Do you have a dream project that addresses a community need but not the resources to get it off the ground? Could your organization use help tracking donors, recruiting volunteers or developing other systems that build capacity to meet the needs of the low-income community?
AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) is a federal national service program designed to strategically partner with nonprofit organizations and public agencies to increase their capacity and lift Americans out of poverty. NeighborWorks America, in partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service, sponsors one of the largest national AmeriCorps VISTA programs in the United States. Rather than providing cash grants, the VISTA program places individual VISTAs with host sites. NeighborWorks America VISTAs have served all over the nation, enhancing the capacity of NeighborWorks organizations to create or expand programs designed to empower individuals and communities in overcoming poverty.
From foreclosure crisis to economic opportunity, NeighborWorks America's VISTA program has evolved to new challenges. It was launched in September 2009 with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to address the nationwide foreclosure crisis. Today, the program focuses on economic opportunity by supporting and facilitating access to services and resources that contribute to the improved economic well-being and financial security of economically disadvantaged people.
The program offers network organizations the opportunity to expand their capacity by bringing talented, passionate individuals on board. VISTA members come with the talent and drive to get things done, and their work helps organizations achieve four important goals.
VISTAs build capacity
VISTA members strengthen, expand and increase the reach of community organizations and anti-poverty programs by working on projects with staff and volunteers, rather than directly with people in need.
For example, NeighborWorks America VISTA members at New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, were able to broaden the organization's resident surveying to include questions about self-reported health outcomes and employ a team of community surveyors to collect data. The data from the survey helped NKCDC apply for and receive a $500,00 grant from the commonwealth to start a Community Health Worker program to serve low-income residents.
"VISTA support through NeighborWorks has been instrumental to our growth in our target neighborhood," said Andrew Goodman, community engagement director with NKCDC. "We have learned so much that we continue to see new opportunities for capacity building."
Goodman noted that 10 years after the start of the program, his organization's VISTAs have "a larger capacity-building role here than ever" as NKCDC expands programming to serve new communities and that capacity-building projects led by VISTAs yielded multi-year programs or community partnerships. In fact, the organization has hired VISTAs as full-time employees.
Among the projects led by VISTAs was Farm to Families, an affordable produce box program that lasted seven years and distributed more than 14,000 boxes of produce. Another such program was Somerset Neighbors for Better Living (SNBL), one of NKCDC's latest efforts to support residents starting a neighborhood association in their area. SNBL is now one of the premier voices on how people are affected by the opioid crisis in Kensington and played a key role in lobbying Philadelphia's mayor to issue an executive order to create the Philadelphia Resilience Project. Another successful project to help residents with home repairs has led to 150 neighbors receiving assistance and has received a $150,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation to continue the work.
VISTAs create sustainable solutions
In addition to valuable capacity building, VISTA members work to provide organizations with systems to address poverty long after the VISTAs are gone. VISTAs develop systems, relationships and knowledge, which they transfer to the organization and the community to sustain over the long term.
Laura Roach, who was a VISTA member from 2013 to 2014 with NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, worked to develop a process for identifying and supporting tenants at risk for eviction. Roach later served a year at NeighborWorks America.
"After conducting research on similar initiatives, I created an intake form and benefits screening form. To test the tools, I met with several delinquent tenants at risk of eviction," Roach explained. "One tenant, a father of six, fell behind on rent payments because he was laid off from his job as a machinist."
Using the forms Roach created, the group identified an action plan to help him retain his family's apartment. Within a couple of months, he had found a new, higher-paying job and was no longer delinquent. "Using the lessons I learned from this particular case, I was able to evaluate and improve the eviction prevention process I created," Roach said. The process is still used by NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley.
Chris Gillis, director of Policy and Neighborhood Development for the Montgomery Housing Partnership in Silver Spring, Maryland, said the NeighborWorks VISTA program has allowed his organization to take a "truly holistic approach to housing" and address the root causes of poverty and housing insecurity.
"Since hosting our first VISTA member in 2009, our mission has grown beyond simply providing affordable housing to include a full range of services for our residents that didn't exist prior, such as financial literacy education, an after-school environmental club for at-risk youth and, most recently, connecting our residents with services to improve their physical and mental well-being," Gillis said. "None of this would have been possible without the dedicated service of our NeighborWorks VISTA members."
Roy Nash, president and CEO of NeighborWorks Waco in Texas said VISTAs helped his organization create a financial literacy program for disadvantaged youth in 2012 called Project ASPIRE (Assisting Students in Preparing, Inquiring, Reaching and Envisioning). Today, the program is sustainable with NeighborWorks Waco funding and has a full-time contract employee to facilitate it.
"The NeighborWorks VISTA program enabled us to begin the program at a very low cost, with a college graduate as the lead facilitator," Nash said. The program reached out to children in fourth through eighth grades. Youth were involved in special Project ASPIRE classes during the school year and during spring break and summer camp sessions. According to Nash, several hundred youth have now come through the program in the last seven years.
"The program continues to reach hundreds of disadvantaged youth, giving them a vision for a better life out of the poverty situations they are in currently," said Nash.
VISTAs bring energy, passion and perseverance
VISTA members become trusted colleagues, often adding a much needed "fresh set of eyes" to persistent issues impacting community development and affordable housing organizations.
Ashley Cassetty, former VISTA supervisor at New Directions Housing Corporation in Louisville, Kentucky, knows firsthand how VISTAs can bring a new dynamic to an organization's daily mission.
