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New vistas for Volunteers In Service To America

National director welcomes this year's VISTAs to Baltimore

By Larry Perl, lperl@tribune.com

10:03 AM EDT, August 13, 2013

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While looking for a job earlier this year, Shareki Chaney, 26, kept busy by volunteering at her son's public charter school.

Now Chaney has a new job as a Volunteer in Service to America. She is one of 17 AmeriCorps VISTAs who are newly assigned to community groups, schools, nonprofits and government agencies throughout Baltimore.

Technically, VISTAs aren't volunteers, because they get a stipend of $13,300 for 12 months, or 105 percent of the poverty level in Baltimore. The pay isn't much, but for Chaney, it's all good.

"It's awesome to have a job," said the west Baltimore resident, 26, who was recruited when her volunteer spirit at Kipp-Harmony Academy caught the eye of VISTA officials. She is assigned to the Alliance for Community Teachers and Schools and will work in four different schools.

"It's something I have a passion for — helping people be better," Chaney said.

Chaney was in the audience Aug. 9 when national VISTA director Mary Strasser officially welcomed the young, eager VISTAs during a ceremony at the office of the Greater Homewood Community Corp. in Charles Village.

"What you're doing is touching so many lives," Strasser told the VISTAs, most of whom started officially on July 26. "Go forth," she said.

Others on hand included Greater Homewood Executive Director Karen Stokes; Amy Seeberger, representing U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski; and Crystal Biles, state director for the Corporation for National and Community Service. CNCS, an independent federal agency, administers the AmeriCorps program, of which VISTA is a part.

"You are in service to America. That is a really big deal," Stokes told the volunteers. "Not everyone is willing to do that with a year of their lives."

Greater Homewood Community Corp., which helps strengthen 40 communities in north and central Baltimore, acts as an official intermediary for the VISTA program in Baltimore, Prince George's, Montgomery, Frederick and Washington counties. It is one of several CNCS grantees for the VISTA program in Maryland and fills however many slots are available each year.

VISTA, founded in 1965 by Sargent Shriver, who also started the Peace Corps, is nearing its 49th anniversary Aug. 20. The program, which is designed to fight poverty, focuses on workforce, youth and economic development. It currently has about 6,500 VISTAs nationwide. Although that's 60 fewer than last year, the number of VISTAs has held relatively steady over the past 15 or 20 years, Strasser said.

But Strasser isn't satisfied with those numbers.

"With 46 million people in poverty in the United States right now, most of whom are children, I think there's room for more (VISTAs)," Strasser told the Messenger.

Maryland has 59 "full-year" VISTAs, the bulk of them assigned to Baltimore, Biles said. Another 90 are participating in a special summer VISTA program. The Baltimore City government has 12 summer VISTAs.

"It's a win-win situation all the way around," said Vu Dang, chief service officer for the city, who attended the welcoming ceremony at Greater Homewood.

The new VISTAs also include Baltimore native Tyler Block, 23, who now lives in White Marsh and recently graduated from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County with a degree in mechanical engineering. He is assigned to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Educational Outreach. He will work at the former Barclay Recreation Center in Charles Village, which is run by Greater Homewood and has been renamed the 29th Street Center.

Block, who was born at Union Memorial Hospital, decided it was time to give back to his hometown.

"I've lived in the city a long time and never done a lot for it," he said.