WASHINGTON _ This is a place for children.
This is a place of crayon-colored floor tiles and walls covered with hand-drawn artwork. This is a place of quiet whispers and loud laughter. But most of all, this is a place of refuge from boredom.
“If this center wasn't here, the kids wouldn't have anything to do after school,” says Laura Collins, one of the four Volunteers In Service To America – or VISTA – at the Southern Ridge apartment complex in Washington, D.C. “They would just ride their bikes up and down in the parking lot all night.”
Collins and the Washington program are part of the federally funded Americorps*VISTA program, a national service plan with more than 40,000 paid workers in 50 states. VISTA is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.
VISTA starts community projects that the community takes over and runs. VISTA workers serve one year in the program. They are paid $8,700 and get a $4,725 college grant. Cost to the federal government in 1999: $439 million.
Until recently, the program was a frequent target of criticism from many conservative Republicans and some Democrats. Critics complained that its stipend contradicted the notion of volunteerism and charged the program was overloaded with paperwork. But these days, VISTA gets more praise than criticism, even from former opponents, such as Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio.
He's still unhappy with the paperwork, says his press secretary, Bruce Cuthbertson. But Kasich changed his mind about VISTA when he visited a site in New York where VISTA workers were helping a community. “Rep. Kasich feels that this program does have a great deal of value,” Cuthbertson says.
VISTA is thriving in New York as it is in these communities:
¨ Farmshare – Miami, Fla.
It collects and gives thousands of tons of food to migrant farm workers. Without the program, farmers and their families are at risk for malnutrition, said Warren C. Smith, Florida VISTA director. “We're helping these families survive,” Smith said.
¨ Habitat for Humanity – California Statewide project
Last year alone, 11 VISTA workers raised money for and built 10 houses for low-income families. They also recruited other volunteers to build 15 more houses. Those 25 houses became homes for 112 people.
¨ Safe Place – Austin, Texas
VISTA workers solicit volunteers and funding for a network of survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. The program has set up two emergency shelters, 24-hour help hotlines and temporary housing for displaced families.
¨ Equality Colorado – Denver, Colo.
This program sends VISTA workers into junior high and high schools to educate students about alternative lifestyles and discrimination. “We are trying to teach these kids that it's not OK to discriminate against gays and bisexuals,” said Gayle Schladale, Colorado VISTA director.
At Southern Ridge in Washington, Laura Collins watches her dozen or so students work on computers and marvels at their level of expertise. They surf the Internet, play complicated games and create professional presentations. Before VISTA came into this isolated, low-income area, most of the students had never really worked on a computer before.
“Seeing the difference from just five months ago to now is incredible,” Collins says. “These kids are just flying.”