"VISTAs represent fresh and dynamic outlooks into our organization," Cassetty said. "Their passion and excitement for the work we do rejuvenates us and allows progress through capacity building to be an ever-churning wheel of improvement. Indeed, the VISTA program has provided our organization with the most valuable capacity-building assistance we have ever received in our 35-year history."
According to Kimberly Strahm, assistant vice president of Corporate Development and Administration for Community Housing Partners (CHP) in Christiansburg, Virginia, NeighborWorks America VISTA members have helped to create and sustain programs and processes that endure today in CHP's work, including homeownership, resident services, corporate development and energy efficiency.
"CHP has hosted successful VISTA members every year since 2009," Strahm said. "Although we have strong organizational capacity, we are always striving to start new initiatives, explore new partnerships and improve or expand our current lines of business."
VISTAs broaden the talent pipeline for community development
NeighborWorks organizations are creating jobs for former VISTA members. The NeighborWorks America VISTA Program attracts and retains new and diverse talent to the community development field. Since 2016, more than 50 percent of VISTAs hired by NeighborWorks organizations were recruited into new staff positions.
"I can't even begin to share how valuable the NeighborWorks AmeriCorps VISTA program has been to our organization, and how proud I have been for this opportunity to mentor and support many outstanding VISTAs during our 10 years participating in this program," said Sharon Eghigian, director of Community Impact and Resource Development with NeighborWorks Sacramento in California. "The VISTAs have helped build our capacity in so many ways."
Eghigian noted that her organization's first VISTA navigated the long process of working with U.S. Department of Agriculture to be able to accept Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program when NeighborWorks Sacramento launched the Oak Park Farmers Market in 2010. Since 2010, she said, her organization has provided more than $250,000 in EBT funds to thousands of families to purchase locally grown, healthy food.
"We have also had the opportunity to hire most of our VISTAs after their year of service," Eghigian said. "This has ranged from short-term or part-time employment as they continued their education to many years of valuable service. Our VISTAs stay in touch and have gone on to successful careers and adventures after their time with us. NeighborWorks America has done a fantastic job providing support to the VISTA program. Over the years, I have seen their commitment to ensuring that the local NeighborWorks organizations have the training and support we need to ensure a quality experience for our VISTAs."
According to Alex Byrne, who was a VISTA at NeighborWorks Sacramento from 2011 to 2012, his year was a "memorable and fulfilling" volunteer and professional experience.
"It not only gave me the opportunity to serve my community in a meaningful way, but it grew the empathy I have for disadvantaged populations needing assistance," Byrne said. "I am proud of the work I was able to accomplish by providing healthy food access to those living in a food desert throughout Sacramento. The farmers market I help develop and the grant I helped contribute to in order to fund the market accepting EBT is one of the greatest accomplishments I look back on fondly."
Byrne said that his time as a VISTA not only strengthened his passion for public service but shaped his professional goals. He used the experience and the education stipend to complete his master's degree in public administration in sustainable management. Today he works for the California Environmental Protection Agency, helping to fund food recovery efforts throughout the Golden State.
Stefanie Shull, director of the Connect program for The Neighborhood Developers in Chelsea, Massachusetts, said serving as her organization's VISTA site supervisor has been "gratifying." Connect helps people achieve sustainable living wage jobs and financial health and well-being by partnering with organizations to provide essential skills, knowledge and social capital in one central and supportive location.
"Every year I help define an important capacity-building role that will shape the skill set and career trajectory of an ambitious, smart young person while helping my organization have greater impact, higher quality of services, and stronger relationships in the community," Shull said. "And every year we are delighted to get to know a new crop of young people who want to figure out their place in the world and who especially want to leave the community better, in some small way, than it was when they arrived."
Much like the experience Byrne described, Cortney Stehlik-Freeman, a VISTA alumna from 2009 to 2010 with Community Frameworks in Spokane, Washington, said her time with the program was personally transformative while also shaping her career path.
"At the end of my VISTA year I was hired by my host organization to become a part of their full-time staff, and part of my job was to oversee the future VISTAs from the NeighborWorks program," said Stehlik-Freeman. "The VISTA program is such an amazing win-win-win. The community gains some much-needed capacity, the organization has the opportunity to vet and train new talent, and the person serving in the VISTA role receives the opportunity to grow their skills and gain experience in their chosen field. For me, the opportunity to serve as a VISTA was not only a powerful opportunity to improve a community, but it also propelled me into my future career."
A strong foundation for future work
Clearly, the effect VISTAs have on their organizations and communities is significant. Whether helping organizations develop new programs, increasing the reach of services, helping develop partnerships, or improving organizational infrastructure and funding, their impact is measurable. Since the NeighborWorks America VISTA Program's inception, more than 1,000 VISTA members have completed service with the NeighborWorks network and have contributed to:
Over the course of 10 successful years, the NeighborWorks America VISTA Program has had a powerful, sustainable impact on low-income communities and the network organizations that serve them. By leveraging the national platform of NeighborWorks America and the network's local knowledge and reach, these full-time service members have played a vital role in enhancing capacity and talent. And with a strong foundation built upon a decade of achievement, the NeighborWorks America VISTA program is ready for the next 10 years.
Visit the NeighborWorks America VISTA Program webpage for more information.
- Acquiring nearly $54.2 million in cash and in-kind resources;
- Building the financial capability and asset-building capacity for 56,474 individuals in underserved communities; and
- Recruiting 58,347 volunteers that have served 411,141 hours in their communities.