There are mountain vistas — vast and exhilarating -— and then there are mountain VISTAs, Volunteers in Service to America, who assist local community organizations for one year, gaining skills and experience to advance their careers. VISTAs, as these volunteers are known, work nationwide. The VISTA program is part of AmeriCorps, a national service initiative designed to alleviate poverty that was founded in 1965 by then-president John F. Kennedy.
Nonprofit organizations across the tri-county region are improving their missions and capacity with the aid of VISTAs.
Organizations interested in enlisting a VISTA volunteer must apply to AmeriCorps, submitting an exact work plan. While the central mission for a VISTA is to help eradicate poverty, there are myriad ways that organizations approach and address poverty.
GROUPS THAT USE VISTAS
The Telluride Foundation (TTF), which develops and supports initiatives that make “direct investments that maximize benefit to all” in the community, has managed seven VISTAS in as many years, most of whom recently graduated from college.
“It’s an easy match to have VISTAs work on our Strong Neighbors initiative, which is mostly focused on the rural communities of Rico, Nucla, Naturita and Norwood, where there are more issues around poverty,” explained April Montgomery, vice president of programs at TTF. “VISTA is also very interested in economic development because that’s the way to eradicate poverty.”
Upon a VISTA’s arrival, an organization exposes the volunteer to as much training, opportunity and experience as possible.
“You get very high caliber people to do the work that it would cost us to hire a full-time person to do,” Montgomery added.
Tri-County Health Network (TCHNetwork), a network of providers committed to increasing access to health care and services at lower costs, employs three VISTAs, according to Kody Gerkin, the nonprofit’s community outreach manager: one in marketing, one in data and reporting, and another to assist behavioral health and mobile programs.
“VISTAs are behind the scenes, creating work-flows, improving processes and creating internal mechanisms so that we can do the work that we do more efficiently and deepen our impact,” Gerkin said.
The mission of the West End Economic Development Corporation (WEEDC) is to create and encourage a pro-business environment while capitalizing on natural and historic resources. Operating out of Naturita, WEEDC has employed VISTAs since 2014, primarily to help develop economic strategies that benefit the entire community. WEEDC Executive Director Deana Sheriff said the organization would like to continue to use VISTAs, but its ability to do so will depend on availability and funding.
“We had significant challenges finding a VISTA who was willing to work in such a remote area, and the pool of applicants has shrunk significantly due to the strength of the economy,” Sheriff explained.
She said that VISTAs are heading directly into the labor pool from college because of the high number of jobs available.
“And why not?” Sheriff said. “If you can start working off your student debt more quickly and start gaining experience on the job, it makes sense.”
Ricardo Perez is the executive director of the Hispanic Affairs Project (HAP) of Western Colorado, a grassroots group that operates out of Montrose to provide leadership development, community organizing and key services to help immigrants become integrated into this region.
“The support of VISTA is giving us the chance to better connect with our members” to inform them about HAP’s activities “and to understand how to advocate for issues impacting low income families and communities of color,” Perez said.
This is the first year that HAP has worked with a VISTA, and Perez said that his group is already applying for a new VISTA for 2020. He added that HAP’s VISTA is responsible for helping to improve the group’s communication capabilities.
“This is a critical area for any nonprofit agency, but most important for HAP since we are in the middle of our new strategic plan,” Perez explained.
Perez believes that part of the VISTA program’s effectiveness has to do with each volunteer’s unique background and skills.
“Since our VISTA is young and comes from a different region in the U.S., his perspective and knowledge in media and communication is a plus,” Perez said.
VISTAs are often motivated to serve in the government program not just to help alleviate poverty but to gain work experience and professional skills.
Telluride native Sheamus Croke, who graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder in 2017 with a degree in international relations and Spanish, serves as a Strong Neighbor initiatives coordinator at TTF. Croke works on the West End Pay it Forward and Lone Cone Legacy trusts on food initiatives and trail development.
“I’m not only learning about what these programs do and arguing for them, but I’ve been doing grant reports and grant applications,” Croke explained.
His work offers him valuable experience coordinating meetings, “pulling in resources and all these people from different parties, (and) getting everyone together working for a common goal.”
Corrine Cavender, who graduated in April from Grand Valley State University in Michigan with a degree in political science and a minor in Spanish, is one of the VISTAs at TCHNetwork. As the public health marketing coordinator, she assists with campaigns, develops marketing materials, generates social media content, and tracks and budgets for grant reporting.
Driven by a desire to gain professional skills, Cavender believed a VISTA year would offer useful work experience while also helping to eliminate poverty, although, she said, “We at TCHNetwork don’t really call it poverty. We call it inequality or inequity. There’s a big immigrant population in Telluride that we try to work directly with to make sure that everyone has access to the services we offer.”
Mason Osgood, who graduated in 2017 from Trinity College in Connecticut with a major in public policy, is the first VISTA to work at Sheep Mountain Alliance (SMA), a grassroots citizen’s organization dedicated to preserving the natural environment in the Telluride region and southwest Colorado.
Growing up in Reno, Nevada, Osgood harbors a deep love for the West, its culture and open lands and was looking to work in conservation.
“I’m really trying to focus my career on environmental policy and conservation work,” Osgood said. “And, of course, SMA is doing great stuff in that field.”
