AmeriCorps VISTA enhances community engagement work at VT Engage

A recent job posting for an AmeriCorps VISTA position with the VT Engage VISTA Network read: “Community change agents wanted.”

A VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America) position is not your typical job. VISTA members are full-time employees for one year with a very specific purpose: eliminating poverty. They are paid a stipend equal to living at the poverty level. At the end of the year, members receive an education award totaling $5,550.

   

VISTA Erica Titus is implementing a volunteer reading program. VISTA Erica Titus is implementing a volunteer reading program for daycare children.

What would make someone sign up for this?

“You can never begin to address an issue until you truly understand it, and you cannot truly understand a problem until you’ve lived it,” said Wyatt Taylor, a VISTA member with VT Engage: The Community Learning Collaborative and Head Start.

AmeriCorps VISTA is a national service program administered through the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). In 2012, with the support of a CNCS grant, VT Engage created its VISTA network to meet the needs of its community partners and address poverty in Blacksburg and surrounding communities, also known as the New River Valley (NRV).

VT Engage is charged with fostering civic partnerships between the university and the community and cultivating social and ethical responsibility among students and employees through engaged learning and reflection.

As of January 2013, VT Engage had six VISTA placements to develop three-year projects with nonprofit organizations. VISTA members are considered affiliates of Virginia Tech but are federal employees. The placement organizations hire a VISTA member to work in their offices, and VT Engage provides computers, training, and support.

   

In February 2013, James Glass will start working with the Bike Kitchen to increase access to transportation options by distributing bicycles to low-income communities. In February 2013, James Glass will start working with the Bike Kitchen to increase access to transportation options by distributing bicycles to low-income communities. Additionally, he will work with at-risk youth to teach bike safety and maintenance.

Taylor, for example, develops partnerships between university departments, student groups, and service-learning courses and Head Start centers with the goal of ensuring a long-term commitment to volunteerism in these centers.

“The national focus of the AmeriCorps VISTA program matches very closely with VT Engage's own strategic goals of community engagement and social justice,” said Gary Kirk, VT Engage director. “Our VISTAs make substantive contributions to the capacity of communities to respond to emerging and persistent issues.”

With the CNCS grant, VT Engage began several projects, including one with Smart Beginnings NRV, a coalition of business, nonprofit, and governmental leaders that works toward greater investment in early childhood education.

A new partnership for education

Smart Beginnings Regional Coordinator David Moore led the charge for a VISTA project in early 2012. “It has only been two weeks, but I can’t recall how we ever functioned without our VISTA,” he said soon after Erica Titus arrived.

Titus coordinates public awareness campaigns and community engagement projects. A key component of her work is to develop a new reading mentor program called the Lunch Hour. The program recruits corporate volunteers to spend one lunch hour a week reading books to a child at one of several daycare centers. The goal is to help children become more enthusiastic about reading and develop better listening and vocabulary skills, as well as increase awareness and business involvement in the Smart Beginnings mission.

According to research from the National Education Association, reading to children can impact their overall success in school. Smart Beginnings recognizes the importance of reading to young children in building a strong skilled work force, which is why the business community is a vital element to the program, Moore said.

With a coalition of organizations such as NRV Cares, Head Start, and New River Community Action, community collaboration is built into the structure of Smart Beginnings. Even with that list of collaborators, Titus has brought a game-changing force to the organization, Moore said. “We could never have gotten our new volunteer reading mentor program off the ground without the assistance of the VISTA program. Erica has already made herself indispensable.”

VT Engage VISTA Network and beyond

The VISTA Network has garnered interest from recent Virginia Tech graduates. The program offers them an opportunity to gain skills in a professional environment and benefit from experience in a nonprofit organization. 

Among them are Jessica Schultz, who graduated in 2012 with a degree in agricultural science and human nutrition, foods, and exercise, and Alexis Bressler, who graduated in 2012 with a degree in human nutrition, foods, and exercise. Both said they were eager to join a program that offered them the chance to gain experience and continue to work in the community.

   

Jessica Schultz, at left, is working with the Blacksburg Farmers Market. Jessica Schultz, at left, is working with the Blacksburg Farmers Market to increase access to fresh and local food for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program users.

Schultz is working to develop a farmers market store at the Blacksburg Farmers Market to increase access of fresh and local food for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program users. Bressler, meanwhile, is creating and implementing curriculum for school garden programs and community gardens to increase access to locally grown food for low-income communities.

The VT Engage VISTA Network is a model that fits well with Outreach and International Affairs support for community partnerships, Kirk said. “The VT Engage VISTA network serves as a very real example of how Virginia Tech and communities work together for sustainable change,” he said.

To learn more about Smart Beginnings NRV and the Lunch Hour program contact Erica Titus at sbnrv@smartbeginningsnrv.org.

For more information on this topic, contact Whitney H. Johnson at 540-231-0691.

About the programs

VT Engage: The Community Learning Collaborative fosters community-university partnerships to improve quality of life and to inspire more thoughtful, active citizens.

AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) members work in community organizations, local government, or schools for one year in a capacity-building position. Placements typically involve volunteer management and recruitment, fundraising, building organizational infrastructure, and outreach.

Community connections

VT Engage VISTA Network partner organizations are the following:

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