President Barack Obama’s call for volunteerism is being heard loud and clear in Montana. But long before the president came to office, the Treasure State was a bastion for community service. Now, with Obama’s plan to triple the size of AmeriCorps, Montana could be gearing up for a considerable increase in its already sizeable volunteer base.
Montana perennially has one of the highest rates of community service in the nation. A study by Volunteering in America states that 36.6 percent of Montanans volunteer for some form of service, giving the state the sixth-highest rate in the nation.
But beyond the leanings of its own residents, Montana is also a foremost destination for volunteers. This is evident in the widespread presence of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a public-private partnership that has three wings: Senior Corps, Learn and Serve America and AmeriCorps.
There are more than 8,500 people of varying ages and backgrounds participating in CNCS programs in Montana. More than 1,000 of those individuals are part of AmeriCorps, including 151 in AmeriCorps VISTA, which is specifically aimed at fighting poverty. There are five VISTAs in Kalispell.
Those figures could grow by leaps and bounds with Obama’s plan. Obama, who was a community organizer in Chicago, has called on more Americans to volunteer. In April, he signed legislation to triple the size of AmeriCorps nationwide, but Jackie Girard, Montana’s state director for CNCS, said she won’t be able to gauge the full effect of the law until the federal budget picture is cleared up.
“I don’t know if it would triple here in Montana, but it could,” Girard said. “It will grow certainly.”
Montana has always had a high rate of voluntary service, Girard said, driven by a neighborly attitude that dates “back to the barn-raising days.”
“You help your neighbor; you work together and support each other,” she said.
While that’s an ingrained characteristic of Montana culture, officials like Girard are also discovering that the state is an easy sell when it comes to people looking for community service. Folks young and old want to enjoy the state’s outdoor offerings while working for minimal or no wages. The VISTA program is an apt example.
Rachael Milne, a VISTA who works in the financial literacy program at Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana, said she left Georgia for Montana because of its mountainous intrigue. She had never been here before. But, as a fresh college graduate with an adventurous streak, the Wild West seemed like a fine idea. After her year of service was up, she signed on for another year.
“I thought, ‘Montana sounds really exotic,’” she said.
Volunteers in Service to America – or VISTA – was established in 1965 as a domestic counterpart to the Peace Corps to combat poverty in the United States. Then in 1993, it was incorporated into the AmeriCorps network of programs.
Milne, 24, works with two other VISTAs at the partnership. Like Milne, they are recent college graduates who had never been to Montana before signing up for AmeriCorps VISTA. Laura Yoder came here after finishing school in Corvallis, Ore., and Liz Stovall, 25, came from Chicago. Yoder specializes in housing, Stovall in weatherization.
Lil Dupree, who supervises the women at CAP, said Montana has “persistent generational poverty.” This is another reason the VISTA program consistently has a solid base in Montana, Dupree said. There are VISTAs located across the state, including on American Indian reservations, participating in projects of varying focus, including child literacy, hunger, substance abuse, homelessness and more.
“Frankly, Montana has exciting and groundbreaking projects,” Dupree said.
There are also volunteers in Montana from the AmeriCorps State and National program. With this program, volunteers work directly with people in the community, while VISTAs are focused more on building infrastructure behind the scenes.
As an example, Girard said a VISTA might develop a children’s literacy program, and then a State and National representative would come in to tutor the children. Also, representatives from the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps work in the state.
Milne, Stovall and Yoder work full-time. They are paid $9,996 for the year, with a minimal health insurance plan. Upon completion of the one-year program, they will be eligible for a $4,725 education stipend. That money can only be used for school.
“The VISTA experience is knowing what you’re fighting,” Milne said. “You’re living in poverty and fighting poverty at the same time.”
While lending their own helping hands, the Kalispell VISTAs have found a few helping hands extended back to them. Upon hearing about what they do, Whitefish Mountain Resort gave each of the women free weekend ski passes. Flathead Health and Fitness gave them memberships.
“People are really generous out here,” Milne said. “I think that really speaks to having so many VISTAs and community service. There’s really a mindset out here for it.”
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