The following is a cross guest post of Eileen Conoboy,Acting Director of AmeriCorps VISTA. She is the daughter of AASA staff member Carolyn Conoboy.
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When I packed up my car in 1992 and left my familiar bubble in Arlington, VA to serve a year as a VISTA member in rural North Dakota, I was an adventurous 22-year-old, hitting the road with idealism and a duffel bag. With 3 days of training under my belt, I arrived in town, found a room to rent over the shop-keeper’s house, and settled into my new role at a domestic violence and sexual assault program. I spent the next 12 months recruiting and training volunteers for a battered women’s task force, establishing a safe house network, and setting up a court watch program to monitor how the system responded to victims of abuse. Being able to make a difference in people’s lives was an awakening for me, and I bounded out of bed each morning with excitement and vigor as I headed off to the first job I ever loved. My cultural intelligence also grew as I learned to recruit in church basements, came to understand the difference between a combine and a tractor, and developed a deep appreciation for the richness of Midwestern hospitality.
Fast forward 25 years and here I sit at my keyboard, pinching myself that my circuitous path has led me to be Acting Director of AmeriCorps VISTA. Having benefited from so many interventions in my own life, from Head Start to scholarships and Pell grants, this feels akin to winning the purpose lottery. I get to support the 8,000 VISTAs who are walking the talk and fighting poverty every day in America.
The secret sauce of this 52-year-strong anti-poverty program is its multiplying force. Have a dollar? A VISTA member can turn it into two. Running a program with five mentors to help keep kids in school? A VISTA can recruit and train ten more. VISTA members leveraged $178 million in cash and in-kind resources and mobilized 900,000 local volunteers in 2016 alone. From Anchorage to Orlando and 3,000 sites in between, these anti-poverty warriors are finding the good, multiplying it, and mobilizing the non-federal resources needed to ensure the positive ripples reverberate in communities long after the VISTA member leaves.
The mission of VISTA hasn’t changed in its 52 years, but the scope of projects has adapted with the times. In addition to bolstering services for homeless veterans and helping low-income youth access college, VISTAs today are combating opioid abuse and expanding robotics programs in low-income communities. An example of the latter is the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) AmeriCorps VISTA project, which I’m thrilled to visit today as I serve alongside VISTA member Christina Lee during AmeriCorps Week. Through the FIRST project, VISTAs help inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, and engage underserved communities and school districts to make science and technology accessible to all children. Since 2013, 114 AmeriCorps VISTA members have expanded FIRST programming into 51 cities and 32 states, engaging more than 7,600 children from under-resourced communities in STEM activities. While robotics and Lego competitions may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of anti-poverty work, the FIRST AmeriCorps VISTA project provides children with access to education and technology resources in order to “engineer paths out of poverty.”
I can’t wait to see how Christina’s work is empowering local kids. To all of the VISTAs and National Service members serving today – keep fighting the good fight, thank you for your service, and happy AmeriCorps Week!