Staff Spotlight: Merrowvista’s Dayna Vuksinick

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Dayna Vuksinick never intended to work with kids as a career. In fact, the Utah native thought she’d use her outdoor education degree as a park ranger for the National Parks Service or Forest Service. However, her desire to move out of state prompted her to accept a role on the seasonal Community and School Program team at Merrowvista in 2021.

Once she arrived and began working program, she was hooked on the American Youth Foundation mission and values. She jumped at the chance to join the full-time team and now serves as Director of Community and School Programs for Merrowvista. Here, she shares the best parts of her job, how she tailors CSP programs to partner organizations, and her first impressions of the New England wilderness.

What were your first impressions of Merrowvista and CSP program?
“I started in a nontraditional season, but it was the most fun I had ever had at a job. I loved the idea that we get to serve kids who may not have the chance to come to a place like this and experience it to its fullest. I love watching the team challenges and watching the kids learn how to communicate effectively with one another. I’ve watched kids grow in a matter of three days, and there is something so special about witnessing that.”

What about the AYF mission and values resonated with you?
“I really appreciated how it felt like an open invitation to be myself. I was happy that it was a place that wanted
people to be the best versions of themselves, whatever that means to them.”

Why did you want to take on a full-time role with the AYF?
“I’ve never felt so comfortable at a place or job like I have with this one. It felt like such an easy choice to want to be part of this community full-time, to be able to serve and work with kids in this capacity.”

How are community and school programs different than summer camp? How are they similar?
“The major differences are that the programs are much shorter, anywhere from one to five days, and the programming is more intentional when it comes to a focus on building community and communication with each other. At the end of each activity, the facilitators will always debrief about what they just did. They discuss what they learned and how they can take it back with them into school and regular life.

“As far as similarities, we do song challenges at mealtimes, we do dishes, we dance like no one is watching, and we get to be our authentic selves.”

What are some of your favorite things about things about working with CSP partners?
“Meeting a wide variety of people. We work with private and public schools from rural New Hampshire to inner-city Boston. We work with different health-related programs, such as kids who have had heart surgery, kids with asthma, kids with diabetes, and their families. There are so many beautiful programs that allow Merrowvista to be part of their community.”

The AYF works closely with CSP partners to create a program that combines the values of both organizations. How do you find that balance?
“We really lean into the values the programs bring and add undertones of our own values. At each closing fire, the volunteers say something about each value the partner organization brought with them. We weave our own values in, too, using the AYF language of best self and the four folds throughout the activities.”

You’re originally from Utah. What were the biggest differences when you relocated to New Hampshire?
“I cannot believe how green it is here! The weather has really been the biggest change for me. I’m used to dry, desert weather, but here, everything is green and luscious and damp. The winter is totally different, as well. The amount of snow we receive, along with how it turns into ice overnight – it’s so wild to me!”

When you’re not working, what are some of your favorite things to do?
“I love camping and especially hammocking. Any place by water with big trees is the type of place I want to be. I also enjoy reading, puzzling, and playing a little Zelda.”

What TV show has left a lasting impression on you?
“‘Schitt’s Creek’ and ‘Our Flag Means Death’ – both of them have characters who are truly authentic to themselves and nobody bats and eye. Everyone just wants everyone to be happy and be who they are without judgement. I think they have wonderful messages.”

What’s one of the best pieces of advice you’ve ever received?
“When I had to decide between two things, my mom used to tell me, ‘Flip a coin – you’ll always know which side you want it to land on.’ It’s helped me make a lot of big decisions in my life. It makes me truly realize which decision I want to make without having to truly choose.”

Where is your favorite place on Merrowvista’s campus?
“On the Farmhouse porch in a rocking chair early in the morning with a cup of coffee in my hand. There is nothing better than that.”