This is the 50th year Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) have come to Alaska to do behind-the-scenes work with nonprofit organizations throughout the state. It’s both business as normal and not — new volunteers are arriving to start their positions, but organizers are also digging through the annals of VISTA history as they prepare to celebrate the program’s anniversary. Along the way, they’re finding historical events largely lost to time — in one of those events, 55 VISTA volunteers were kicked out of the state in 1970 for supporting Native land claims.
While most volunteers nowadays don’t find themselves at risk of state-based deportation, their assignments can range widely. Positions are usually for three years; each volunteer serves a year.
Kami Moore, prevention project director for the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, first came to Alaska and to ANDVSA as one of the organization’s first VISTA volunteers in 2009.
“It’s hard to believe that I was a VISTA that long ago,” she said.
Now VISTA volunteers are at some of ANDVSA’s 22 affiliate programs, including Juneau’s AWARE (Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies), Homer’s Haven House, and Anchorage’s AWAIC (Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis).
“With my degree in public health, being able to do something in prevention was really exciting,” she said. “I didn’t really know what VISTA was — I just kind of stumbled across it.”
The VISTA program, originally developed by former President John F. Kennedy, was established by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 to serve poor Americans. In 1993, VISTA became part of AmeriCorps, created by former President Bill Clinton. While VISTA volunteers focus on organizational and behind-the-scenes efforts, AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps members are more likely to help through direct community service and involvement.
Many ANDVSA-affiliated VISTA volunteers work on prevention, which is about changing behaviors, Moore said.
“The idea of primary prevention is to stop violence from ever occurring,” she said. “We really focus on changing the social norms about what’s acceptable.” One VISTA volunteer, for example, developed a mentoring program for men ages 12 to 18 “to start to change the norms around healthy masculinity, and getting men involved in ending violence,” she said.
So far, that program has gotten positive feedback.
Another VISTA volunteer, Brian Richardson, has created a youth-run business employment training program at Youth Advocates of Sitka (YAS), said Program Officer and VISTA Senior Corps portfolio Alaska manager Cat Koehn. He’s helping kids develop a mobile smooth truck business.
Lindsey Bennett is a volunteer who just arrived in Kake. She’s lived in Virginia and San Francisco, and worked with London’s long-term homeless population.
When she got back, someone suggested she look at AmeriCorps.
“The idea of Alaska kind of took hold, and I liked what the organizations in Alaska were,” she said.
Bennett grew up going to an after school program that had a library day once a week. Libraries also featured in her work with the homeless, she said.
The Kake Public Library is a combined school and public library; it isn’t currently open. They’re working on getting volunteers and programs in place, she said.
Katie George will be serving at the Craig Public Library, featured in another Capital City Weekly story this week. George studied biochemistry in college, and after working in a research lab, she knew she wanted to do something different for a little while.
She started looking at AmeriCorps programs, and was drawn to Alaska, since her sister lives in Juneau.
“The library position on POW just really stuck out to me — the importance of libraries in communities,” she said. “I’m excited to start working on those programs and see what I can do in my time here.”
VISTA has 53 host sites in Alaska, said Alaska State Director Kirsten Franklin-Temple, with just over half in areas with a population of less than 10,000.
“The ideal is the VISTAs who are there will be so successful in three years that they’ll write themselves out of a job,” Koehn said.
For more, visit www.nationalservice.gov/programs/americorps/americorps-vista