A Call to Service: Merry Jo DeMarais

Service as an AmeriCorps VISTA is embedded into my DNA in its call to service. In VISTA we contribute to poverty-relief programs that build community capacity. I learned this early through my parents’ work in service to us and the communities in which we lived.

My father was placed in an orphanage after my grandfather died and my grandmother was not able to provide for him and his sister. My father was provided for by religious women in the orphanage. As an adult, he opened a grocery store and a meat market. Not only was this a means to provide for a family of nine who had experienced poverty, but I also experienced first-hand his commitment to ensure the religious women in our community would always have homemade meats and food on their table every holiday. He served his customers with the same deliberation. If there were people in need, they never went without.

My father made certain that we provided great customer service. His products were not sold until they met his high standards. In this way he would be certain to delight his customers while providing security for our family. This focus on service led me to seek formal training in hospitality and retail management. Working long and varied hours and not able to complete a degree, I joined the military and was told I would be able to complete college while serving. This did not occur, and instead I worked in training and development. I served for almost eight years.

Adjusting to civilian life was not laid out with a clear path for me. So after several career changes and degree focuses I found my life partner while working in property management.  He and I were committed to improving the residents’ living conditions and were innovative in our work. Shortly thereafter, I worked for the state of Minnesota for 12 years in the areas of food safety education, new business development, and professional development. It was during this time—and after 22 years of pursuing an undergraduate degree—that I completed my bachelor’s in communications.  After college I found the Minnesota Facilitators Network. This became an avocation for me. I trained, provided and facilitated process improvement activities.  I also served on the board and conference committee until I moved West in pursuit of another degree.

At the onset of my relocation, my partner passed away. I postponed school until the following year. While in school I worked in community capacity building for a nonprofit and served on the city’s human services advisory board. After completing a degree in leadership I taught at a university for more than two years and then relocated to Minnesota to assist family members experiencing health concerns.

While assisting family, I worked part time on weekends and volunteered at the food shelf. While volunteering, I learned about the VISTA project where I ended up serving last year. As a project specialist for Catholic Charities in St. Cloud, I helped individuals make healthier food choices through tasting, preparing and learning how to extend their food supply. Volunteers I recruited during this project year continue to offer taste tests and cooking demonstrations, which allows clients to sample unfamiliar healthy foods before they select items to take home.

Towards the end of my service year, another VISTA position presented itself. The project supports the Initiative Foundation’s Community and Workforce Development team and its Thriving Communities Initiative.  The project focuses on community and leadership capacity building. I thought this project would provide me the necessary space to retool and equip me for attaining future goals. These first three months have been extraordinary.  As a second-year VISTA, I have been able to make a contribution to empower civic leaders in building community and economic development that improves the well-being and quality of life for its residents. At the Foundation there is a consistent and genuine spirit of cooperation and shared goals that revolve around serving communities. It’s something I have not found at other organizations. Having this chance to serve with a dedicated team of people, all striving to make Central Minnesota a better place, is truly a humbling and inspiring experience. I’ve had the opportunity to look at my life through a new lens, and I continue to build on my own strengths and abilities in this current service role.

The VISTA team at the Initiative Foundations has a commitment to equip and strengthen VISTA members’ personal and professional ability toward service to self and others.  This has been demonstrated with fervor in their own execution of service.  The monthly cohort trainings and the support received from the Initiative Foundation as a host site provides me with experiences that strengthen my capacity to be a servant leader and become my best self.