• Alumni story
    Jane Wrede 1969 1970 Lee County

    As a Health Advocate VISTA volunteer in the late 1960s, I was active in the earliest phase of community organizing, lobbying and grant writing that started the Lee County Cooperative Clinic (LCCC), Marianna, Arkansas. After 40 years, all memories of my two years in Lee County come attached to strong emotions. This is my own story. Having recently retired from a consuming job as director of education and citizen science research at a nature center in Texas, this is a good time for me to reflect on one of my previous lives. I will do my best to get my facts straight.

    I was in the first group of Health Advocate VISTA volunteers recruited to address "Hunger in America." Our training was in Austin, Texas and the rudimentary community organizing skills we learned were invaluable then, and have guided me throughout my most recent career as an environmental activist. Our group of Health Advocates was close and supportive of each other throughout our service in eastern Arkansas.

    Four of us were sent to the Community Action Project (CAP) Agency in Forrest City directed by Mr. Clark. Two volunteers lived and worked in Wynne. Corinne Cass and I were assigned to Lee County. Corinne was a licensed practical nurse with medical surgical experience. I had a B.A. in biology, M.A. in entomology and had taught high school biology and chemistry for one year.

    Our onsite training included living with local low-income families. After we started working, Corinne and I rented a small house on the south edge of Forrest City and moved to Marianna as soon as we could. As a "generalist" Health Advocate Volunteer recruited to address the problem of malnutrition, I was asked to teach nutrition classes in rural parts of the county. The concept made sense, but the visual aids for my use showed sparkling kitchens with bright white stoves and slender white women wearing starched white aprons. No leaky 50-gallon drum wood stove in a shotgun shack with newspaper on the walls for insulation. After the first embarrassment, I just couldn't do it. Human needs were more fundamental than nutritious cooking techniques.

    We were inexperienced activists filled with the desire to help, to do something of value, to make change. Our training in Austin, Texas prepared us to focus on grassroots organization not routine service. We understood that to serve the poor of Lee County we needed to identify real problems, bring people together and empower community members to make their own decisions. Looking back, I see myself as a confused mixture of arrogant and humble, well trained and unprepared, overconfident and insecure. I was supercharged with the passion and energy of youth. That passion and Mountain Dew powered me through endless 12 and 14-hour days.

    I credit Joe Bruch, some folks in Washington, Mr. Clark and Olly Neal for enabling us to be as successful as our commitment, passion and limited skills allowed. Joe was an unusual bureaucrat. He did not need to control and he was a charismatic speaker. After he spoke to our training group all of us wanted to go to Arkansas. No question! Joe also had an important fault: he could not say "no." Whenever resources were available or possible he said, "yes." And the Arkansas Health Advocates received support throughout our service. In addition, as we worked and learned and reported to our superiors, something we conveyed loosened Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) purse strings at regional VISTA and national Emergency Food and Medical Services (EFMS). More financial support and human resources became available to enable the community organization projects initiated by Health Advocate volunteers in Eastern Arkansas.

    Mr. Clark was an exceptional CAP director and we knew it even then. I remember sitting in a claustrophobic room with his local staff very soon after our arrival. It was a space uncomfortable with anxiety and distrust. The local staff members were guarded and suspicious. We were bold and outspoken to the point of rudeness. Oh well, I was anyway. I still regret contradicting a middle-aged black man, who was not ready to stand up to a white woman and who deserved respect and support rather than my sanctimonious comment. I am grateful for Mr. Clark's centrist position, soothing personality and ability to live with our weaknesses. He made it possible for us to work together.

    In contrast to Corinne, who continued as a doctor recruiter and nurse for 2-3 years after the clinic opened, much of my contribution to the LCCC was what I did before the first VISTA doctor arrived. Just getting him assigned to Marianna was a huge accomplishment for me and Corinne. Perhaps this January 2011 3 seems minor now but he could have gone to another county and the clinic would not be in Lee County today.

    The following shows my consuming desire to get the VISTA doctor assigned to Lee County. I knew a very young pregnant woman, who ate dirt during her pregnancy. She or her mother dug it from the edge of a cotton field not too far from their shack outside of Marianna. She died in childbirth of eclampsia. This happened within a week of her attempt to get treatment from a doctor in Marianna. Her mother told me that her daughter had been turned away because she could not pay. Later, when I talked to the doctor he was defensive but sorry about what had happened. They both left me with the impression that her death was out of anyone's control — inevitable.

    At the young woman's funeral, I learned that her 2-year old son was suffering from malnutrition and diarrhea. When I saw him, he was lethargic, had spindly arms and legs attached to a swollen belly and smelled awful. I worked like crazy to get him accepted into a program that would pay for his treatment in Little Rock.

    He was there for 2 weeks, I think. When his grandmother and I went to pick him up, the little boy was standing in a crib, bouncing up and down on his feet and jabbering happily. As soon as he saw us, he plopped down and went quiet.

    I was frowned upon in Marianna for seeing that the child received treatment. This one pitiful boy, who would likely "become malnourished again as soon as he returned to his grandmother", had eaten up nearly all of the money available to Lee County in this particular program. It "should have been spread out to help as many needy as possible." All of this told me that Lee County needed a doctor, who would minister to the poor, and a place where caretakers could benefit from meaningful health education.

