VISTA's Mission and Program Goals

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Welcome. This module is designed to help orient new AmeriCorps VISTA members to the VISTA program—its mission and the principles that underpin its programming.

Mission

vistas working in the community

AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) is a unique federal program dedicated to ending poverty through national service to build the capacity of organizations serving low income communities.

AmeriCorps VISTA’s mission is to engage members in a year of full-time service to strengthen organizations that eliminate or alleviate poverty through the mobilization of community volunteers and resources. VISTA members establish systems, institutionalize knowledge, and develop community relationships to better generate resources, encourage volunteer service at the local level, and empower individuals and communities to lift themselves out of poverty.

For more information on the concepts that underlie VISTA, review the law that authorizes VISTA, the Domestic Volunteer Service Act.

History

Lyndon Johnson

Founded as “Volunteers in Service to America” in 1965 and incorporated into the AmeriCorps network of programs in 1994, VISTA has helped lift communities and individuals out of poverty for over five decades. Today, AmeriCorps VISTA engages more than 8,500 individuals every year in anti-poverty activities in communities throughout the nation.

What Has VISTA Achieved in Communities Like Yours?

The average VISTA project generated $261,000 last year in cash and in-kind resources to support local efforts to overcome poverty. Watch this video to learn more about the impact VISTA projects have had in communities all over the United States.

Characteristics of VISTA Members

Many VISTA members are recruited nationally and relocate to new areas to serve. The majority are recruited from the local community and in many cases, the VISTA member comes from the population being served--for example, veterans serve as VISTAs in projects that work with veterans and military families.

VISTA members pursue their assignments for a variety of reasons, ranging from wanting to make a difference and eliminate poverty, to learning new career skills and networking. The majority of VISTA members are 24-28 years of age with varying degrees of formal education and experience in volunteer service. The program also benefits from members who are older adults bringing a wide array of professional and life experiences to their VISTA assignments.

Listen to the audio clips below to learn more about why VISTAs serve, and what they do during their year of service.

I serve because I knew my efforts would help my organization sustain its current programs and help them start
other programs. These programs benefit people in need and aren't provided by anyone else in my county.
Our VISTA program places importance on involving members of the community in our planning processes. By
listening to the voices of those we are trying to help, we are more confident that we are meeting the needs of
the community. It's less like we're providing a service than we're collaborating on solutions with the community
directly.
My background comes from a series of failed attempts of trying to get it together and become selfsufficient.... I have been through a lot of life changes, homeless shelters, substance abuse, physical and emotional abuse, isolated relationships, denial, and a long list of other things that come with growing up in poverty. In the last 2 years, my life has been headed in a different direction. VISTA has provided me with the opportunity to learn so much about the community and give back in ways that I never would have considered.

VISTA’s Four Key Principles

VISTA projects embrace, embody, and reflect each of these components:

Principle One: Ending Poverty

A VISTA project's goal is to help individuals and communities grow out of poverty. For example, if a VISTA project were focused on workforce development in Native American communities, with the objective of building income-generating skills among young community members, VISTAs might work with a tribe to develop a partnership with the local community college on a pre-apprenticeship program, or write a grant for a youth employment program.

Principles in Action

"I worked as a trainer on a new program that was being promoted by the Ohio Association of Foodbanks to bridge the gap between food pantry clients and the work-support programs that could provide them with stability. Despite their meager resources, these agencies managed to support thousands of people right in my hometown."

Principle Two: Empowering Communities

A VISTA project engages residents of low-income communities in the design and implementation of projects. A VISTA project strives to involve community members to actively build solutions to problems or issues confronting the community. VISTA is founded on the perspective that the plans of “development experts” without community input may simply provide services and resources to beneficiaries. The project will not optimally succeed or be sustainable.

Principles in Action

"My position enables me to be a part of this community and recruit volunteers to provide necessary services to our clients at the Center for Respite Care. I am the liaison between community members who want to give back and the homeless population of Cincinnati. I provide a space and an outlet that encourages others to be better citizens and give someone a helping hand."

Principle Three: Building Capacity

VISTA members improve and expand the operations of anti-poverty programs and organizations, by developing the skills and knowledge of staff, and possibly community members, as well as building systems and resources for an organization. Rather than simply serving individuals in need, a VISTA’s efforts are geared toward helping an organization grow its ability to address poverty over the long-term.

Principles in Action

"My position as a volunteer manager was very important. The hard work of the volunteers I recruited, managed, and supported allowed Habitat's Re-Store to bring in enough revenue to cover all the administrative expenses of its Columbus affiliate. The affiliate, which builds 20 houses each year on average, was able to pay the salaries of its 20 staff members, the rent for its building, and all the utilities with the funds brought in by volunteers who were managed by an AmeriCorps VISTA member."

Principle Three: Building Capacity (continued)

Building Capacity vs Direct Service

Capacity Building

Efforts that lead to an organization’s ability to:

  • serve a greater number of people (increased reach)
  • serve the community with fewer resources (efficiency)
  • address a greater number of needs of the community (scale)
  • have a greater positive impact on the individuals served (effectiveness)

Direct Service

Efforts that serve individuals in need, but do not address the development of systems or organizations. These activities include tutoring, manual labor, foodbank service, clerical work, and counseling.

Review the activities below to see which are examples of capacity building, and which are direct service

Service ActivityCapacity BuildingDirect Service
Recruiting volunteers to build housesx
Mentoring teenagersx
Building housesx
Organizing a fundraiserx
Delivering meals on wheelsx
Developing a database for mentorsx
Setting up partnerships in the communityx
Teaching a financial literacy coursex
Providing health-screening servicesx
Writing a curriculum for a financial literacy coursex

Principle Four: Creating Sustainable Solutions

VISTAs develop systems, relationships, and knowledge for an organization and create a long-term solution to poverty. The projects and organizations VISTA members serve are able to operate long after the VISTA’s service ends.

VISTA projects make a lasting difference through:

  1. The commitment, energy, and initiative that VISTAs bring to the community.
  2. The involvement of the sponsoring agency in supervising the project, supporting the VISTA, and assessing progress toward project goals.
  3. Participation of the project beneficiaries in all phases of development and implementation.
  4. The continued involvement of community members by providing needed resources such as volunteers, material and financial resources, and expertise.

Principles in Action

"My outlook completely changed when I became an AmeriCorps VISTA serving the Muskingum Valley Council, Boy Scouts of America in Appalachia, Ohio. I coordinated and created the framework for Exploring, a career-education program for high school boys and girls. Many of the students I recruited have already decided that they are going to pursue law, engineering, or firefighting as a result of their participation in Exploring.... Because of the groundwork I laid, the Muskingum Valley Council can continue my work to reach vulnerable youth and engage adults in meaningful volunteer work."