Roadpost # 10: Leaving Its Mark
It’s the 45th anniversary of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). I am one of over 175,000 Americans who have joined VISTA since 1965, dedicating a year of their lives to tackling poverty and building capacity in our nation’s nonprofit sector. President Kennedy envisioned the program in 1963 and it was implemented by President Johnson two years later. VISTA is a program I am proud to be a part of for many reasons. Here is one of them.
VISTA, like all the national service programs, can be a life-shaping experience, especially for young people. I recently spoke with Alex Cherup, a Nevada VISTA alum, who is being sponsored by Nevada Volunteers to participate in the National Conference on Volunteering and Service in New York at the end of June. Alex is an outstanding young man who is passionate about service because of his VISTA experience. It gave him the chance to turn an aspiration into reality, and he still marvels at where it has brought him.
In college, Alex developed a close friendship with a fellow student who had an intellectual disability. His friend challenged the system and stood up for the rights of himself and other people with disabilities to participate in campus life on an equal basis. This made a big impression on Alex, who decided to work within the disabled community after he graduated. He wasn’t quite sure how to go about it, but his dream was strong.
VISTA gave him the opportunity he needed. He moved to Las Vegas and took a VISTA position with the Youth Transition Project through Family Ties of Nevada and the Nevada Center for Excellence in Disabilities. The program assists youth with disabilities, giving them the tools and support to make a transition from high school to the real world. Suddenly Alex was living his dream, working with a wide range of people from very high-ranking administrators down to the general population. “That is an amazing place to be,” Alex told me, “especially if you are 21 and just out of school. Being thrust into this position, you have to build a name for yourself or else you are going to sink. I thought I had better start swimming, so that is what I did.”
VISTA enabled Alex to succeed in ways that challenged him to grow while nurturing his instinct to serve others. Alex is now a VISTA supervisor with Family Ties, overseeing the same Youth in Transition Project in Las Vegas that he served with as a VISTA. He also is in charge of the People First project, a self-advocacy organization for the disabled that has 7 chapters in Vegas. There are times, still, when he is at a conference or putting together a networking session, that he finds himself amazed he can actually be doing this wonderful, fulfilling work at a young age.
“Vista has left a mark on me that will influence me the rest of my life,” Alex said, explaining that VISTA built in him a community-minded perspective. “When you have only a limited living stipend and are basically devoting all of your time to service, it is hard to look at your success as personal because the monetary rewards are so much removed from the picture,” Alex told me. “As a VISTA, my success is inseparable from the community’s success.”
And, indeed, the community has reaped dividends from his VISTA year. Though not originally from Las Vegas, he has become a very active member in the city beyond his VISTA responsibilities. “Because of VISTA,” Alex said, “I have been able to contribute to a community that initially wasn’t mine, but now definitely is.”
Is there any doubt of the value of VISTA and other national service programs? I think not.