Nothing went horribly wrong for Mikah Wagner to end up at a homeless shelter at 19. A fight with his stepmom and no other place to go led him to a youth shelter, a place he was grateful for, but also a place where he struggled.
A few years later, this is the exact message he wants to get through to people: “It can happen to anybody so quickly. People don’t really understand how quickly you can fall into this place where you feel like you have no options, and then you’re trapped.”
It was this passion for sharing his story through public speaking and advocacy that led Mikah to AmeriCorps VISTA, an experience he would later call “magical.”
While speaking at a conference, Mikah was invited to help lead a new initiative: Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s (MDHI) Youth Action Board, where young adults who have experienced homelessness work to use their knowledge and expertise to improve how youth services are provided. Within months of joining, the team at MDHI invited Mikah to be part of its AmeriCorps VISTA program.
The AmeriCorps VISTA program came into Mikah’s life at a time when he desired to do something that mattered. This was his opportunity to not only help the voices of youth with lived experience to be heard, but it was also his chance to commit himself fully to something of significance. AmeriCorps VISTA was his opportunity to gain direction and the life skills he felt he had been missing.
He jumped in, continuing the work he started with the Youth Action Board, and took on new responsibilities that included helping support MDHI’s committees, helping to manage the organization’s last resort funding stream for those trying to get into housing, and the Point-in-Time, an annual count of people experiencing homelessness in the area.
Being an AmeriCorps VISTA coupled with the opportunity to support a group he knew so well, empowered Mikah. His work helped make change happen - to policies, to the way people thought, and to the way equity was approached.
As Mikah’s year of service was coming to an end, he had a “surreal experience.” He went back to the youth shelter where he had stayed and served breakfast. “Being able to give service to people who are in a situation very similar to my own a few years ago brought me a huge amount of pride.”
Hearing Mikah talk about his experience as an AmeriCorps VISTA is like hearing someone explain how it felt winning the lottery: “VISTA saved my life in a lot of ways.”
He does have a word of caution to those thinking of joining AmeriCorps VISTA:
“VISTA is fantastic if you approach it the way it needs to be approached. If you give yourself for a year to really commit to something and help it benefit your community, it’s an invaluable opportunity to learn a lot of skills, learn about a community, and influence how programs in your community are assisting people. It’s magical.”
Mikah is now an employee at MDHI, where he serves as the Operations and Administrative Assistant. Due to COVID-19, his organization is working from home while also continuing their work for the Denver metro community. They have put together resource guides and have led online trainings to support those who work in homeless services better serve their communities through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having experienced life at a homeless shelter, he knows the dangers people are facing dealing with a highly transmittable virus while in a shelter.
Although Mikah sees the strain communities are going through and will continue to face, he is hopeful.
When asked for inspiration particularly for those who will be facing a new reality, Mikah’s parting words were a reminder of his will to not only survive but thrive: “We have to go back to living.”