VISTA Volunteers Giving Time and Energy to Afterschool

In 11 states across the nation, AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers participating in a unique Afterschool Alliance project are working to extend the reach of afterschool programs in their states and communities.
Founded as Volunteers in Service to America and incorporated into AmeriCorps in 1993, VISTA is nearly five decades old. The program was the brainchild of President John F. Kennedy. Building on the success of the Peace Corps, Kennedy envisioned a national service corps to “help provide urgently needed services in urban and rural poverty areas.” A year after Kennedy’s death, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation creating VISTA. Since then, more than 185,000 VISTA volunteers have served their nation. Today’s VISTA volunteers commit to one- or two-year terms working full time for a nonprofit organization or local government agency, with the goal of strengthening those organizations as they fight poverty, illiteracy and a host of other ills. 
The Afterschool Alliance’s VISTA program places volunteers with state or local afterschool organizations to work on one of two types of projects. Some of the volunteers help afterschool programs achieve sustainability by working with school districts, parents, community organizations, businesses and others to find and secure the funding needed to carry on after their 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CLCC) grants have expired. A second group of VISTA volunteers works to expand afterschool programs’ participation in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) At-Risk Afterschool Meals and Summer Food Service programs.
Emily Harris is a 23-year-old VISTA volunteer working in Richmond for the Virginia Partnership for Out-of-School-Time, the state’s afterschool network. She reports that she’s doing outreach to at-risk communities throughout the state, working to “make the USDA-funded nutrition programs accessible to out-of-school-time programs. I’ve been working with various organizations,” she says, “like the YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Department of Education, to get the word out and to try to create awareness about the reimbursements for snacks and meals.”
Harris says she comes to the program primarily out of an interest in hunger issues. “When applying to this VISTA program, I had already been very interested in food justice and the inequity involved when it comes to privilege and accessibility of good food. I felt that working as a VISTA for the Afterschool Alliance would be a great way to give the structural support that so many programs need to offer food to as many children as possible who may not have it otherwise.”
A few hundred miles up the road, 26-year-old VISTA volunteer Lisa West is working with her state network, the New Jersey School-Age Care Coalition, also to increase participation in USDA programs. “My work has primarily focused on conducting outreach in communities of need, especially Camden, Newark and Trenton, on the At-Risk Afterschool Meal Program,” she says. “Right now I am trying to recruit community organizations to administer this nutrition program for afterschool sites that do not have the administrative or financial capability to run it themselves. I am now organizing two events in Trenton aimed at this goal.”
“The At-Risk Afterschool Meal Program is new to New Jersey and is very much underutilized,” West says. “I am a native of New Jersey and I realize that poverty and hunger are often overlooked issues in our state…. The afterschool programs that have begun to use the Afterschool Meal Program have expressed to me the positive impact it has had on their students and how they now wish to do more by accessing backpack programs run through many of the area food banks that provide children with food for the weekend. I have learned so much about the impact that quality afterschool programs can have on youth!”
Across the continent, VISTA volunteers Danielle Biselli and Mary Masla are helping programs in Salem and Springfield, Oregon, to achieve sustainability. Their work includes engaging community volunteers, creating long-term sustainability plans, gathering data and research to show the positive impact of these programs, and examining other programs’ sustainability models.
They, too, are working under the auspices of the statewide afterschool network, Oregon Afterschool for Kids (OregonASK). “Before starting my work, I didn’t know much about the world of afterschool,” says Masla. “After spending six months working with six school districts to create sustainability plans for their 21st CCLC-funded afterschool programs, I’ve learned an incredible amount! Every day, the true value of afterschool becomes clearer and clearer, as does the sheer quantity of things quality afterschool programs give to kids—including a healthy meal, academic support and engaging educational enrichment activities. I feel really lucky to be one of the first AmeriCorps VISTAs hosted by the Afterschool Alliance.”
The Afterschool Alliance launched its VISTA program in August 2011, naming its first six volunteers. Five more have come on board since then, with another set to join the program in April 2012. The program will eventually have 16 volunteers in 15 states and a 17th volunteer in Washington, D.C., helping to coordinate the volunteers’ work around the nation. The VISTA volunteers will be participating in the Afterschool for All Challenge.  Learn more at a session focused on sustainability

This story originally appeared in the Afterschool Advocate (Vol. 13, Issue 3).

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