    When we heard that there would be a doctor in the next group of Arkansas Health Advocates, Corinne and I became obsessed with getting him assigned to Lee County. If it might have helped to lie, cheat or steal, we were ready. I'm not sure who made the final decision or even what part of our argument worked, but the first VISTA doctor Dan Blumenthal came to Lee County. As were the VISTA health professionals who followed, Dan was a vital January 2011 4 volunteer—resilient in the face of adversity and willing to get this feet muddy.

    In the early days, I also spent much of my time recruiting and meeting with community leaders in different parts of the county. The goal was to organize groups that could support and guide formation of the clinic. I am so proud that it is still called the Lee County Cooperative Clinic because that is what we envisioned over 40 years ago: a community clinic guided through a collaboration of its constituents.

    About this time Gene Richards and Charlie Imhoff, Health Advocate volunteers in Crittenden County, were physically assaulted. Because Gene and Charlie were outsiders and the white guys who beat them up were local, the FBI had to be brought in to investigate. This scared all of us. I was especially afraid on the long drives home alone at night after meetings. Corinne started taking her huge but peaceful dog with her in the backseat of her car. He just had to sit up and show his size to protect her.

    When the newly organized clinic advertised for an administrator and Olly Neal applied, we could not believe our good fortune. Here was an energetic, fearless and articulate guy who could lead the way! He was clearly the RIGHT person for the job. And at the very least, we were happy that the new clinic was a vehicle to bring this man of many talents back home. The black funeral director Mr. Lacy Kennedy generously allowed the clinic, lab and pharmacy to be set up in a building he owned next to his funeral parlor in Marianna. I am pretty sure that it was rent-free. I remember his daughter inviting us on a tour of her Dad's place to see a real dead person. I am sure it was for shock value and to find out just how tough we were. I wasn't very tough and I didn't want to accept.

    In the early days when Olly was director, the clinic met fierce opposition from the county's white establishment. It began with Lee Memorial Hospital's refusal to allow admitting privileges to the VISTA doctor. In the end, this irrational resistance to better health care worked in our favor and helped rally folks in support of the clinic. Obstruction to something so desperately needed and so benign as a community outpatient clinic raised political awareness and woke the sleeping disenfranchised. Poor folks in Lee County now knew without a doubt who cared enough to do something to help and who only pretended to care.

    Today, I applaud the recent lawsuit that brought the clinic back to its foundation. Congratulations on facing the heat of this challenge and standing up for what you know to be right. Conflict is never easy. I admire your strength. I hope that the LCCC continues to be in touch with and better serve its constituency. It is important for this special place to be a creative and vibrant source of pride for everyone it touches. Stay on the creative edge, keep taking risks and don't be afraid of mistakes. In the early days, if we had been afraid of risks and mistakes, we would not have been successful. What you wish and work for now will be the future.

    As Suzan-Lori Parks said to President-elect Obama in her poem, U Being U, "… I believe In the dream And I am ready To wake up And live it."

  • Alumni story
    Fredrico Santi 1968 1969 Broward County

    Viewfinder: How did you first learn about VISTA?

    Rico: I was a senior at Florida State University and had majored in photography. Based on the politics of the era, I had to make a life choice – be drafted or find alternative service. I was very much opposed to the war in Vietnam, so I researched my options and VISTA was my first choice. I sent in an application and was accepted.

    VF: What did Pre-Service Orientation (PSO) look like in 1969?

    Rico: I grew up in rural southwest GA on a farm and went to a segregated high school. For the first two weeks or VISTA Training, they had us stay with African-American families in the ghettos of Atlanta, Georgia. This was a completely new experience for me - eating and spending time with a black family. That just wasn't part of the social fabric of rural southwest Georgia in the 1960's. It was an eye opener right off the bat. It couldn't have been more different if they had dropped me in the middle of Turkey.

    The other 30 VISTAs in my training were from all over the U.S. At the beginning, we knew that our training group would be sent to same place. We just didn't know where.

    We soon learned we would be serving in South Florida. I had a van – an old VW with a 36 horsepower engine - so I drove several of us down to Broward County.

    VF: What was your assignment?

    Rico: I had brought camera equipment with me even though I didn't know what I would be doing; at the time I was shooting with a Leica M3 and a Hasselblad 500 EL. When we first arrived, it would be awhile before we figured out our projects. We spent the first few weeks understanding our new environment, learning how things worked, and discovering what opportunities there were for VISTAs in the community.

    After two or three weeks, I knew what I wanted to do. I went to our directors and talked them into letting me do photography. They had never had someone be a photographer as their VISTA assignment. My proposal was to document the lives and times of my fellow VISTAs and their projects as well as providing local agencies with my photographic skills.

    They agreed.

    Soon I was working with agencies taking staff photos and covering events. I also taught a photography class at the local Boys Club.

    VF: What were your living conditions like?

    Rico: Since VISTAs are supposed to live where they serve, four of us found a small concrete and stucco house in Collier City. At the time, this community was made up of poor African-American families that were either on welfare or worked in the hospitality industry.

    We were given allowances for gas and housing along with a small stipend. I remember the last few days before we got paid, everyone was hungry. When we did get paid, we would splurge and go out for burgers.

    VF: What was it like serving in the political climate of the late '60's?

