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UNI grad wins Americorps award

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ANNA FLANDERS, Staff Writer

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Last month, Kristina Kofoot, UNI community engagement program coordinator, was recognized at the national level with the Tom Harkin Excellence in Americorps Award for Outstanding AmeriCorps Service. Although her work with AmeriCorps started in 2015, Kofoot has been a volunteer for as long as she can remember.

“I grew up in a family where volunteering is what you do,” Kofoot said. “If something needs to be done or if somebody needs help, you go and do it. As a youth, we used to joke with my mom that we’d be ‘volun-told’ to do things.”

As a youth, these volunteer projects included mowing lawns, helping people move, assisting with church-related activities, being a kindergarten buddy and helping at the local library.

When Kofoot transferred to UNI, she was a junior. She applied for the AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) position due to the push of one of her professors, Julianne Gassman. The position proved to be a sort of epiphany for Kofoot.

“I started at this position, and I’m like, ‘This is what I want to do with my life!’” Kofoot said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and then all of a sudden I was doing it. It’s so awesome to make those connections and share what people are doing and create opportunities for people.”

Within AmeriCorps, Kofoot’s focus was on VISTA’s mission of capacity-building and fighting poverty. VISTA seeks to maximize the work of volunteers within an organization and equip them to continue the work they started with VISTA even after VISTA is gone. VISTA stays with an organization for up to three years. For Kofoot, her work with VISTA at UNI was so successful that it led to the need for a full-time position. In a sense, Kofoot helped to create the job she now holds.

“Cedar Falls has been great to me. I’ve felt like I was at home since I started my junior year of college here,” Kofoot said. “I wanted to give back to the community that I was living in. I’ve always been very civically-minded. You don’t just live somewhere and go about your life; you give back to the place that you’re in, because you’re there.”

Kofoot has done a wide variety of things in her position. Last spring, she led a food packing event with Meals from the Heartland. She also helps support other local nonprofits, such as Operation Threshold. She planned a program to help teach faculty how to incorporate service-learning into their classrooms.

Kofoot also assisted in writing grants for the upcoming MLK Day of Service. In the summer, she helped bridge students transition from high school to college life and gave them the ground tour of service opportunities in the community.

“[Community engagement] means more than just engagement,” Kofoot said. “To me, we’re interacting, but I’m also learning something from it. I’m getting something from it. I’m becoming more aware of the problems in my community. I’m learning how to be more civically-engaged. I’m learning what the problems are and how I can help to — or how others can help to — fight those problems.”

In the future, Kofoot hopes to learn to balance having a career in nonprofits and being a volunteer. She wants to highlight the volunteer work that UNI students have done, such as the more than one million hours of volunteer work that UNI students logged since last year. Lastly, Kofoot wants to get more people involved with Americorps.

“I think everyone should know what [AmeriCorps] is, and not enough people do,” Kofoot said. “It’s an experience you’re not going to be able to get again—take it now. It’s like going on study abroad—you’re going to do it now, because you’re not going to be able to do it when you’re older. So, do it while you’re young and you can. Get those experiences. Learn new things. Try different things. Go different places.”

For those who might be looking to volunteer for the first time, Kofoot suggests finding a student organization that does volunteer work. If a person wants a more personal experience, Lauren Finke with the Volunteer Center of Cedar Valley is available every Thursday in the Union to match students’ interests and schedules with local volunteer opportunities.

“I want every single student to leave this university having done some sort of service that means something to them,” Kofoot said.

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UNI grad wins Americorps award