What is AmeriCorps Vista?
The Numbers Do Not Lie
Most likely if you’re reading this, you’re not living in extreme poverty. A great majority of us are immensely fortunate, more than we typically admit, compared to the staggering numbers of those considered to be living below the poverty threshold.
The 2013 Poverty Guidelines of the United States Department of Health & Human Services shows that a family of three that makes $19,530 or less a year is considered to be living in poverty and is eligible for various government assistance programs; some of these include: Head Start, the Food Stamp Program, the National School Lunch Program, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Oftentimes, these programs are temporary and do not provide sustainable relief or prosperity for a family – nor should they.
History of AmeriCorps
President John F. Kennedy was passionate when it came to advocating for poverty alleviation and was instrumental in the creation of many antipoverty services that are still going strong today. In 1963, Kennedy envisioned a program that would “help provide urgently needed services in urban and rural poverty areas.” It would be within the next few years, and under President Lyndon B. Johnson, that the “War on Poverty” would begin and VISTA would be created. The group started with 20 volunteers – and the message to these individuals from Johnson was: “Your pay will be low; the conditions of your labor often will be difficult. But you will have the satisfaction of leading a great national effort and you will have the ultimate reward which comes to those who serve their fellow man.”
January 1965 was the start of service for the first group of VISTA volunteers, and by the end of the year the number of volunteers grew from the original 20 to more than 2,000; by 1966 there were more than 3,600. During the first decade, the types of projects that VISTA volunteers worked on ranged from credit unions, agricultural cooperatives, community groups, and small businesses. As poverty issues grew, VISTA began recruiting skilled professionals, such as lawyers, doctors, and architects to help develop impoverished areas.
VISTA merged with Peace Corps in the 1970s, forming an alliance that still holds strong today. This past June, I wrote an article illustrating Peace Corps' mission and the steps involved in becoming an international volunteer – you can read this article here.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, VISTA focused most of its efforts on issues including: literacy, substance abuse prevention and treatment, citizen participation, and community self-help.
It was in the 1990s that American saw a surge in national service, and President Bill Clinton created AmeriCorps, with VISTA becoming part of AmeriCorps.
During this decade, AmeriCorps VISTA continued with programs that were long-standing, as well as creating new programs that dealt with new social issues. Low-income housing cooperatives were one of the largest initiatives during the 90s, as were programs that helped people transition from welfare to employment. Other issues that AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers worked on were programs that educated individuals on how to save money and developing out-of-school activities for disadvantaged youth.
Today, VISTA has evolved to identify and respond to local problems and poverty issues that are aligned with today’s societal issues.
Do you know anyone who serves with AmeriCorps?
So What Do AmeriCorps Volunteers Do?
Volunteers make a year-long, full-time commitment, dedicating themselves to a specific project. This project may either be with a nonprofit organization or a public agency. Volunteers receive a modest living allowance and health benefits during service, making this an attractive option for people right out of college.
Following service, volunteers can receive either a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award to be put towards future college courses or a post-service stipend. The Segal AmeriCorps Education Award is equivalent to the value of a Pell Grant, so this can fluctuate from year to year. For 2014, a full-time education award for national positions is $5,645.
If a volunteer chooses the cash stipend over the education award, and they have qualified student loans, they may be eligible for up to 15% cancellation of certain loans once their AmeriCorps service is complete.
Would you consider joining AmeriCorps?
Specific Volunteer Opportunities
If you are interested in serving with AmeriCorps, you can specify a particular area that you would like to specialize in. The list of interests that the AmeriCorps website lists includes:
- Economic Development
- Community Outreach
- Disaster Relief
- Elder Care
- Ex-Offender Reentry
- Hurricane Katrina
- Homeland Security
- Neighborhood Revitalization
- Public Safety
It's About the Children
We often get so caught up in our daily lives that we tend to forget, or are unfortunately blind to, the struggles that so many are facing. Children are one such group that are typically hidden in the shadows of disadvantageous circumstances, naturally unable to recognize and fix deplorable situations themselves. When I was growing up, there was a young girl who I went to school with, who I knew lived in a dire situation - even young children can pick up on these things. There was a sadness to her, a quiet plea for someone to just show her attention, worth, and the trappings of love that every child needs, the encouragement to blossom and prosper. I grew up alongside her, watched a quiet, young girl grow into a woman in a life of hardship. Could this have been prevented?
Part of AmeriCorps is working with disadvantaged youth, encouraging them and showing them their worth and that their life is not dependent upon the undesirable circumstances they grew up in.
How to Get Started
Is your heart pulling you towards something different? A chance to make a difference in the lives of others? Your first step should be to do some personal research on AmeriCorps and its mission, and choose if this program is aligned with your volunteering goals.
Another great resource available to determine how you would like to volunteer is Volunteer Match.
AmeriCorps Volunteers - Joplin, US Tornado
- Join the Crew: Inspirational Stories of Young Adults in America's Service and Conservation Corps
Everyone who has ever participated in one of America's Service and Conservation Corps has a story to tell. This book is a must read for anyone interested in enrolling in one of these programs, or who is simply looking for a source of inspiration.