    Rico: It was not unusual to hear that 100-150 American soldiers were killed each day in Vietnam. The newspapers ran photos daily of the dead on the front page. This inspired a lot of political and youth activism. There were often demonstrations in Miami against the war and I documented those. And there was much controversy over the demonstrating.

    Of course it was against the law for us as VISTAs to demonstrate. But we did it anyway. We had to.

    We heard about the big march in Washington, DC and we decided to go. We piled in my VW van and used masking tape to put peace signs and messages on the die of the van. This was all in secret because we could have gotten kicked out of VISTA.

    VF: What was your most memorable project as a VISTA?

    Rico: We were living near migrant camps and I really wanted to photograph the workers. This was risky because the farmers would definitely not approve of revealing the conditions the migrant workers were living in.

    I worked with OMICA, Organized Migrants In Community Action, one of the first migrant organizations in Florida. I went to the director's house to ask if he could make arrangements for me to visit one of the camps.

    A couple of days later, I met with the father of a migrant family who was involved with OMICA. He drove me into the camp and I remember seeing shotguns, chain link barbed wire fences, and no trespassing signs along the way. I had to duck in my seat as we drove into the migrant camp.

    It was an extensive morning shoot with one of the migrant families. They were living in extreme poverty – crowded conditions, extremely poor sanitary facilities – multiple family members sharing one room.

    VF: How did you get the community to open up and let you photograph them?

    Rico: Children are usually uninhibited so it was fairly easy taking their pictures. Many of them had never had their pictures taken by a professional photographer. I would visit grammar schools and daycare centers for photo shoots. I was allowed to dress however I liked so here was this skinny white guy with long hair and combat boots taking their pictures. They giggled and laughed and just opened up.

    VF: How do you think the arts play a role in service?

    Rico: You can inspire people through art. You never know what you're going to get – and it can be greatness beyond belief. Art is part of life and VISTA is supporting that life and culture within a community.

    There is no doubt that VISTA supports art and artists as part of service. I live in Rhode Island now and there is a VISTA assigned to AS220, a non-profit community arts space in downtown Providence.

    VF: What did you get out of serving?

    Rico: I got to put myself in the shoes of people that had less than I did. I realized that people from all over U.S. could have similar themes of unity and purpose in what we wanted to do. We experienced physical and emotional environments that we never had before. Serving changed everyone's lives.

    Without VISTA, I would have been a different person. I felt like a "born again" human being. VISTA was created to not only change the lives of people in the community, but also for the VISTAs.

    Even though I hate mandated things, I almost feel that mandated service would be a good thing for America today.

    VF: How did serving as a VISTA shape your life and career?

    Rico: After VISTA, I went back to the farm I grew up on in Georgia. I was very depressed. Some of the VISTAs I served with lived in Boston and they encouraged me to move up there. After six months, I met my life-long partner and started working with the Cambridge Photo Workshop. We moved into a brownstone neighborhood and I started getting involved with historic preservation. I continued along those lines - mostly centered around photo and historic preservation. Cherishing the past protects the future.

    VF: What inspired you to put together VISTA Redux?

    Rico: I had been carrying the negatives around with me all my life. After discovering how easy it was to scan images and view them in daylight with computers and not in a dark room, I spent the past few years categorizing and scanning the images. About 80% of the images that I had shot I had never seen. It was a rediscovery.

    Living in Newport, RI, I went to the curator of the Newport Art Museum to see if she would be interested in an exhibition. Two weeks later, she called to say they wanted to do it.

    VF: What advice do you have for current VISTAs?

    Rico: Listening to the community is more important than the bureaucracy. Be supportive of your fellow VISTAs. They can be going through a crisis within their own life while serving so help them when they need help.

    The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true. I think it's important to continue to have documentation of what VISTAs do. When VISTAs leave, it would be great to have photographs of what they did. And those who served can be remembered together.

    VF: Any final thoughts?

    Rico: I love the idea of the V pin. I wear it all the time and when people ask what it is, I get to say I served as a VISTA. Being a VISTA alum, that's pretty nice.

  • Alumni story
    Clifford Richmond 1966 1967 Nez Perce Reservation

    Next year marks the 40th anniversary of my VISTA service. Looking back, I have many fond memories of that time. As one of the few African American volunteers assigned to a Native American reservation, I feel pretty safe in saying that many of my experiences were unique.

    Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, in the 1960s I never dreamed that one day I would hang out at powwows and rodeos instead of house parties and rock shows. That changed during my sophomore year at Ohio State University. I was thinking about taking a one-year break from school, so I submitted an application to VISTA. Several weeks later, I was on my way to Salt Lake City, Utah, for VISTA’s Native American reservations training program. My friends thought I was crazy for volunteering in the first place. They were convinced of it when they found out I was going to a Native American reservation.

    I had no idea what to expect because I had never met a Native American. Like many people, my impressions until then were formed by television and movies. Needless to say, a huge surprise awaited me.

    My first real taste of life on the reservation was on a field training exercise on the Wind River Shoshone Reservation in Wyoming. I thought the Native Americans would welcome me as a Soul Brother since we were both members of minority groups that had suffered racial discrimination. My thinking changed the first day when I realized that all of the other trainees—except me—had been placed with local families. When I asked why, my training supervisor told me they were having trouble finding a family to accept the “Colored Trainee.”

