AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps VISTA: Separate But Complementary Branches of Service

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By Shayla Thiel Stern

AmeriCorps is a force across the state of Minnesota – and with 2,160 members, larger than many might expect. ServeMinnesota is responsible for all the Minnesota state AmeriCorps programs, and the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that funds national service, has an office in Minnesota that administers the AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program.

Although the programs function separately, many communities benefit from service from both AmeriCorps programs. This article describes three examples – Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, College Possible and Minnesota Alliance With Youth.

AmeriCorps LEAP Program at the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation

Barbara Gunderson, the AmeriCorps director for the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, said the AmeriCorps LEAP (Learning Early Achieves Potential) program currently has nine AmeriCorps members and will have four AmeriCorps VISTA members joining in August 2019. The positions are “very different,” she said, with AmeriCorps LEAP members serving students directly in PreK classrooms as Social Emotional Skill Builders for learning readiness.

“The AmeriCorps LEAP members work with children showing deficits in social skill area and regulating emotions within the classroom day,” Gunderson said. “Teachers and site supervisor concur with the selection of children to receive 1:1 and/or small group support  from the LEAP member.”

Their AmeriCorps VISTA positions are in a different area of the organization – Entrepreneur Investment Outcomes – and the service has an entirely different goal.

“The VISTA initiative engages community groups working with underserved populations, minorities, women and others by providing the support systems needed to strengthen employment, build capacity for  financial literacy and investing for entrepreneurs,” she explained.

Although both AmeriCorps LEAP and VISTA service  provide crucial support for the organization, Gunderson said they do not interact and provide support in totally separate environments.  

College Possible

College Possible is another program with both AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps VISTA members. Kumar Balasubrahmanyan, Senior Manager of Partnerships and Engagement at College Possible, which has seven VISTA members and about 90 AmeriCorps members serving in Minnesota. Balasubrahmanyan said the members have different and equally impactful roles within the organization.

“VISTA members provide behind the scenes support that allows for capacity building within our organization and take a long-term approach to creating systems and tools that can support the mission of our organization,” he said. “AmeriCorps members provide direct service to students through in-person meetings, connecting through technology and meeting the in-the-moment needs of the students who participate in our program.”

However, they complement each other perfectly. He said a great example of this is how VISTA members will research and create tools that AmeriCorps members use in day-to-day support of students.  

“For instance, a member of our AmeriCorps VISTA team recently created a conversation guide tool to help coaches ensure that they are touching on the key components of a coaching area when having a phone call with a student.  She did a lot of research and formatting to ensure the tool was based on best practices and easy to utilize,” he explained. “Our AmeriCorps members will then use this tool to guide them as they directly support students and can feel confident that they are approaching coaching phone calls in an effective and thoughtful way.  By having a VISTA create this tool, we can allow AmeriCorps members to focus on their students and develop deep relationships without needing to take the time and energy to create something new.”

He describes the VISTA members as taking a “zoomed out approach” while AmeriCorps members are “in the weeds” in the service they so for College Possible.

Minnesota Alliance With Youth

Kate Suchomel, the Chief Advancement Officer at Minnesota Alliance for Youth, said the organization has two AmeriCorps programs. First, AmeriCorps Promise Fellows provides direct support to students in grades 6-12 who struggle to engage in school and learning. There are 220 AmeriCorps Promise Fellows.

Second, the Alliance AmeriCorps VISTA program is a cohort of 12 VISTA members that build capacity within community organizations, schools and government agencies that address educational inequities and alleviate poverty. Service opportunities for both AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps VISTA are available across the state, she notes, and the groups are mutually beneficial to organizations.

“The service of our VISTA members complements and amplifies the collective work of the Promise Fellows serving across the state, providing best practices, facilitating school-community partnerships and developing projects that mutually benefit their organization, the service of the Promise Fellows and other AmeriCorps and national service members serving in those communities,” said Suchomel. “Promise Fellows, in turn, provide our VISTA members with on-the-ground experiences and feedback that fuels and informs their service.”

The Alliance’s two AmeriCorps programs balance and enhance each other to provide the most impact, she said.

“Together, these two programs work hand-in-hand to close the educational gaps in our state and help our young people succeed,” she said.

Serving in AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps VISTA in Minnesota

Opportunities for AmeriCorps members and VISTA members are available at each of the organizations. Please visit the following to learn more about how to join:

Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation

College Possible

Minnesota Alliance With Youth