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VISTA Celebrates 50 Years in West Virginia

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Robert Sharpe Productions, Before the Mountain was Moved
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Former VISTA volunteer Naomi Cohen talks with Ellis Bailey, a resident of Clear Fork, in Raleigh County

In December of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson welcomed the first group of 20 VISTA volunteers:

“Your pay will be low; the conditions of your labor often will be difficult. But you will have the satisfaction of leading a great national effort and you will have the ultimate reward which comes to those who serve their nation and who serve their fellow man.”

Many of those early VISTAs came to Appalachia. They served as afterschool tutors and helped build community centers. But some of the early VISTA volunteers in West Virginia also worked to encourage community members to engage in local and state politics to lobby for better strip mining legislation, local campaign reform, and black lung legislation. 

 

“By day you might say we were camp counselors and tutors of children. But by evening we were out there organizing and getting people stirred up about issues," recalls Naomi Cohen, who was a law student who came to Raleigh County in 1966 to serve in VISTA and the Appalachian Volunteers.

A lot has changed for the VISTA program in the last 50 years. One of the most significant changes is that VISTAs are no longer allowed to participate in any type of political activism or political organizing work.

But plenty of other stories from the earliest VISTAs still ring true for VISTAs who have served in every decade. Most VISTAs remember the first friends they made in their new community. They remember the awkwardness of not quite being accepted by the local people they were helping- at least not at first. But they also remember helping the community pitch in together to create something new, and to have new hope.

Last week, the West Virginia Corporation for National and Community Service celebrated the 50th anniversary of VISTA- or Volunteers in Service to America. 70 people attended a gathering in Morgantown, including current VISTAs, community members, and former VISTAs. They discussed the history of VISTA and the ways the program has changed.

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Credit Stephanie Petersen
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AmeriCorps volunteers with Appalachian Forest Heritage Area

The VISTA program was intended to be a little bit like the Peace Corps and a little bit like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s.

Most VISTAs throughout the years have been outsiders. But today, more and more native West Virginians are signing up to join VISTA and AmeriCorps. People like Danna Grant, who was an AmeriCorps VISTA for five years. 

“When I became a VISTA member, my children had just graduated from high school. And I thought, what will I do now?”

Grant joined VISTA in the 1990s, and she now coordinates the Senior Corps program in West Virginia. Senior Corps is another service program through AmeriCorps. She’s seen how VISTA is helping people find jobs in communities that don’t have a lot of other options.

“And now, in a lot of small rural areas where I’m at, a lot of people depend on getting a VISTA position. Cause we don’t have very many jobs now. But I have found with my experience is that now a lot of our AmeriCorps members or VISTA members are coordinators..directors within our community now.”

There is some data to support Grant's observation. According to a recent study byThe Corporation for National and Community Service, volunteers living in rural areas have a55 percent higher likelihood of finding employment after their service. 


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