SMA intends to work with more VISTAs in the future. Osgood is tasked with creating long-term programs that VISTAs can continue to work on to improve SMA’s mission and capacity. As outreach coordinator, it’s Osgood’s job to find out what a community’s needs and concerns are and to advocate for bills in the national legislature, along with local farmers who are against oil and gas leasing and drilling.
“I’m trying to attend a lot of meetings here and in the West End,” Osgood said. “And I’m attending board of trustee meetings in Rico and Ophir to learn about communities and to meet people.”
Whether AmeriCorps provides a stipend for its volunteers or the nonprofits themselves do, VISTAs serve as catalysts for change, living and working alongside community members.
Osgood, who lives in Telluride’s new housing development, The Boarding House, insists that VISTAs are paid enough to get by and live a good life in Telluride.
“I’m fortunate that I got a good spot (at The Boarding House),” he said. “There are actually three other VISTAs who live here, and they’ve been a great asset to the community. It’s been an amazing place to live.”
Cavender, who also resides at The Boarding House, said that while VISTAs are paid a very small stipend, poverty is relative.
“They pay us below the poverty line, but I have a lot of social determinants that enable me to be successful,” Cavender said. “If I were really struggling, my parents could help me and they have good health insurance. So I am able to survive off the AmeriCorps work wage because I have other support.”
She points out that VISTAs also qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as SNAP, or food stamps.
“Enrolling in the program is a great learning process for us as young professionals,” Cavender said, “because this is what people go through. It’s normalizing and without stigma.”
Gerkin — Cavender’s supervisor — said that TCHNetwork looks for ways to compensate VISTAs through separate paid jobs like interpretation, child care at events and house sitting for TCHNetwork staff.
A yearlong commitment may not be a lot of time for VISTAs to realize the ambitious goals of eradicating poverty and serving as catalysts for change, and Gerkin admits that the short tenure can present challenges.
“Right about the time they start hitting their stride, their term expires with us,” he said.
Even so, Cavender intends to find satisfaction in her yearlong VISTA role.
“We’re working for some pretty heavy social justice,” she said. “And those (situations) aren’t going to be resolved in a year. But just knowing that every day I can show up to work — if I help just one person to do work — I think that’s where I’ll feel satisfied.”
THOSE WHO STAY
While VISTAs contract to work for community organizations for one year, several have found permanent jobs in the area and decided to remain here.
“We’ve had VISTAs who’ve stayed in the community,” Montgomery said. “It’s really fun to see what they end up doing and how they progress.”
For example, Lily Brigs, last year’s VISTA at TTF, started a floral business in the region and remains involved with the local food movement in Norwood.
In 2014, Dylan Hoos worked as a VISTA at TTF as a Paradox Community Trust coordinator. Nine months into the job, he applied for and was offered a position as donor resources fellow at TTF, which involves working with private foundations like the Johnson Family Foundation (JFF). That relationship eventually led to his current full-time job at JFF, a New York City-based foundation that funds national and place-based programs, including those in the Telluride region.
“It was essentially a ‘right place, right time’ set-up that launched an unexpected career in philanthropy,” said Hoos, who works for JFF from Telluride.
While Hoos appreciates the time he served through the VISTA program, he credits the nonprofit community in Telluride with his success.
“I attribute my story to the amazing organizations we came to Telluride to work for and the community that made us want to stay here,” he said.
Through November of last year, Mara MacDonell was a VISTA working at Bright Futures as a program development associate. Today she works at Bright Futures full-time, as the Strong Start program coordinator and office manager. She said her VISTA experience was instrumental in giving her the skills to be successful in her permanent role.
MacDonell came to Bright Futures during a time of growth, just as the organization was contracted by San Miguel County to deliver services funded by a 2017 mill levy now known as the Strong Start Program.
In her role as a VISTA, MacDonell produced a marketing video, assisted in writing grants, served on the Child Maltreatment Prevention Planning work group, represented Bright Futures at community meetings, and researched and developed policy recommendations for the programs that are now at the core of Strong Start.
“My time as a VISTA really allowed me to take skills learned in college and apply them in the real world,” MacDonell explained. “Because of the nature of VISTA, I felt there was more support, mentorship and learning” than she might have gotten “in a typical entry-level job setting.”
She decided to stay in Telluride because she fell in love with the local community and is inspired to make it stronger.
“Most people I know who are my age don’t have the opportunity to be involved in something this innovative or effective,” MacDonell said. “I truly have VISTA to thank for this opportunity.”
She recommends VISTA to recent college graduates interested in working in the nonprofit sector.
“Not only does VISTA provide great experience, it’s inspiring to be part of a program whose mission is to fight poverty domestically, and which does so through solutions at the local level,” MacDonell said. “I found the post-completion education award to be incredibly helpful in paying back student loans.”
Most VISTAs are eligible to receive an AmeriCorps Segal Education Award upon completing their yearlong service. All other VISTAs receive an end-of-service cash stipend. Applicants must be over 18 years old when they start their AmeriCorps service (there is no upper-age limit for AmeriCorps VISTA applicants).
To learn more about VISTA or to apply for a position, visit my.americorps.gov.