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AmeriCorps VISTA

Andrew Kirkland
AmeriCorps VISTA, Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque

As you go about your life, you might run into someone who is involved with AmeriCorps — maybe at work or just in the community. You might also wonder what AmeriCorps is.

You’ve likely heard of the Peace Corps, the organization that sends volunteers to impoverished countries to help improve the lives of residents while also helping the volunteers develop skills. AmeriCorps offers a similar experience, and both programs have similar roots.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps as a means of providing assistance to countries struggling with poverty. He hoped to build friendship and peace. Soon after, he commissioned a task force to study the possibility of creating a national service program to provide similar assistance at home. While he urged Congress to pass legislation to create the program, Congress did not pass it.

A few years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his War on Poverty and signed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Head Start, Job Corps, Legal Services, and Community Action Programs all trace their founding to this legislation. Another organization, Volunteers In Service To America or VISTA, also came out of the law, fulfilling Kennedy’s dream.

The purpose of VISTA has been to combat the effects of poverty by focusing on capacity-building in nonprofit organizations and public agencies that serve the poor. Its primary objectives are to encourage local volunteer service, generate the commitment of private sector resources, and strengthen local organizations that serve the poor.

This happens through a variety of means. Projects can involve developing outreach and marketing campaigns, building a social media presence, creating a program database, writing grants, managing programs in their first year, and recruiting volunteers. VISTA helps an organization run efficiently and, thus, serve the poor more effectively.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the National and Community Service Trust Act into law. Several service programs — including VISTA, which merged with the newly created AmeriCorps to become AmeriCorps VISTA — are now combined into the Corporation for National Community Service. AmeriCorps acts as a national service program and serves as an umbrella organization.  AmeriCorps National and State organizations work to provide direct support through a variety of means. Green Iowa and Partners in Learning are examples of AmeriCorps initiatives. AmeriCorps volunteers also are involved with organizations like Habitat for Humanity. There are many ways to serve through AmeriCorps.

AmeriCorps VISTA operates a little differently than AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps operates on the front-end of an organization, directly, providing service to the people, while AmeriCorps VISTA operates the back end, providing support by finding sustainable resources (financial or material) or recruiting more volunteers to build a program’s reach.

Joining AmeriCorps is very easy. Visit the website for the Corporation for National Community Service (https://www.nationalservice.gov/) to browse programs. It’s a lot like searching a jobs board You narrow down your parameters and choose the project you want. You’ll have several interviews, including a screening interview and several with the agency you would be paired with.

Service projects typically last a year and are full time. During the year, you get a stipend a stipend of just over $12,000, issued bi-monthly,  to help with basic needs. There are also some benefits. If you are a recent college graduate, you receive an education award of $6,095 at the end of service that you can apply to student loans; if you don’t plan on using the award for education, it is $1,200. There are additional health care and relocation benefits that members receive for their service. You also get priority listing with the federal government should you apply for any federal positions. Along with the skills you directly gain from the work, you can also receive professional development through AmeriCorps and the organizations they pair people with.

So, what is my role with AmeriCorps VISTA? I have been with the organization since mid-November, working for the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. My task has primarily been involved with the Dubuque Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. It is a collaboration of community partners from various sectors working as part of a national effort to ensure that all children are able to read by third grade.

So far, I have helped research best practices on messaging around attendance and how to combat chronic absence, develop messaging for summer learning, and research how other communities frame and structure their campaigns. I’ve also assisted with grant-writing and have created an spreadsheet of major granting organizations, mapped where to get free meals in Dubuque, started an internal asset map of partners within the local campaign, helped build our social media presence, and develop a communications plan for messaging on school attendance. This is in addition to providing whatever support I can to other Community Foundation staff.

It’s been an interesting year working for AmeriCorps VISTA. I never envisioned myself working in this capacity, as my background is history and museums. However, I have really taken to this work and am committed to doing everything I can. That is the other part of AmeriCorps VISTA: To say we are committed to the work is an understatement. It is a calling that is higher than ourselves. You learn about the people you are working to serve and what they go through. You may come in already hoping that poverty will eventually subside. Once you start, though, that feeling becomes a passion as you start to embody the work that Kennedy and Johnson began: the effort to end poverty.

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