Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Consciously or unconsciously, every one of us does render some service or another. If we cultivate the habit of doing this service deliberately, our desire for service will steadily grow stronger, and it will make not only for our own happiness, but that of the world at large.”
Many of us are familiar with Gandhi’s philosophical quotes, but this inspirational call to service rings especially true in our Rhode Island community, as our friends, neighbors and fellow citizens struggle on a daily basis to make ends meet. The need to bring communities out of poverty is greater than ever, as our nation recovers from one of the most difficult economic crises since the Great Depression.
According to the Economic Progress Institute and the latest U.S. Census data, 14 percent of Rhode Islanders currently live in poverty, which translates to approximately 142,000 of our state’s residents, the highest poverty rate in New England. From losing jobs to losing health insurance, from increasing debt to the inability to pay utilities, our community deals with the effects of poverty daily. Many nonprofit organizations around our state are working to break this cycle, including right here at the Rhode Island Free Clinic. We must continue to provide quality services and programs to our state’s most vulnerable residents in order to meet the growing demand for health care in our state and combat poverty’s adverse effects on our community.
For the past several years, we, along with several other community organizations around Rhode Island, have established a vital partnership with a program which may be unfamiliar to some: AmeriCorps*VISTA. As we begin to celebrate National AmeriCorps Week in the coming days, it is important to recognize the achievement and commitment of this program and what is being done to tackle the burdens of poverty in our Rhode Island community.
The AmeriCorps*VISTA program is a national service program the domestic Peace Corps designed specifically to fight poverty. It places members, currently 6,500 strong, in nonprofit organizations and community agencies around the country to help build organizational infrastructure in order to improve health services, fight illiteracy, end educational disparities and foster economic development.
Originally envisioned by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, VISTA has evolved over the decades, changing the face of poverty through building innovative, sustainable programs in local communities. It is now managed by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), an independent federal agency, and was incorporated into AmeriCorps under President Clinton in 1993. Each VISTA member makes a yearlong commitment to serve on a specific project at a nonprofit institution or public agency to help bring people out of poverty. The focus of this program is capacity building within organizations, as VISTA members assess community and institutional needs, build and design sustainable programs, raise funds and coordinate volunteers. In exchange for their service, VISTA members receive a modest living stipend, health benefits, student loan deferment, an education award/voucher, and most importantly, highly valuable professional experience and an opportunity to develop and clarify career interests.
In Rhode Island, 56 AmeriCorps*VISTA members serve at institutions as diverse as Inspiring Minds, AS220, Serve Rhode Island, RI Center for Law and Public Policy, RI Campus Compact, and RI Free Clinic, addressing such things as educational inequality, violence prevention and health care for the underserved. Here at Rhode Island Free Clinic, our five AmeriCorps*VISTA members recruit and retain volunteers, research and analyze patient data and health outcomes, and coordinate fundraising and grant initiatives. They are on the front lines of public health and public service, helping to build the Clinic’s capacity to provide critical health services to uninsured, working poor, and low-income Rhode Islanders.
With their enthusiasm and passion, this VISTA team has brought a wealth of new ideas and dramatically improved the Clinic’s operations and infrastructure, from physician scheduling to grant proposals. In addition to their service to the Clinic, these VISTAs have gained a professional perspective that has allowed them to illuminate future goals. When they leave the Clinic this summer, the VISTA team will move on to several different avenues: from medical school, to graduate programs and careers in health policy, business, nursing and nonprofit management.
As we celebrate National AmeriCorps Week, we recognize the achievement and commitment of Rhode Island’s AmeriCorps team. Their stories and their impact on local communities and organizations around the country are crucial to the improvement and well-being of our society, breaking the cycle of poverty sustainably and effectively in our state. Shirley Sagawa, author of “The American Way to Change” (2010), a book which distinguished Rhode Island Free Clinic as one of the nation’s “top 25 volunteer models with promise,” even said it herself: “the human capital we need to put to our biggest challenges is poised and ready.”
As we progress through this year, please join us in celebrating the value of volunteerism and service in our country and our state, igniting a spirit of inspiration evident in AmeriCorps*VISTA, at the Rhode Island Free Clinic, and other community organizations addressing the root causes of poverty and providing solutions.
Marie Ghazal is the CEO at Rhode Island Free Clinic. Vincent Marzullo is Rhode Island’s State Director for the Corporation for National and Community Service.