    I was finally placed with a White rancher married to a Shoshone woman. His name was Charlie and I'll never forget him. He and his wife helped me understand why Native Americans didn’t trust any non-Native Americans: broken treaties, the use of Black soldiers in the Indian wars of the 1800s, and, ironically, most Native Americans’ impressions of Blacks were formed from television and media coverage. It was a tough situation, but after a few weeks I began to make friends and was accepted by most of the locals.

    Shortly thereafter I received one of the greatest honors of my life. They invited me to participate in the annual Sun Dance Ceremony, a sacred event not open to outsiders. The medicine man must bless participants before they erect the sacred lodge where the ceremony will be held. We first cut a sacred pole that would hold the buffalo skull, the focal point of the ceremony. During the four-day event, dancers are not allowed food since it is a purification ceremony designed to strengthen the spirit. It was a very spiritual event for me and helped prepare me for things to come.

    After training, three of us were assigned to the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho as community development specialists. Our job was to help local residents develop programs to address problems on the reservation. There was no shortage of problems: high unemployment, high rates of alcoholism, high dropout rates for high school students, and chronic health problems like diabetes.

    With only one year to make an impact, we agreed to focus on education and developing opportunities for the youth to pursue their dreams. We implemented remedial reading programs for the elementary school children and an Upward Bound program in cooperation with Washington State University for the secondary school children. Other projects included local participation in a Western Indian Art exhibit at the University of Utah and the publication of the official reservation newsletter, Coyote Tracks. We distributed 1,000 copies a month. I also became the assistant scoutmaster of the local Boy Scout troop. As luck would have it, the World Boy Scout Jamboree was held in Farragut, Idaho, in 1967, and our scout troop was able to attend. For many of the kids, the Jamboree marked the first time they had been off the reservation. It was very exciting for them to meet other scouts from around the world.

    Over time, I developed many close personal relationships with locals and earned their trust. While there were times when I was referred to as “that Colored,” or worse, such labels were rare. Eventually, I was just called “the VISTA.”

    Social life on the reservation consisted of powwows – gatherings to enjoy traditional activities of dancing, drumming, and playing stick game (a form of gambling) – and rodeos. At most powwows I was the only non-Native American, yet I always felt welcomed. I traveled to many rodeos, including the Pendelton Roundup, an annual rodeo in Oregon that boasts the largest gathering of Native Americans in the United States.

    One of my most memorable moments was when Ida Blackeagle, granddaughter of the famous Nez Perce, Chief Joseph, invited me to her home. She shared her recollections of traditional Nez Perce lifestyle and gave me a pair of beaded moccasins. When that happened, I knew I had been accepted.

    When my year was over, many people asked me to stay for another. But the sense of isolation had been especially acute for me since there were no Blacks within 100 miles. While I loved and respected their culture, I yearned to return to mine.

    It would be hard to measure the impact of my time on the reservation, but I do know that at least five Native American students enrolled in Upward Bound. I hope they went on to pursue their college degrees. The Coyote Tracks newsletter was still circulating three years after I left. Most of all, I am grateful for the opportunities that VISTA provided, allowing me to spend time in a community that I never would have explored.

    After leaving the reservation, I spent seven years in various positions with VISTA where I fought for the recruitment of more minorities and for better training and support for volunteers in the field. We succeeded in developing VISTA projects that were staffed by locally recruited volunteers from the communities they served.

    During my later career as a heath education specialist, I created and managed a national program to educate minority populations about high blood pressure, which brought together health providers from previously underrepresented ethnic communities. These activities were documented and disseminated by the National Institutes of Health’s National High Blood Pressure Education Program, long considered an exemplary health promotion program. I also authored Guidelines for the Use of Volunteers in High Blood Pressure Detection and Control, published by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health.

    My success in these and many other efforts was a direct result of my VISTA experience. For that I will always be grateful.

  • Alumni story
    Ralph Munro

    While I never served as a VISTA, I’ve seen firsthand the impact VISTA has had on an entire state.

    In 1965, a developmentally challenged child was abandoned and placed in a state institution. When I met him in 1966, I was a volunteer in that facility. The boy had never spoken a word. Everyone thought he never would, but that was unacceptable to me. I had become a volunteer to make a difference in people’s lives, so I taught him to speak.

    That experience affected me both personally and professionally in ways I wouldn’t realize for years. For more than the next three decades, I would serve the state of Washington in several positions, most prominently as the state’s longest-tenured Secretary of State. Throughout my career, VISTA contributed to the improvement of our state in many ways.

    The story of VISTA’s impact on me and our home state begins with the Governor’s visit to the facility where I was volunteering and where that little boy lived. He was impressed and complimentary of the breakthrough with the boy. Several weeks later he called me and personally asked me to head downstate to be the state’s first volunteer coordinator. Of course, VISTAs made up a portion of the volunteers I was to assist with.

    The need for VISTA shined through on one of my first, most challenging, and most memorable projects.

    It was the mid-to-late seventies, the Vietnam War was over, and the United States had to find a place for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Southeast Asia. These were people who had supported the American presence during the war and now faced retribution from a new regime if they remained. Many had fought alongside our troops in Vietnam. Some had even worked for the deposed South Vietnamese government. Now they needed a place to make a new life.

    So they fled to the United States, the land of opportunity. Men, women, and children carried all they owned in bags or sacks. For temporary housing, the refugees were sent to Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, Calif. But they obviously couldn’t remain there indefinitely. Washington’s Governor, along with the state House and Senate, agreed to resettle many of the refugees in Washington. But it wasn’t as easy as saying, “Hey, sure, come live in our state.”

