Vermont may be exporting its young people to the rest of the country. But every year a new crop of youthful AmeriCorps workers reverses that trend.
Susan Elliot, AmeriCorps*VISTA coordinator for Burlington's Community and Economic Development Office, oversees 45 VISTAs who work at nonprofits and agencies such as the Children's Literacy Foundation, the Burlington Lead Program and the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. She says that if past years are any indication, plenty of them will decide to take jobs and settle down in Vermont.
"Something like 30 percent of our VISTAs end up working in the Vermont nonprofit community after their service," she says. That's a significant number in such a small state, and these dedicated and idealistic young workers do a lot of the grunt work -- and the behind-the-scenes organizing -- that keeps the area's educational, recreational and social service amenities alive.
AmeriCorps, a national service program launched by Bill Clinton in 1993, is open to people aged 18 and up, but it primarily attracts transient twentysomethings who are willing and able to spend a year working long hours for low pay. VISTAS -- the name stands for Volunteers in Service to America -- toil full-time but earn just $833 every two weeks -- before taxes -- and receive a small stipend at the conclusion of their service.
CEDO first sought a handful of AmeriCorps workers 13 years ago; over the years, their numbers have increased significantly. The AmeriCorps website lists 127 different kinds of positions available in Vermont this year.
Those placements are divided among four programs -- AmeriCorps National, AmeriCorps State, the National Civilian Community Corps and VISTA. Participants in the first three programs tackle hands-on, direct-service tasks such as restoring parks, building housing and tutoring schoolchildren.
VISTA is a little different. Chartered in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty, it got a boost when President Clinton realigned it with AmeriCorps, and when President Bush increased funding for the program in 2003. Most VISTA placements require applicants to have a college degree, or at least three years of work experience. Vermont is offering 70 VISTA opportunities this year, half of them through CEDO.
Unlike other AmeriCorps volunteers, VISTAs help nonprofits and municipal agencies beef up their programs by recruiting workers, raising funds or improving facilities. Being immersed in a project for a year gives a VISTA a unique expertise, and often makes the worker the de facto face of the program, so it's valuable to have them stick around.
Kate Neubauer, executive director of the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center, is a good example of someone who did. A Rhode Island native, Neubauer moved to Burlington to become a VISTA in 2002, after earning a degree in economics from Villanova University.
Following graduation, Neubauer thought she wanted to get a good job and "make a lot of money," she says. But her experience as a VISTA altered her priorities.
Neubauer worked as a community organizer at CEDO. "For a whole year," she recalls, "I just immersed myself in learning about how Burlington operates." Neubauer didn't complete many big projects, she says, but she felt successful when people she talked with attended meetings and got to know their neighbors. "It's the really small things that stand out," she says.
At the end of her term, she signed up for a second stint, this time as a VISTA for the nonprofit Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center. When her commitment expired, the Center hired her as its communications director. A year and a half later, Neubauer became the executive director. Today the 27-year-old directs a staff of 21.
Neubauer insists the Sailing Center is not just about boating. "We use sailing as a tool to promote self-esteem, team-building, environmental education, public service," she says. "There are kids here who have never seen Burlington from the perspective of being on the lake. We can give them that opportunity. And maybe they'll look at something else in a new way."
Neubauer credits her VISTA experience for making her employment transition possible. "Without VISTA," she says, "I would never have become the executive director of the sailing center. I wouldn't have even thought to do that."
Dave Olafson is another economics major whose VISTA service played a pivotal role in his career. Olafson came to Vermont from Pennsylvania to attend St. Michael's College. After graduating in 2002, he remained in the area to work as a VISTA with the Burlington Neighborhood Project and a teen-centric organization called Straight Talk Vermont.
"Coming out of college, I just wasn't sure what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go," Olafson says. VISTA gave him direction.
Olafson was responsible for setting up the Living Room, a teen drop-in center in the Burlington Town Center. He stuck it out with the organization and recommitted for a second year, though new owners of the mall evicted the Living Room and Straight Talk went through some administrative chaos; in 2005, the Boys & Girls Club of Burlington absorbed Straight Talk and its programs.
Today, Dave Olafson is the director of operations for Straight Talk Vermont. He works from the Living Room in South Burlington's University Mall, a spacious nook just inside the mall's northeastern entrance. Between 20 and 70 teens drop by to play pool, watch movies or surf the Internet on a daily basis, he reports.
Olafson now supervises an AmeriCorps volunteer who staffs the center when he's not available.
Like Neubauer, Olafson credits the VISTA program for keeping him working with nonprofits in the Burlington area. "I would not be doing what I'm doing now if I hadn't gone through the program," he says.
Cara Gleason, Burlington's Community Justice coordinator, expresses similar sentiments. Like Olafson, Gleason came to Vermont to attend St. Mike's. She graduated in 1996 and spent a year as a VISTA through CEDO.
Gleason's major project during that time was laying the groundwork for the McClure MultiGenerational Center. She worked closely with Burlington Children's Space, the Champlain Senior Center and the Burlington Community Land Trust to build a capital campaign. "I started before they hired the professional fundraiser," she explains.
The campaign was a success, and the MultiGenerational Center now offers senior programs and child care at its facility next to the Dairy Queen on North Winooski Avenue.
Gleason left Burlington to attend graduate school, but returned to take the job at the Community Justice Center, where she's worked for the past six years. In addition to her post as coordinator, she's also currently the acting assistant director for community development while her boss is on leave.
Gleason says her experience "absolutely" lead to her Community Justice Center job. That's probably also true for many of the other VISTA alums who are still around, working at Shelburne Farms, the Burlington Parks and Recreation Department, the Campaign to End Childhood Hunger, and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.
Gleason notes that the VISTAs she works with now at CEDO's Center for Community and Neighborhoods bring a lot of energy and dedication to their jobs. "VISTAs are the folks that will go out and knock on doors and go to night meetings," she says. "I feel like we're sort of everywhere."