By Amy M. Peters
VISTA stands for “Volunteers in Service to America.” These volunteers are part of AmeriCorps, a national service program designed to alleviate poverty founded by President John F. Kennedy. For one year, VISTAs work where they’re needed across the U.S. to support a community organization’s mission and capacity.
Several local organizations – like the Telluride Foundation, Tri-County Health and Sheep Mountain Alliance – are putting VISTAs to work.
April Montgomery, Vice President of Programs at the Telluride Foundation, says that they’ve managed seven, qualified, smart, passionate VISTAs in as many years.
“You get very high caliber people to do the work that it would cost us to hire a full-time person for. It just seemed like a great idea,” says Montgomery.
The Foundation hires VISTAs who’ve recently graduated from college and then exposes them to as much training, opportunity and experience as possible.
Montgomery says “We have to apply -- it’s a three-year commitment – to have a VISTA. We have to create an exact work plan. It’s an easy match to have them work on our Strong Neighbors initiative, which is mostly focused around the rural communities of Rico, Nucla, Naturita and Norwood where there are more issues around poverty. VISTA is also very interested in the economic development component of it because that’s the way to eradicate poverty.”
Kody Gerkin, Community Outreach Manager at Tri-County Health Network, says they employ three VISTAs: one in marketing, one in data and reporting and another to assist behavioral health and mobile programs.
Gerkin says, “In general, I think the role of VISTAS is to help strengthen how our programs operate. So they’re behind the scenes, creating work-flows, improving our processes, creating internal mechanisms so that we can do the work that we do more efficiently and really to deepen our impact.”
VISTAs are often motivated to apply to the government program not just to help alleviate poverty but to gain work experience and professional skills.
Like Telluride native Sheamus Croke, who graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2017, and now serves as a Strong Neighbor Initiatives Coordinator at the Telluride Foundation.
Croke works on the West End “Pay it Forward” and “Lone Cone Legacy” Trusts, on food initiatives and on West End trails development.
“I’m not only learning about what these programs do and arguing for them, but I’ve been doing grant reports, grant applications, all things grants. Along with coordination of meetings, pull in resources and pull in all these people from different parties, getting everyone together working for a common goal,” says Croke.
Corrine Cavender graduated in April from Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, and now works as one of the VISTA’s at Tri-County Health. As the Public Health Marketing Coordinator, SHE assists with campaigns, develops marketing materials, generates social media content and tracks and budgets for grant reporting.
While VISTAs are paid a very small stipend, Cavender says poverty is relative.
“They pay is under the poverty line but I have a lot of social determinants that enable me to be successful,” says Cavender.
Mason Osgood, who graduated in 2017 from Trinity College in Hartford, CT, is the first VISTA to work at Sheep Mountain Alliance. He works as a Community Outreach Coordinator and lives in Telluride’s new Boarding House. He says VISTAs are paid enough to get by and live a good life in Telluride.
“I’m actually fortunate that I got a good spot – there are actually three other VISTAS who live in the Telluride Boarding House. Shameless plug: They’ve been a great asset to the community and it’s been an amazing place to live,” says Osgood.
A year-long commitment may not be a lot of time for VISTAs to realize the goals of eradicating poverty and serving as catalysts for change. Tri-County Health’s Gerkin admits that the short tenure can present challenges.
“Right about the time they start hitting their stride – they’re usually young professionals – their term expires with us,” says Gerkin.
Even so, Cavender intends to find satisfaction in her year-long VISTA role.
Cavender says, “We’re working for some pretty heavy social justice. And those aren’t going to be resolved in a year. But just knowing that every day I can show up to work and if I help just one person to do work, I think that’s where I’ll feel satisfied.”
To learn more about VISTA and to apply for positions visit my.americorps.gov.