Why We Volunteer in Omaha
In 1961, my father was a year old. As the Vietnam War began to escalate and distrust of the government mounted, my mother was yet a thought in my young grandmother’s mind. When John F. Kennedy gave his memorable inaugural address, calling for national service from every American, my generation was still a dream to our young parents.
So how has this passion for civil service managed to become a mainstay 50 years after the famous quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”?
The power delivered in this speech sparked the formation of the AmeriCorps branches, which offer 75,000 opportunities for national service each year. AmeriCorps State and AmeriCorps National make up the largest branch, with thousands of volunteer opportunities in all different aspects of direct service. The AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) is a full-time residential program for men and women, ages 18 to 24, that strengthens communities through national and community service. The AmeriCorps VISTA program is especially integral to the vision behind Kennedy’s call for national service. VISTA volunteers work specifically to eliminate poverty by assisting nonprofits with program development and capacity building.
The VISTA program gives national nonprofits the ability to improve their programs without spending an egregious amount of money for a full-time staff person. Ron Abdouch, Executive Director of the Neighborhood Center (NC) in Omaha, explained the value of the VISTA program to the NC’s neighborhood restoration projects.
“At a time when budgets are tight but the need for services increases, VISTA allows us to meet the needs of our clients or constituents,” he said. “From our standpoint, the process [of getting a VISTA member] was easy. Answering a few questions and developing a job description was about all it entailed.”
By and large, VISTAs are reputable in their work with nonprofits. Many of these organizations do not have the resources to retain such qualified candidates for a year. Many VISTAs leave their jobs as lawyers, nurses, and artists to work in service. We have master’s and doctorate degrees, have published research, and have worked with major organizations in all areas, including management, grant writing and advocacy.
The AmeriCorps VISTA program has proven invaluable to nonprofits wanting to expand their services throughout their cities. “Volunteers are an extremely important component since most nonprofits do not have the budgets to hire enough staff to do all the work,” said Abdouch.
During their training, VISTA members attends a four-day conference to learn the history of AmeriCorps, how to be a strong volunteer, and some tips for a successful term of service. These four days of expensive meals in a beautiful hotel are often the last opportunity for such grandeur during a term of service. Each VISTA receives a living stipend at the poverty line. The point of such pay is to increase our ability to live as our target population does, and walk a year in the life of the working poor. To sacrifice a lifestyle that many of us have become quite comfortable with is a culture shock, but the power of our work overrides it. We learn to become better money managers, appreciate the small things, and become more involved in our work.
And the challenges don’t stop at pay. “The most challenging aspect of being a VISTA volunteer is realizing how much needs to be done for the Omaha community and how short one year can be,” said Craig Howell, an AmeriCorps VISTA from Omaha Serves. “The poverty in Omaha is very deep and complicated by many causes and consequences. This makes the work of a VISTA volunteer incredibly challenging.”
However, the benefits to VISTA volunteers do rival the challenges, and often give volunteers motivation to become better public servants. “Despite all challenges, my encouragement still thrives from the desire to give back to a community, to know that I am a building block to something greater than just myself,” said Jessie Bowman, Lemonade Day City Director and an Omaha VISTA. “I hope that people who witness the same fabrication of a better society will have the same passion spark within themselves and continue to spread it.”
Sergeant Shriver and JFK were just a few amongst many who understood the power of civil service. As society continues to evolve, the need for volunteer service will never change. Though many of America’s cities are healthy and thriving, urban ills will never dissipate, nor will the inequalities that exist between classes. This is where the AmeriCorps comes in. The volunteers that take on a year of service often may not see change during or shortly after their term. Instead, VISTAs work diligently knowing they are a part of a huge picture, a picture that includes tackling issues that may take generations to mend.
In 50 years, I hope my children will look back on the history of civil service and say “In 2011, my mother was 27 years old. She heard the call from the 1960s and carried it with her in the spirit of service.” This call gives action to those powerful inaugural words that will continue to inspire generations to join in strengthening their country though service.