    We called on VISTA to help. Volunteers set up a temporary settlement camp and worked with other groups to settle refugees in communities throughout the state and find jobs for them. In short, the VISTAs on that project pointed the way for these settlers to rebuild their lives.

    Around the time I was elected to my first term as Secretary of State, VISTAs were also confronting the social problems on our Native American reservations. The reservations were in a sorry state — crime was rampant, drug and alcohol abuse was all too frequent, and the tribes were flat broke. None of that deterred the VISTAs. Instead, they focused on fixing the problems.

    With so many issues, they decided that getting reservation children through school would be the best place to begin. VISTAs kept the kids in school and set up community and athletic programs. This reestablished community pride and kept many kids off drugs and out of gangs. In turn, crime rates dropped.

    Because of all the good work VISTA did in Washington, the Governor wanted volunteerism to grow across the state. Representatives from both sides of the aisle in the statehouse agreed and worked together to develop the Washington Service Corps—kind of like a Washington State VISTA.

    During my tenure as Secretary of State, I constantly advocated VISTA or the Service Corps to young people. I wrote letters of recommendation for countless young citizens because I saw this as an incredible opportunity for them. Plus, there’s an old saying that it’s easier to get a job when you have a job. And VISTAs work 24/7, 365 days a year. The experience and opportunities the program provided have been a boon to the community by helping the volunteers grow and develop careers.

    VISTA has helped us to better serve the people of our state and it has been an honor and a privilege to see the direct, long-term effect of the VISTA program:

    In 1996, I saw VISTA’s legacy in the communities where the Vietnamese refugees had settled. As part of the 20th anniversary of their resettlement, I went to high school graduations where the children of refugees were valedictorians of their classes. And their parents were no longer “refugees.” They were Americans, part of the fabric of their communities.

    I see VISTA’s legacy when looking at Washington’s Native American reservations. The kids who participated in VISTA programs 25 years ago are now the tribal leaders. Those tribes are much better off now and they have a bright future.

    I see VISTA’s legacy when the Washington Service Corps teaches children to read, responds to natural disasters, or restores our environment. VISTA was not only a catalyst for this in-state program, but the two organizations have also partnered on several occasions.

    I see VISTA’s legacy in Washington’s House of Representatives, in its superior and lower court judges, in its prominent business people, in its hospitals and doctor’s offices, as well as in its schools and colleges, because that’s where many of those who served in VISTA, and those they helped, now work.

    I see VISTA’s legacy in the eyes of that boy we taught to speak. He’s 40-years-old now, just like VISTA, and I am his legal guardian. Through him I discovered the rewards of volunteering and VISTA—not by serving—but by benefiting from that service in my professional capacity.

    VISTA’s legacy lives on in communities across Washington and in the people who have made a better life because of it. VISTA’s legacy is that it has, without a doubt, made—and continues to make—our state, our country, a better place.

  • Alumni story
    Barbara Mingoia 1967 1968 South Bronx

    I served as a VISTA in the South Bronx in New York City from 1967-1968. New York was in economic decay at that time. My training consisted of a six week stay with a black Puerto Rican family whose family member (the father) had been murdered at a barber shop over politics. We lived in filth. I awakened in the mornings to dead cockroaches in my bed. The apartment reeked of dead rodents. Garbage was thrown out the window into the open courtyard (if you can call it that).

    My final assignment was in a condemned building. The greatest challenge I faced while working with 'ghetto' Puerto Ricans and blacks—during the civil rights movement— was gaining the trust of the people. It took me, with determined patience, nearly two months for the tenants just to open their doors after daily introductions of myself and the organization, VISTA, that I represented. Within a year, we established a tenants-rights organization and implemented hands-on, grass-roots methods forcing slumlords to act. We were successful briefly. The realization is poverty is a cycle ... substandard housing, drug addiction, crime, alcoholism, rape and incest, poor health, no job training, lack of education, and domestic violence. To this day I question if the War on Poverty can ever be won, though great strides have been made.

    As a result of my community organizing skills, I was a successful founder and director of a food bank in beautiful Napa County wine country in California. My VISTA experience also taught me that racism does not just exist between whites and blacks. African blacks don't like West Indian blacks, who don't like American blacks, who don't like Puerto Rican blacks, who don't consider themselves black. Being a VISTA volunteer was an education I will never forget. It was the turning point in my life.

  • Alumni story
    Deirdre McKee 1969 1970 Austin

    Viewfinder: How did you first learn about VISTA?

    Dierdre: Ever since I heard John Kennedy's quote, "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," and read the book Grapes of Wrath I had been paying attention to the War on Poverty. I was in high school and was interested in the Peace Corps but really wanted to do something for the United States.

    When I was a sophomore in college I realized that I had such a privileged life and wanted to prove that I could do something for other people, so I joined VISTA.

    Grapes of Wrath and John Kennedy changed my life.

    VF: Why did you choose to serve?

    Dierdre: I can remember asking my father "why was I born in the United States and why was I born white?" and him responding "you know I have no idea." I came from a family where my father had a good job and my family would send me to college no matter what, but I knew that there were people that didn't have this. I realized I had it pretty easy and that it wasn't quite fair that I had it easy, so surely I could do something.

