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Who are VISTAs, And What Are They Up To In Philly?

April 9, 2015 Category: Purpose

This year is the 50th anniversary of AmeriCorps VISTA, the national service program to end poverty. To mark the occasion, on April 24, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which operates VISTA, will host a solutions spotlight in Philadelphia to celebrate the program and vet new ideas to reduce poverty.

In collaboration with the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal, attendees of the solutions spotlight will evaluate poverty-fighting innovations submitted to the Journal’s contest last month.

Ahead of the event, we wanted to take a look at what VISTAs are doing in Philadelphia and how their work is impacting our region.

But first: who are VISTAs?

Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTAs, commit to a full-time, year-long term of service, designed to bring individuals and communities out of poverty. Most members are recent college graduates, but others are mid-career professionals and retirees.

Unlike other AmeriCorps programs whose members perform direct service, such as City Year, VISTAs are tasked with embedding themselves in local organizations to help build their capacity and effectiveness. Typical projects may include volunteer recruitment, grant writing, or convening community stakeholders.

Approximately 100 VISTAs members work in organizations across the Philadelphia area. Last year, they helped to raise $1.1 million in cash and in-kind resources, and recruited over 16,000 volunteers, according to Bernard Brown, the Pennsylvania state program director at CNCS.

Building Capacity in the Promise Zone

Currently, five VISTAs are working on projects in the West Philadelphia Promise Zone, including Emily Donovan, 23, whose role is to manage education and health and wellness initiatives there.

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“I coordinate a lot of organizations that are working on similar issues that affect poverty in the Promise Zone,” Donovan said.

The ten-year Promise Zone designation, a federal initiative announced in 2014, will bring support and attention to distressed areas of West Philadelphia and prioritize them for federal assistance.

Approximately 40 groups are working on a health and wellness agenda for the area; 50 are focused on education. Donovan’s role, she explained, is to align the work and outcomes of the organizations into a strategy that better serves the community.

Though Donovan’s term as a VISTA will end in June, another member will take her place. VISTAs are slated for service in the Promise Zone until 2017.

“We’re laying the foundation,” Donovan said. “The first year was spent figuring out how we should organize ourselves, and now we’re looking at the implementation piece.”

Green Light on Food Access

VISTA member Jessica Humphries is working to support the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger’s Green Light Pantries, a project launched in 2013 to help families put healthy food on their tables.

“It’s a choice model,” Humphries emphasized, meaning that clients have the opportunity shop for fresh fruits and vegetables, whole-grain rice and pasta, and lean dairy and meats.

Sodium and sugar-laden items typically found in other pantries, such as macaroni and cheese or certain canned soups, are not offered.

The pantries are currently operating at Casa del Carmen, a North Philadelphia-based center meeting the needs of Latino families, and the Drueding Center, which serves homeless women and their children.

To increase access to fresh and seasonal produce, Humphries worked to establish a pilot program over the fall at select farmers’ markets that allowed patrons to purchase extra goods for the pantries. Over 600 pounds of produce were collected, she said.

Because converting existing pantries to the green light model requires time and capital investments, Humphries explained, she is also helping other existing pantries offer more green light-friendly products. Those pantries, identified by the Coalition Against Hunger, wouldn’t convert completely to the green light model, but would offer “a faster and more economic way to increase healthy food access,” Humphries said.

Supporting Schools

Many VISTAs are working in schools and on education projects across the city. Vivian Chang, 24, is charged with managing community partnerships for the Office of Strategic Partnerships at the School District of Philadelphia. Her role is to assess potential opportunities and best match them with the individual needs of schools.

“A lot of people want to work with schools, so they contact us,” Chang said.

During her tenure, she’s helped the group Afrofuturist Affair connect with students at Kensington CAPA High School and facilitated the expansion of Operation Hope, a financial literacy program.

Chang is also working on a prototype for a “partnerships marketplace,” a web-based application that would allow potential partners to create profiles and connect with schools more easily. The marketplace will likely be rolled out in the fall.

“Schools have very few resources and external partnerships are a sustainable, supplemental resource,” she said.

Image via the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger 


Kensington CAPA High school

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