When Heather Binkley graduated from college in Minnesota with a social work degree in the spring of 2002, she wasn't quite ready to take a regular job
"I had done some volunteering in the past, as a live-in volunteer at a Catholic Working house in Minnesota ... and at a homeless clinic in Milwaukee, Wis.., and I really have enjoyed my experience with volunteering," she said.
So instead of applying to graduate school, or looking for a paid, entry-level social worker position, she decided to look into volunteering options.
Two months later, she arrived in Juneau ready to start a year-long stint as a VISTA volunteer.
President Lyndon Johnson created VISTA - the Volunteers in Service to America program - when he signed the Economic Opportunity Act passed by Congress in 1964. The program was incorporated into AmeriCorps, a national service organization, when President Bill Clinton created AmeriCorps in 1993.
VISTA volunteers have been coming to Alaska since the late 1960s, said Midge Clouse, a local government specialist with the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development, which assigns some of the VISTA positions in the state.
More than 50 VISTA volunteers work in Alaska, Clouse said.
"VISTAs do program and project development, helping communities or an organization get organized and up and running," she said. "All of their work is geared towards alleviating poverty."
VISTA volunteers in Alaska represent a cross-section of the population, Clouse said. Some are fresh out of college and looking for experience to get a leg up in the world. Others are from Alaska and have a desire to address a specific need in their community. Some leave their chosen field mid-career to explore other options, and still others are retired.
In Juneau, VISTA volunteers work with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Juneau-Douglas High School, the two middle schools and the Southeast Regional Resource Center.
Other full-time AmeriCorps volunteers in Juneau are the eight members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps who work for several local nonprofit groups and about 15 volunteers with the Southeast Alaska Guidance Association.
Juneau offers plenty of opportunities for the volunteers to help.
"We're really, really busy," said Anna Wright, 23, who has been working with Binkley, 33, at JDHS since last July. "I didn't expect how hectic it is."
Binkley and Wright spend more than 40 hours a week coordinating service projects for students, facilitating student learning groups for the CHOICE program, working at the teen health center, helping with the Students for Social Responsibility group and training peer educators in the Postponing Sexual Involvement program. They work for a stipend of about $1,200 per month.
"I live pretty cheaply," said Rebecca Rastall, a VISTA volunteer with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. "I haven't found it to be a big burden, but I don't have a car, and I don't have insurance."
At the end of their year of service, VISTA volunteers receive a $4,725 educational stipend from AmeriCorps. But a bigger return on their investment is the generosity of the community, they said.
The volunteers often take advantage of pay-as-you-can nights at Perseverance Theatre and Theatre in the Rough, and frequently are offered free tickets to music and arts events. Residents sometimes ask volunteers to house-sit, saving them rent.
"It's just an absolutely wonderful place to live," said Binkley. "... I felt right at home, very soon after I got here. Juneau is a very welcoming community."
So welcoming, in fact, that many volunteers never really leave.
"It's really ridiculous how many former volunteers I run into," said Wright.
Next year, Wright and Rastall hope to find jobs and join Juneau's former volunteer community.
"I definitely need to stay here for a while longer," Rastall said.
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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