    VF: What types of projects did you accomplish as a VISTA?

    Dierdre: In Oklahoma, my roommate and I decided to start a Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, and Brownies program. So we became leaders and talked to the administration at the school. They were really excited about the program especially because the students at the school (mainly poor white and American Indians) didn't have anything like that. It was kind of funny that I got involved in starting this program because when I was younger I actually quit the Girl Scouts.

    In Texas, I worked on organizing housing projects. They had little organization and really needed it. They were mainly housing developments in the Mexican American community and we worked to help them get better living conditions. I also helped to elect a Mexican American to the Austin city council, since at the time there was no representation of Mexican Americans in Austin political positions. I'm not sure that was completely allowed, but definitely worth it.

    VF: Tell us your best story about being a VISTA.

    Dierdre: One of the stories that I always tell people about my time in VISTA is that when I was working in Oklahoma, on the other side of the tracks was the African American neighborhood where VISTAs were working. I used to go over there in the evenings and we would all hang out with some of the younger guys from the community. I was 19 and I had never met any black people in my life. So when we were all hanging out they would ask me if I knew artists like Aretha Franklin or Lou Rawls, and I had never heard of them before. Then they would jokingly ask if I had heard of Peter, Paul and Mary, which of course I had. It really put me in my place and made me realize that they knew artists I listened to, but I didn't know anybody they listened to.

    Another, really great story was that when we were running our Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, and Brownies program a lot of the programming really didn't relate to people in poverty. But we really wanted them to earn badges. So, we worked on getting them the cooking badge. We had them come over to our house and make Rice-A-Roni. They earned their cooking badge for it! We had a ceremony and everything for them at their school. They were very proud.

    VF: What did you get out of serving?

    Dierdre: I think, like every VISTA would say, I got a lot more out of it than what I put in. I've learned to always remember that there are people whose lives are not easy. And whenever I think my life or someone with a similar lifestyle thinks their life is rough to remember that it really isn't.

    I've also became dedicated to working for people who have not been as lucky as I have been. VISTA taught me the importance of voting and voting correctly and how important education really is.

    VF: What are you doing now?

    Dierdre: I've just retired. Before retirement I was mostly working in retail management, however the last 9 years I was a Macy's salesperson. Though this job doesn't seem to be directly helping people, many of the people I managed or later worked with at Macy's were 19 and 20 and had 3 kids already. Retail isn't the way it used to be, it is now a case of the working poor. So I spent my time helping the other employees the best I could.

    Now I'm trying to get involved in service again. I've been working at a food pantry and I'm looking into options and seeing how I can best be involved in my area.

    VF: What advice do you have for current VISTAs or for people thinking about joining VISTA?

    Dierdre: I would say that if a person is thinking about joining VISTA, they need to realize what they are getting into. Your background will be quite different and you can be isolated from the people you are helping at times. But if you want to join, then join and do it now. As you get older you will get more involved in other things and don't end up with the time.

    It was the most life changing experience for me; it gave me true knowledge about the culture of poverty and made me truly empathic, plus taught me about the importance of voting and voting correctly.

  • Alumni story
    Karalee Marshall 1968 1969 Albuquerque

    I first joined VISTA in 1968: the year of the Beatles, flower children, demonstrations, LSD, marijuana and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. After graduate school, I could have joined the demonstrations or “dropped out,” but I wanted to connect to a dividing nation. I needed to get involved.

    That’s when a friend told me about a new program. He had just returned from a year’s service in VISTA and talked about giving back to the community, of gaining experience and knowledge of himself and the world. I wanted a meaningful, rewarding experience where I could make a difference, grow and reach out to others. VISTA seemed to fit the bill.

    After a week training in the seedy Tenderloin district of San Francisco and another week in the beautiful Napa Valley wine country, five of us were sent to a Women’s Job Corps Center in Albuquerque, N.M., to be resident advisors for the young women living there in an old converted hotel. The women arrived mostly from surrounding states, but included a small group from Hawaii.

    The group was predominately African-American, followed by Hispanic, Caucasian and Hawaiian. The Job Corps provided education courses so they could get their GED (general equivalency diploma). To help ensure stability for their future, Job Corps also offered training for occupations ranging from secretarial to childcare to store clerks. Some women even attended beauty school. Two of us had teaching credentials and were able to substitute in many of the GED classes. 

    We spent most of our time with the residents serving as their mentors and confidants. We were expected to interact with them as much as possible. At night, when the head advisor left, it was our responsibility to keep order and watch over the women. There was one security guard on duty and cameras surrounding the building. It was like being in a fortress. All of the inhabitants, except for us, were expected to be in by curfew.

    There really was no way we could have been prepared for what we walked into at the center. There was underlying tension at all times; arguments and racial problems were always there, waiting to surface. It was our job to ensure that these did not escalate or erupt. Not an easy task. The atmosphere was unlike anything we had ever experienced. The women we came to know and understand had led lives drastically different than ours. We never had to overcome the barriers of race and poverty. We were not viewed as their equals because we were privileged: white, educated, upper class and free. We had seemingly unlimited access to the world, whereas they were bound by norms and stereotypes.

    Over time, the residents did come to respect and accept us as a valuable resource, their friends. I found it amusing that they actually had more money than we did; and were always willing to buy us soda, candy and other treats. They lived and ate, joked and sang with us, but still we were different. We wanted to include them in our society, but I realize now we actually wanted them to be the same as we were. I naively thought that if they were to accept all we represented, their lives would be fine.

