“I have always been drawn to public service,” reflects Rumana Chattopadhyay-Reid, who started volunteering as a teenager in West Bengal, India. She regularly volunteered for 4-5 hours each weekend in a neonatal care facility while completing her bachelor’s degree. After moving to South India for graduate school, she met the man who would become her husband, an American student who was studying abroad. Together, they moved to the United States, where Rumana began teaching at a reservation school and the couple started a family.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and changed everything. Rumana became a stay-at-home mother, working to ensure that her young child could have as much human interaction as possible amidst the lockdown of 2020. Though this was an exceptionally meaningful opportunity for her, by late 2022 she had started thinking once more about how to contribute meaningfully to the world outside of her home.
In exploring options, Rumana was originally drawn to the Peace Corps but felt that serving overseas would disrupt her family too much. Further, she wasn’t sure if she was even eligible to serve since she wasn’t an American citizen yet. Then she discovered AmeriCorps VISTA, which offered the flexibility she and her family needed as well as the chance to meaningfully contribute once again. Rumana recalls, “It was a dream, as a mom, to come back to the workforce. Feeling like I still have something to give to society was huge.”
After confirming that she was eligible to become a VISTA, Rumana interviewed and was offered two different remote positions, one in New York and one in Virginia. When the first position she accepted turned out not to be a good fit, she found the regional staff to be exceptionally helpful as she made the transition to the second opportunity, ensuring that she would be able to complete her service year.
Now she is happily serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA within the Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS). She credits her site supervisor and VISTA leader as incredible supports, making her service possible. “People think of VISTAs as young and ready to do anything, but I have a child,” says Rumana. “I feel so appreciative that there is a support system in place who is looking out for me and that understands the limitations I have as a mom. It’s a very sustainable approach for other mothers out there like me, who might be feeling unsure or questioning if they can do this themselves.”
Within VDSS, her service has primarily focused on the Virginia Two-Generation/Whole Family Pilot Project, a pilot program that seeks to transcend existing silos in social services delivery, ushering in a comprehensive, integrated solution that seamlessly caters to the needs of both children and adults within a family unit. Ultimately, the goal of the pilot is to reduce reliance on public assistance and alleviate generational poverty for low-income families through workforce participation.
Connecting her past volunteer and professional experiences as well as her experiences as a mother, this VISTA service project is a dream come true for Rumana. “It’s inspiring to see the long-term impacts on single mothers with small children, moms who depend on these services,” she says. “There is nothing more important than making sure your baby is okay. I think the VDSS is doing a fantastic job.”
She appreciates the diversity of tasks and responsibilities that she has been able to take on and says, “It’s been an incredible journey.” As a VISTA, she has learned about procurement processes and has been supported in taking grantwriting certification courses. She also credits this experience with developing her appreciation for and navigation skills within bureaucracy and large data sets. The experience has also empowered her as a leader and she says, “I learned that I am more capable than I thought.”
As her service term comes to an end and she weighs options about what to do next, Rumana has accepted a position as a VISTA leader with Catholic Charities in Northern Virginia. “The amount of support that my VISTA leaders provided for me… I want to be that support for the other VISTAs,” she says. “I think I’m committing myself to life-long public service. Of course, there are ups and downs but the kind of satisfaction you get is inspiring, has sustainability, and makes me want to get up in the morning. It doesn’t feel like a job, it feels like a value system.”