreach events, representing BIIN at local organizations or events. These have helped to increase the number of people coming to IRA clinics and enrolling in English and citizenship classes. It’s important for people in the community to know that there is a place they can come to for help.

Tania:  I enjoy being able to see the direct impact we have on the community we serve. We are living in a world where we are so incredibly interconnected, and where we can stay informed of current events across the globe. When every other day there’s tragedy being televised, it’s easy to get sucked into a nihilist mindset. But joining a team of people that are radically passionate about the people we serve and actively being agents of change – it’s so empowering! I’ve enjoyed both serving our community directly and being surrounded by such a dedicated group of team members.

One of the things we did this fall was to set up an online training for IRA volunteers with an organization called DollarFor. The purpose of the training was to learn how to address medical debt, something that many of our clients deal with. DollarFor was recommended to us by someone who has volunteered with BIIN. The organization provides training to nonprofits and help to low-income clients facing medical debt. Thanks to this training, the IRA team can now help with the process of eliminating hospital bills!

Fall intern Jonathan Cortez (left) joins Viviana Castillo (center) to share information about BIIN’s programs and services at an event for parents sponsored by Bryan ISD. Tania Barrios (right) was excited to find an online training for nonprofits designed to help low-income clients address medical debt.

What are some of the challenges that you and others involved in your program have faced?

Viviana: Not knowing a lot about the partnership with Region 6 and BIIN – because it was brand new — was challenging. I was starting practically at the same time as the English class interns I supervised, and all of us joined BIIN not long before Jaimi was stepping down. We did not know the other staff (who were working remotely) or board members (many of whom were new), and initially, there was no relationship there. Communication is key!  So once I was able to establish communication with some board members and other staff, as well as Region 6 staff, everything became much easier.

Tania:  As I said, there’s a pretty big learning curve for this role. I feel like I was calling up the IRA volunteers with questions at least twice a week. However, each time they were patient with me and showed me the ropes. It was a great reminder that it’s not a bad thing to reach out for help! Aside from that, learning how to navigate Salesforce was a bit of a challenge. I exchanged so many emails with Adriana (our tech expert!) at the beginning of the semester while learning to orient myself with the database!  


With the fall semester now behind you, what are you looking forward to in spring 2023?

Viviana: After the break I am excited to have a director back in the building on a regular basis and to work with her on all things BIIN. I am really excited to see all the English students come back and to see new faces as well. Overall, I’m just excited to see BIIN’s continued growth.

I hope I can develop a great team with the incoming interns like I was able to this past semester. This spring, I want to take more time to do training with the interns so they can be better aware of all things BIIN. Due to changes in the way the English classes were being taught (from spring to summer to fall 2022), I was given a very outdated intern manual to work with. But I’ve updated it to reflect the new partnership with Region 6 and I’m excited to have that ready for intern training in the spring.

Tania:  In general, I am looking forward to seeing the way BIIN will expand in the coming year. Whether it’s new students, volunteers, interns, IRA clients – I am excited to see us grow!  

Our experience with the training on addressing medical debt gave me the idea of finding new training opportunities for the IRA team. My hope is that with an IRA case assistant intern this spring, we will be able to research more trainings for our IRA volunteers. I’ve found a few on wage theft. One of my main goals is to expand the services we have at IRA and BIIN and that entails collaborating with other nonprofits — I am very excited to get this going in the spring!

I’ve learned so much this past semester – not only about the needs we see in our community or about all the work it takes to run a non-profit but also about myself as a leader. I still have so much more to learn and I’m looking forward to it all!

The two of you have been crucial to BIIN’s ability to function effectively this fall. Kudos to you both, Viviana and Tania!  Given your tremendous contributions to the organization, it seems likely that the board will want to host AmeriCorps members again next year.  

What would you say to anyone who is thinking about applying for this kind of role with BIIN? 

Viviana: Apply, just do it, you won’t regret it!! I have been able to learn a lot from all the people around me. It has assured me that I am in the right place and on the right path for my career goals. Aside from that, I have also realized that I need to become more involved in my own community back home — San Antonio. 

Tania:  Given that it’s a year-long commitment, I realize there might be some reluctance in applying to serve an AmeriCorps member. That being said, you will have a support system of people at BIIN to make sure you succeed in your role. For any future AmeriCorps members stepping into this position, it is important to keep the volunteers you work with engaged and in the loop about all things IRA! It’s also important to keep looking for ways to expand your knowledge base in terms of resources for our clients or other organizations to connect with.

* * *

BIIN, its programs and people have benefitted in so many ways from the presence and service of these two remarkable AmeriCorps members, Viviana Castillo and Tania Barrios.  Deep thanks to each of you for all that you have done.  We wish you much happiness and a well-deserved rest as the office closes for the holidays, and all the best as you lead the way to continued growth in the new year!

Categories: Faces of BIIN