The War on Poverty will have fewer soldiers in Douglas County next year.
Kimberly Hutcheson, the last VISTA member brought to Douglas County by United Community Action Network, will finish her yearlong commission in April. That will be the end of the UCAN VISTA Coalition. The effects of the work its members began, however, will continue for years to come.
Over the past 11 years, VISTA workers have created new solutions for Douglas County problems. They have started community gardens, given the homeless shelter on freezing winter nights, created jobs for the disabled and helped at-risk youth discover how they can earn a living in the county’s forests.
Hutcheson, working through the Community Job Development Program, helped create internships and job shadows for people with disabilities.
The federal Volunteers in Service to America program started in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Since 2003, the UCAN VISTA Coalition has placed more than 200 VISTAs in nonprofit organizations in Douglas, Josephine, Jackson and Coos counties. Twelve are still serving Southwest Oregon, including six in Douglas County. But when UCAN put out a call this year asking nonprofit organizations to apply for VISTA workers, the agency found the demand had plummeted below a level that could sustain the program.
UCAN VISTA Program Director Sarah McGregor said she hopes that’s a good sign. It may mean that VISTAs have created the programs most needed by county residents and that their work can now be carried on by other volunteers.
“Our members have done really some incredible work. I’m just really grateful I’ve been able to be a part of it and thankful for the members that have served our community all these years,” McGregor said.
She said the county will still receive about 20 AmeriCorps members each year. Though VISTA and AmeriCorps workers are often lumped together by the public, McGregor said the programs are very different.
VISTAs create programs and gather the resources to make them happen. AmeriCorps members are a labor force. They lend a helping hand to nonprofit organizations and earn money for school. It’s not uncommon for AmeriCorps members to implement the programs VISTAs developed.
Roland Wang, a VISTA working with Umpqua Watersheds, said he believes there is still a need for VISTA members in Douglas County and he is sorry to see the program go.
“I think there is a need in the community for this kind of program,” he said. “It would be nice for it to continue.”
Wang developed a Science Friday program for McGovern Elementary School students in Winston, where students have a four-day week. After his term ends in November, he hopes an AmeriCorps member will implement it.
Wang’s curriculum includes courses about the forest, the Umpqua rivers and map and compass skills — “a hodgepodge of skills good forest stewards would know.”
He said programs like his are part of the solution to poverty.
“We chip away at this big block of ice I consider the poverty issue,” he said. “Targeting and helping groups of individuals at the local level is one way to do that.”
VISTA Diana Juarez has been placed with Phoenix Charter School, where she has been developing a curriculum she hopes will give students the skills they will need when they enter the workforce.
She said she is sad to see the VISTA program go, but said she believes it is ending because its goal has been accomplished.
“It’s bittersweet,” she said.
VISTA member Joe Edmonds created a job shadow program for local high school students with the Bureau of Land Management and helped run a youth conservation corps at Phoenix Charter School. He said he is glad to have been part of a national effort to fight poverty.
“I really believe in the spirit of national service and I believe the country could use a little more of it. I’m very happy to be a part of it,” he said.
Edmonds also expressed mixed feelings about the program’s end.
“I’m sad to see the VISTA program will not be continuing, but we have really fulfilled our purpose. Organizations really benefited from the program and are able to continue without it. We did bring in a lot of new ideas and energy to many different programs,” he said.
One feature of the VISTA program is that it brings people from other communities into poverty-stricken areas like Douglas County in the hope that fresh eyes may come up with new solutions to old problems.
Wang, 27, is a U.S. citizen who grew up in Hong Kong; Juarez is from Texas and Edmunds, 30, is from Ohio. Sometimes, people brought to a community by VISTA end up remaining there. Edmonds said he likes Roseburg so well he plans to stay. He hopes his experience will land him a good government job.
A small number of VISTA members brought in by NeighborWorks and other organizations will continue to work in the county.
UCAN is also creating a resource website preserving the curricula, grant information and other guides created by VISTA members over the past 11 years.
• You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.