    I'm not sure if we made any difference in the world. I'd like to think we did, but I'll never be truly sure. I met a lot of different women, and I hope I helped and inspired more than one. I do know that year made a huge difference in my life. I was never the same person again. That naive young woman was permanently changed. I learned there are others around me who are different, and that is how it should be. I came to appreciate the diversity in our world and never looked at our social system in quite the same way again. Now I am more cognizant of the needs of those around us and the ways we can all give to others. Although a part of me has become a little jaded with time, I still believe in the goodness of people and service.

    My VISTA story, however, didn’t end in the 1960s. I went on to become a teacher, wife, and mother. After retiring, I saw an advertisement for an AmeriCorps*VISTA position with the Washington Reading Corps, a program that helps struggling readers. I was immediately attracted to the opportunity to promote literacy because literacy and education are things close to my heart.

    After becoming an AmeriCorps*VISTA Leader, I helped establish Tutoring and Volunteer Management curriculums and trainings. My involvement with the United Way, Member Development Institutes, Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, AmeriCorps, Points of Light Conference, and local youth committees helped prepare me for these duties. I built partnerships with local businesses that donated capital and materials to help the Washington Reading Corps program and I recruited volunteers that provided individualized attention to students. I also assisted with community beautification projects, as well as empowered and increased awareness of marginalized groups via the Civic Engagement Program.

    My dedication to achieving the Washington Reading Corps goals led to my current position as a co-site supervisor at Lowell Elementary School in Everett, Wash. I oversee AmeriCorps members who have volunteered their year of service here. Together, we test, schedule, tutor, recruit and train adult and peer/cross-age tutors, set up and coordinate an after-school reading program, and involve the parents and the community in all of our events.

    What I’m doing is challenging and rewarding. I love every minute of it. When you're in service to others you become a positive force that helps someone attain new levels, levels that would not have been reached without you. Your efforts, no matter how small, can help someone achieve their fullest potential.

    While personally satisfying and rewarding; service also adds perspective to struggles and hardships you might encounter. But if you forge ahead with devotion to your cause and your eye on the future, it helps make your service a success.

    In many ways my time serving as a VISTA came full circle. The Kennedys, two of the Beatles, and Martin Luther King are gone, and once again our country faces a turbulent time. There are still drugs, racial problems, and young men dying in faraway countries. I still see fear in the eyes of our children. People still go to bed hungry, unable to read or find employment.

    I know now, though, that people still work, as I do, to make a difference. As long as we continue enlisting others in service to one another, we will be successful. Martin Luther King’s dream has not yet been realized, but we're a little closer.

  • Alumni story
    Larry Macmillian 1967 1969 Morganton

    In January of 1967, at the age of 20, I left my home in Blaine, Washington, a town of around 1,200, to take part in what would be one of the most influential years of my life, Volunteers In Service To America, (VISTA). After training in Atlanta, Georgia and a week of in-service in Dorchester, Georgia, I, along with two others, Sandra Hagadorn and Claudia Hudson, was assigned to a project in Morganton, North Carolina.

    My project grew out of the need for services in a small somewhat isolated and very poor part of Morganton known as Bouchelle. African American families lived in this specific part of city and were largely isolated there except for work in the larger community. Children were having a difficult time when reaching the recently integrated public school system so the first activity in our project was to establish a preschool to help children and their families with this new educational opportunity. The program went on to become a Head Start Center. In addition to the preschool, and because the community was to under go urban renewal, we helped families prepare to fully receive the benefits of this new housing opportunity. Also, because seniors were isolated from one another and the larger community we started a senior activity group.

    Following my year in VISTA and after service in the U.S. Army, I returned to college to follow the passion inspired by my year in VISTA and study Early Childhood Education. I worked in the early childhood field for over 30 years first at Western Washington University expanding the Child Development Center into a quality, nationally recognized and accredited program. I then went on to be co-located between the Washington State Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development where I supported employers developing family friendly benefits and oversaw the Washington State Child Care Facility Loan program, and the Department of Social and Health Services where I worked in the Office of Child Care Policy and managed the Federal Child Care and Development Grant to the State of Washington. My final employer was Puget Sound Educational Service District where I directed Highline Head Start.

    Upon retirement, I have continued to work on projects to support young children and their families. These include helping with the Greenbridge Educare project (part of the White Center Early Learning Initiative), remodeling of Pike Place Market Child Care and Preschool, supporting Early Childhood Opportunities North West in Bellingham, and working on a project with the Seneca Nation of Indians in New York, to name a few.

    I believe the value in VISTA is both the work that is accomplished in the projects and the hope inspired by giving to others.

  • Alumni story
    Lee Grant 1968 1969 Houston

    Late '60s, Houston, Texas. Tough city. Racially divided city. And there I was, a fledgling VISTA Volunteer. It was the year Martin Luther King was killed, the year Eugene McCarthy and George Wallace ran for President. The Vietnam War and flower power raged. Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" and The Doors' "Hello, I Love You" played on the radio.

    After training at the University of Oklahoma—I was recruited while a grad student at the University of Oregon—I was assigned to the Latin-American Community (LAC) Project with VISTA volunteers from around the country living and working in Houston's barrios and huge black communities.

