AmeriCorps VISTA member Liz Burnham joined the Behavioral Health Equity Corps (BHEC) in February of 2021. They are currently serving at Boulder County Public Health. They were kind enough to answer some questions about themselves and the work they have done as part of the program.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in rural Washington. Through the majority of my adolescence, I had a passion for STEM--I was the president of robotics club and super into bioengineering. My love of service has existed all of my life, but there is one instance that changed the trajectory of my life. I was at the grocery store before school one day, and behind a guy in line who was using food stamps to buy breakfast for his family. It turned out they were expired, and the cashier wasn’t being flexible, so I bought them for him and went on with my day. Someone standing behind me happened to work for the school district and recognized me. She nominated me for a community award and is the reason I was accepted into the National Honor Society. So always had that sort of “spirit of volunteerism.” And wanted to further explore helping people. From there I went into sociology in college, which grew into an interest in understanding substance misuse and overdose. Now I’m here!
How did you get into volunteering?
This is kind of a sad beginning! But I didn’t have a lot of friends in middle school. One teacher was particularly nice to me, and she happened to be the faculty for a volunteer club and invited me to join. It was only me and one other person. Tuesdays and Thursdays I would volunteer at a clothing donation spot where they would provide clothes to children and teens in need. I kept with volunteering through school in various ways and was a member of a service sorority, or a sorority whose members primary purpose is to serve, in college.
What drew me? Well, I’ve struggled with mental health. There’s a lot of evidence now in psychology that shows helping others can help your own mental health. Helping was a way to help myself at first, but I realized the importance of community and learned that there was something more to serving others.
What do you most enjoy in your free time?
I like to watch Netflix. I love sappy, cheesy romance novels. I mean, love them. I also hike and bake as much as I can. Oh, and training dogs!
What advice would you give people considering going into service?
Your expectations and what happens in service will be different, but you will not be disappointed. You’ll be helping your community in a way you would never anticipate.
If you could visit one place, anywhere in the world, where would you go?
Iceland! No particular reason other than not many people visit Iceland. Dogsledding sounds like a good time.
What is one item you cannot live without?
Does my dog count? When I had to run for my life, my dog was my priority.
What is your favorite hobby?
That’s easy- baking! I really like to make cookies. I don’t care what kind it is.
What would you like the world to know about you and your work?
I love the concept of service. I think everyone should incorporate it into every aspect of their lives.
Tell us about your host site. How do you, as a BHEC member, fit into their vision of supporting communities?
I assist with their substance use teams, work with youth… their main thing is to use as many institutions and systems as they can to make sure they are best serving their community. AmeriCorps is a great program to integrate service into their work.
What attracted you most to work with BHEC/CORP?
I graduated college in the middle of the pandemic. I had just taken courses on medical sociology and substance use in society, and I wanted to explore this and learn how drugs are being perceived along with the opioid crisis. After all, theoretical and actual are very different things! I was qualified, interested, and didn’t want to go back to graduate school yet.
What programs/projects are you currently working on? Please describe.
For the community substance abuse and prevention program (CSAP), I am helping with the Healthy Futures Coalition. We are doing strategic planning right now, which has been a big chunk of my time- helping to facilitate. I’ve been helping with ongoing communications and newsletters identifying resources, events, training, updates, etc. to promote substance use prevention and harm reduction in the community.
With Inspire Youth Connections, the other program I work with, we are doing sources of strength trainings for our youth advisors. That has been a fun project because we get to work with a youth advisor who is facilitating with us as we train her. We are offering Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) which is a suicide intervention training. I’ve also been managing the Boulder County Youth Calendar to promote free and low-cost opportunities for youth in the community.
Highlight a specific project you are currently working on or completed.
The two overdose awareness day events. Those were fun and were a lot of work. One of them was local for Boulder County, which I did Narcan trainings for community members. We also commissioned artists through a street mural festival to do two murals focused on the topic of overdose & recovery. The other event was a virtual 5k, which was a spontaneous idea me and a few other AmeriCorps members came while having a conversation about virtual 5K’s. We Ended up having over 100 people participate across 26 states and 3 different countries.
What impact do you feel these projects/programs will have on the community?
I feel that personally my biggest impact has been working with the schools. That wasn’t an opportunity that was planned, but I came across a free Sources of Strength train the trainer opportunity. After getting that training I was able to go into schools and provide suicide prevention trainings to them. Those programs are helping their students serve their communities better. It’s important to empower youth to help their peers, especially with the world we live in today.
Tell us about the support you receive from your host site.
Well very recently, I had to evacuate due to the Marshall Fire, and due to that there was a lot of stress. They have been very flexible, allowing me to make my days as I need to. They’ve taken a lot of time to invest in interpersonal conversation rather than just “getting to business”. That’s been consistent throughout my service.
What have you gained from service at this host site?
I’ve learned how to very quickly adapt to community. It’s a skill you can’t’ have until you have done it; coming into an unknown community with no one knowing you and you knowing nobody, and then being able to navigate the ins and outs of it and especially the public health politics and being able to ground yourself.
What is the most rewarding aspect/proudest accomplishment of your work/position?
I’ll do my best to keep this short and sweet! The reason I joined AmeriCorps was in the spirit of volunteerism. I wanted to do the Peace Corps originally but spending two years in a foreign country wasn’t going to work after finding a person I want to spend my life with. I settled on AmeriCorps as a compromise of sorts—being able to serve a community I wasn’t familiar with and travel to a new place, but still being with my partner. Coming to the end of my service, however, I’ve realized this wasn’t a compromise. This was what I was meant to do.