Blog post

Checking back in with the VANbassador

An update on the visits Ben Shlesinger has made in the VANbassador over the summer.
Dennis Harris standing front of a minivan and pointing at it

The VANbassador made its debut six months ago and set the automotive and AKF Ambassador world on fire. As the summer winds down, it seems like the perfect time to check back in and update everyone on our travels. As a reminder, the VANbassador was born from the desire to reconnect with Ambassadors in person (including Dennis Harris pictured to the left). Since its first stop in Brooklyn, the VANbassador has made multiple visits in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, along with a quick trip to West Virginia.

Given that the whole idea of the VANbassador is to meet with Ambassadors where they are, I have not always stopped in the big cities or in the most glamorous locations.  The first stop in Maryland was in a grocery store parking lot. Alison Rascher of Poolesville, Maryland was running errands with her family and the lot outside Harris Teeter was the easiest place for us to meet up. Alison has a son with a rare kidney disease, and I have worked on advocacy with her for a couple years now, but we had never met up face-to-face. We talked about current advocacy opportunities, I gave an update on legislation and we agreed to catch up again soon. We subsequently met up in the same shopping center to record her "I'm A Kidney Voter" video.

Ben Shlesinger and Nieltje Gedney in front of a minivan

Of course, there was also the combination VANbassador visit-Ambassador Briefing at Nieltje Gedney's house in West Virginia. First, we conducted our monthly Zoom briefing for all AKF Ambassadors during which Nieltje discussed the day-long summit on home dialysis called Dialysis at Home: A Kidney Community Event. This partnered event between AKF and Nieltje's organization, Home Dialyzors United, was held on Sept. 15. Current AKF Ambassadors can find the recording of the Zoom on our group Facebook page. Nieltje then got to see the famous minivan-turned-advocacy-mobile while we ate lunch and talked about future advocacy opportunities.

Crystal Scott standing in between two cars in a parking lot

Also, longtime Ambassador Crystal Scott and I had a VANbassador visit at Parkway Deli in Silver Spring, Maryland. My last pre-pandemic in-district was with Crystal and Congressman Jamie Raskin on Valentine's Day 2020, and this was our first meet-up since. It was great to see her even though we have spoken on the phone and been in Zoom meetings together. One important topic we discussed is AKF's D.C. Education Day, being held in Arlington, Virginia on Oct. 29. If you are reading this and close by, please join us. You can email me at for more information.

Other meet-up locations have included other Ambassadors' homes and a few more quick parking lot visits while Ambassadors were still working. There are two more VANbassador visits on the horizon, including a return visit to Brooklyn.

Otherwise, the VANbassador is gassed up and ready to go – it just needs to know the next destination. So where should the VANbassador go next? We are still limiting trips to ones that can be completed round-trip within a day from AKF's Rockville, Maryland office. However, we have stretched that driving radius on occasion to reach areas a bit farther away. This includes the planned Pittsburgh and Cleveland mini-road trip, the logistics of which are still being worked out.

As you think about your upcoming advocacy efforts, please keep us in mind. If you hear of any congressional health fairs or other events where your elected officials will be, drop us a line. Maybe we can mix a VANbassador visit with some advocacy outreach as well.

In the meantime, I look forward to continuing to hit the road to reconnect with more Ambassadors and help to build excitement for AKF advocacy.


Ben Shlesinger

Ben Shlesinger is the associate director of government relations communications at the American Kidney Fund.