    The LAC Project was established by the Office of Economic Opportunity as an agency to supervise VISTA volunteers who were building community organizations in poor, underserved Houston neighborhoods. Located in an old, rundown building, VISTAs in Houston gathered there to set strategy, exchange information and form a support system for each other.

    The assignment was opened-ended:  find community leaders, call meetings, identify concerns, chart action. The goal was to leave behind an on-going, vital community force.

    Soon after I arrived, I was dropped off in the black neighborhood of Harrisburg and told, "Go find a place to live." I began strolling the streets, a white kid from Los Angeles with a beard and a mound of curly hair. I thought, “What would my Jewish mother be thinking right now?”

    Harrisburg was a small, isolated, sidewalk-less nook of a community not far from Houston's Hobby Airport. It was pocked with old, often dilapidated single-family homes, an adjacent housing project, an elementary school, a Baptist church and a corner grocery store that charged way more than the supermarket a couple of miles away in the white neighborhood.

    I found a roach-infested, partly furnished house, $97.50 a month, and moved in. Now, more than 30 years later, I can recall every room, including the small, showerless bathroom, the tub being the one place for respite from the brutally humid Houston weather. Still, in my mind, I can see the neighbors (one who knocked on my door Christmas day, holding a plate of food and worrying that I was alone), and the kids who hung at my place making sure I was part of their world and they were part of mine.

    Here was a poor community (at least in material things) that took me in, often fed me, watched out for me, befriended me ... and I was there working for them!

    During my time in Harrisburg, we formed a community organization that took on the local welfare office, with members acting as monitors when folks with little experience approaching government bureaucracy went there asking questions about eligibility and other concerns. We dealt with youngsters not going to school because they didn't have shoes by visiting organizations like the YMCA or large religious institutions in town, letting them know there were kids without the basics. Response was spotty. We also met with the local school staff, which pretty much shrugged off our concerns as facts of life.

    We began a tutoring program that focused mostly on reading. Eventually we corralled a group of white students from a local high school who took it on as an extracurricular club to help Harrisburg youngsters after school.

    What I remember are the families who often had barely enough to eat but always put a plate for me at their table and the kids. Three in particular would knock on my door late at night, a shelter when the black Cadillac pulled up to their gate. When their mother was entertaining a client, she sent them outdoors, away from the indignity of the work she did to support them.

    Though I was there to impact their lives, those folks and that community had an enormous impact on my life. We stood in line for welfare cheese and beans, at county hospitals for treatment that was patronizing and insensitive, at schools where black kids were never told by counselors they could achieve and be somebody.

    Those years, VISTA volunteers in Houston were not supported by the white community or the local politicians. We were stopped and harassed by redneck cops, insulted viciously for living in minority neighborhoods. As a diverse group of Anglos, blacks and Latinos, we'd be ridiculed and insulted picnicking together in public parks or having dinner in restaurants. In this big city, we felt safest in our neighborhoods. The folks there were not always sure why we were there, but glad we were.

    During my tenure, a community organization was established led mostly by young adults, almost all of them women. It worked to not only better the lives of residents but helped this neglected neighborhood emerge from the shadows of city life. Progress was slow. Success meant a Harrisburg person becoming the first black saleswoman at the downtown Neiman Marcus. It meant folks identifying everyday needs ... a used refrigerator for a family without one, visiting the local junior high to discuss why it was always the black kid singled out and sent home after playground scuffles.

    VISTA volunteers participated in a "sensitivity session" with the rough Houston Police Department. We met in a room at police headquarters suspiciously facing each other. They accused us of being "troublemakers" from the north. We, in turn, came loaded with a backlog of intimidating incidents against folks in our neighborhoods.

    The day I left Houston and VISTA, a contingent from Harrisburg followed me to the highway to see me off. I recall looking over my shoulder and noticing that each person had a white handkerchief. They were waving them high so I could see.

    They told us during training that if we touched one life, we were successful. I hope I touched at least one. For sure, the people in the community of Harrisburg, Houston, Texas, touched this life.

    Since serving in VISTA, I've spent a career in journalism as a reporter and editor (I am the arts editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune). I influence the kinds of stories that get into the paper. I pick and choose what I want to write about. I hire people. I spend time with high school kids in the inner city who come to the paper to shadow me. I go to their schools to monitor their work. And, all these years later, that neighborhood, those people, that time, stays in my heart.

    My sensibilities, my view of the world, the person I am has been shaped by that Houston, Texas, neighborhood, by the people there, by my time as a Volunteer in Service to America.

  • Alumni story
    Robert Leslie Fisher 1969 1971 Summit

    My VISTA service in 1969-1970 was in Summit, IL with Cook County, which led me to working in the drug/alcoholism treatment field as a researcher. My second term was in Lackawanna, NY at the Lackawanna Community Health Center. After VISTA, I worked with the county government in Erie County, NY and continued with a career in the New York state government in Albany and New York City.

    During my VISTA service, I wrote proposals for alcoholism treatment and did a survey for the community based health care facility I was assigned to in Lackawanna, NY. This kind of experience and other work did serve me well in my career with the county and state government. I also worked on patient's rights advocacy and health care reform of the Medic-ILL program. This work has served me well. I've been an activist for health care reform during the overhaul of health insurance in the United States by the Obama Administration.

View Alumni Stories by Decade