In 1963, President John F. Kennedy saw the need for a national service corps to help combat poverty in urban and rural areas.
Kennedy’s dream is exemplified today by the nearly 75,000 people who participate in AmeriCorps each year.
One of the three programs included in AmeriCorps is VISTA, or Volunteers in Service to America, which was founded in 1965.
Members of VISTA commit to a year of service at a nonprofit or local government agency. The aim of their projects is to building permanent infrastructure within the sponsor organizations.
VISTAs have been active in Walker County since 2009.
Paul Kennedy, president of the Walker Area Community Foundation, partnered with VISTA prior to coming to WACF in 2007 and was instrumental in bringing the program to the area.
“I thought it would be a good fit for the foundation and one more service that we could use to expand the capacity and reach of nonprofits in Walker County,” he said.
Local organizations that have benefitted from the work of VISTAs include WACF, the Bankhead House and Heritage Center, Walker County Homeless Coalition, Walker County Arts Alliance, Walker County Nonprofit Council and the Walker County Health Providers Network as well as the cities of Cordova and Jasper.
“They (the organization) can develop greater outreach and build a solid base of volunteers to advance the mission of the host. It is often much-needed but not affordable by a small nonprofit or community,” Kennedy said.
Last year, the number of VISTAs assigned to WACF grew from seven to 12 as a result of the April 27, 2011 tornadoes.
Kennedy said the Foundation requested and received permission from the Corporation for National Service to repurpose one of its VISTA slots for long-term recovery.
CNS later asked for local help in placing five more VISTAs in disaster recovery positions.
Amelia Trowbridge, who served as a VISTA for two years at the Arts Alliance and Nonprofit Council, was named Walker County’s first VISTA team leader.
The city of Cordova currently has two VISTAs, Lauren Vance and Rachel Sparkman, helping with its recovery, and Karen Neupauer is working with the Walker County Long Term Recovery Committee.
WACF is also a host site for three VISTAS assigned to tornado-stricken areas in several surrounding counties.
In all, there are eight VISTAs currently at work in Walker County.
President Lyndon Johnson promised the first VISTAs that their pay would be low and the conditions in which they would be working would 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.”
VISTAS receive a modest living allowance, health care and other benefits. They also receive either an educational award or stipend upon completion of their service.
Kennedy said serving as a VISTA can be an eye-opening experience, especially to those who are seeking a “professional test drive.”
For example, Neupauer came to Walker County last year to work on projects with the Mennonite Disaster Service and was recruited as a VISTA after showing an interest in learning more about the disaster recovery process.
“For the VISTA, it is a great opportunity to work with an organization, to feel a sense of purpose and to advance their resume,” Kennedy said.