For many nonprofit and community organizations, the AmeriCorps VISTA program helps them accomplish things they might not otherwise be able to, given their often limited financial and human resources.
But VISTA, which stands for Volunteers in Service to America, supplies workers that help create and strengthen programs so they continue thriving even after the workers have left.
"They do all those capacity-building activities that, in the end, help make a program stronger," said Abby Klepper, program specialist with the Corporation for National and Community Service that handles Oklahoma's AmeriCorps VISTA program.
"When they walk out the door, it's kind of like, 'Who was that masked man?' They make the programs stronger and able to stand on their feet."
Founded in 1965 as a domestic version of the Peace Corps, VISTA became part of the AmeriCorps program in 1993 and focuses on eradicating poverty. VISTA workers commit to a one-year term and handle tasks like research, recruitment and outreach.
Oklahoma Community Health Services received a grant at the end of last year and hopes to fill 16 positions in its central office, located in south Oklahoma City, by the end of summer. Lisa Funderburg, OCHS community outreach coordinator, said because nonprofits are so often cash-strapped, the VISTA program allows them to hire more staff than they'd be able to on their own.
"Overworked and underappreciated are definitely the motto of any nonprofit," Funderburg said. "In the nonprofit world, we would never have enough money to hire six people to do marketing for us. That just would not happen. They afford me, and that's it."
OCHS has open positions in its outreach marketing group, which Funderburg oversees, in fund-raising and grants, in mental health and in emergency preparedness. A few people have signed on as volunteers, but haven't yet completed their training, she added.
The organization's VISTA grant covers more than just the OCHS central office, and there are a total of 38 VISTA positions available, she said. Prospective VISTA workers can sign up with OCHS through the AmeriCorps Web site, but OCHS handles all of the hiring. The organization is looking for flexibility and enthusiasm in potential VISTA employees.
"One of the things that VISTA likes to communicate is that it's about community immersion," Funderburg said. "They love that term, the 'community immersion,' just because it doesn't pay much, or not at all, which is one of the recruitment barriers, and so when you do find someone that wants to do the job at that pay, it's just a great crossroads that we can come together and work for the greater good."
Oklahoma Campus Compact, a program that develops student volunteerism and service learning, received a three-year grant in August 2007. More than 33 public and private colleges participate in Oklahoma Campus Compact, which is administered by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.
"It definitely helps the colleges and universities to carry out some activities that they wouldn't have the manpower for " or the resources for, otherwise " and these activities connect them with the other nonprofits in the community," said Debbie Terlip, assistant director for Oklahoma Campus Compact at the State Regents.
Campus Compact is a nationwide program based in Boston.
"The two goals for our state AmeriCorps VISTA project are to further service learning and to also build up volunteerism on campus, and AmeriCorps' purpose is to build capacity that is sustainable," Terlip said. "So, we're building campuses' capacity to engage in their community in ways that help eradicate poverty and build community development through community engagement."
Klepper estimates around a dozen organizations apply for a VISTA grant each year. The program should get a much-needed boost from the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, recently signed by President Obama, which should expand the number of AmeriCorps workers from 75,000 to more than 250,000 nationally by 2017.
In addition, the recently signed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides millions of dollars in funding to AmeriCorps, but that allotment is nationwide, Klepper said. While the additional funding is "an infusion of lifeblood" for VISTA, the program must still make the money stretch, she added.
"When the VISTA workers go into the field, we don't want them to just walk in and do the manual labor of an office, but make that office stronger, and do some of those things that are capacity-building," she said. "We have to use that money in a judicious way. We want to make sure we have the money to pay for their training, and any travel they might have, and their living allowances."
Funderburg hopes her organization's VISTA workers will help OCHS continue to expand and meet the health care needs of its community.
"They're all going to be working toward making our service better, stronger and more sustainable," she said. "Lea Terry