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The Benefits of Service and the Future of the Alliance VISTA Team

Managing A Rural AmeriCorps VISTA Program

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The Benefits of Service and the Future of the Alliance VISTA Team

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Pictured: Robin Hanson and Angelica Hernandez-Williams

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By: Robin Hanson, Program Director – AmeriCorps VISTA

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As a former Commissioner on the Governor’s Commission on Service and Volunteerism, and with the history of having two VISTA members live with our family when I was a child, I was aware of the value of the VISTA program, but was not aware of the key role of the VISTA program at the Alliance. After a successful career in corporate community resources and a stint as an Encore Fellow, I joined the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits in June of 2016 to manage the AmeriCorps VISTA program. Now, six years later, I am transitioning into retirement, leaving a legacy of alumni, an inclusive program for current and future members, as well as invaluable relationships with the folks in Rural Arizona, all of whom make a difference in their community.

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For background and context around the Alliance VISTA program – the program was started in 2009, with the first VISTA starting in 2010. The original focus was supporting the nonprofit community in Yuma County. Twelve years later there have been VISTA placements from Kingman to Ajo, San Luis to Hereford, Show Low to Douglas, and Rural communities across Arizona. Our program has addressed health issues of seniors in Benson and Willcox, and developed GIS mapping in Quartzsite, as well as economic development in communities with persistent poverty.

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The goal of VISTA is to create or expand programs designed to empower individuals and communities in overcoming poverty. There are two critical pieces, first – the sites who decide a VISTA member is a critical, short-term investment in human capital. The sites who make the investment in a VISTA member are nonprofits, educational organizations, municipalities, and tribal governments. They represent the sectors advocating for health care, housing, education, economic opportunity, veterans, and environmental stewardship. The VISTA members, over a potential three-year period, are tasked with designing, implementing, and evaluating programs to alleviate poverty. The goal is by year four, the organization can sustain the work with a full-time, full paid staff member.

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And second – the members who make a commitment to curb poverty in Rural Arizona by developing capacity building programs sustainable post VISTA service. The VISTA members cannot be defined by age, race, sexual orientation, or education. Most of our members relocate far from family and friends to communities with no support system and limited access to internet, grocery stores, or laundries. The common theme is a willingness to commit to living and working in a rural community for one year with a stipend of $17,600. Now, add the experience of finding any affordable housing, applying for and using SNAP benefits, giving up a Target run and Starbucks in the morning, and you realize there are challenges.

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Oh, but benefits of service offer a lifetime of rewards!!! Our VISTA members are well positioned for “Life after VISTA.” Throughout their term, our site supervisors excel at connecting the VISTA members in the community to allow for successful projects. We host monthly trainings, and provide access to attend Alliance trainings and our ENGAGE annual conference. We further provide input on how to include service and explain the stipend on their resume and in an interview. From a financial perspective, the “carrot” is the choice of either $1800 cash or the Segal Education Award (value tied to the Pell grant) at the end of the VISTA term. Other benefits are federally backed student loan deferment and one year of noncompetitive eligibility for federal employment. However, the post VISTA intangibles cannot be measured in dollars.

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Our members have gone onto their next career step with the experience garnered in their VISTA service. Two members whose term of service was in economic development are currently in full-time, full paid municipal economic development departments. We have alumni who are program directors/officers in nonprofits and foundations. Several of our alumni have used their Segal Education to return to college to complete their masters. And two VISTA alumni who served in a rural health care program are in medical school! Others have found their year of service as a learning opportunity to change their career trajectory. We are grateful for all who come into our program and serve the community.

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The Alliance has developed and supported a well-respected program to serve and partner with. To the sites – we spend time developing the VAD/SOL, making sure the sites know what they are getting with a VISTA from the Alliance, and frankly how long it may take to fill the position. For our candidates – we do not shy away from the brutal truths of VISTA in Rural Arizona: weather (snow or temperatures in summer that might exceed 110 degrees); lack of services (we have a sponsor where the only grocery store is 35 miles away), housing challenges, and the stipend amount. Our program would not be as successful were it not for our transparency.

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Angelica Hernandez-Williams will be leading the program as of August 1, and I am confident the program will only grow under her direction. She has lived and worked in Rural Arizona and will continue to manage this program from Rural Arizona.

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Desmond Tutu once wisely said that “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” What he meant by this is everything in life that seems daunting, overwhelming, and even impossible can be accomplished gradually by taking on just a little at a time. VISTA is a great answer as well. The sites and members try to bring communities out of poverty, a bite at a time.