The History of AmeriCorps VISTA

Community service and volunteerism have always been a vital force in American life. Throughout history, our nation has relied on the dedication and action of citizens to tackle our biggest challenges.

The VISTA program was first envisioned by President John F. Kennedy to serve the needs of the poorest Americans. In his January 1963 State of the Union Message, President Kennedy suggested a national service corps to serve “our own community needs in mental health hospitals, on Indian reservations, in centers for the aged and young delinquents, in schools for the illiterate and handicapped.” (© 1963 Corporation for National and Community Service - Office of Public Affairs)

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy envisioned a national service corps “to help provide urgently needed services in urban and rural poverty areas.” Less than two years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson realized Kennedy's dream by launching the “War on Poverty.” Johnson welcomed the first group of 20 VISTA volunteers saying, “Your pay will be low; the conditions of your labor often will be difficult. But you will have the satisfaction of leading a great national effort and you will have the ultimate reward which comes to those who serve their fellow man.”

VISTA, like Head Start and other lasting antipoverty programs, was created by The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 to serve the needs of the poorest Americans.

The first VISTA members started in January 1965, and by the end of the year more than 2,000 members were working in the Appalachian region, California migrant worker camps, and Hartford, Connecticut poor neighborhoods. By 1966, more than 3,600 VISTA members were serving the country. By the end of its first decade, VISTA had helped develop a range of projects around the United States, including block watch clubs, credit unions, agricultural cooperatives, community groups, and small businesses. Many of these entities still thrive today—including some of the first Head Start programs and Job Corps sites. As experience with poverty issues grew, VISTA also recruited lawyers, doctors, and architects to work in underserved areas.

In the 1970s, VISTA merged with Peace Corps and the National Senior Service programs, and the ACTION agency was born. As experience with poverty issues grew, VISTA recruited professionals trained in specific skills. Doctors helped develop new health care facilities, architects helped renovate and build low-income housing, and lawyers encouraged housing and health care reform. In the 1980s, the program placed a strong focus on literacy, substance abuse prevention and treatment, citizen participation, and community self-help.

For as long as she can remember, Melissa Long has been involved in community service and service-learning. An AmeriCorps*VISTA member with the Economic and Community Development Institute in Ohio in 2003, Long helped small community-based groups earn almost $2 million to help secure homes, employment, and educational opportunities for low-income families. (© 1990 Corporation for National and Community Service- Office of Public Affairs)

The 1990s saw a resurgence of national service. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush developed the Commission on National and Community Service. With the signing of the National Community Service Trust Act in 1993, President William Clinton expanded national service to create AmeriCorps, and VISTA became part of AmeriCorps.

Throughout the 1990s, AmeriCorps VISTA continued the long tradition of starting new and innovative programs. VISTA members helped develop low-income housing cooperatives, created programs to help people transition from welfare to work, expanded Individual Development Accounts to help people save money, and provided constructive out-of-school activities for disadvantaged youth.

Throughout the decades, VISTA evolved to respond to local problems and the changing face of poverty. Today, under President Barack Obama, VISTA is larger, stronger, and more vital than it has ever been. Its 8,000 members—who serve at 1,100 projects nationwide—continue to address the root causes of poverty. They are developing new programs, raising funds, managing projects, building the capacity of nonprofit organizations, and helping families break the cycle of poverty. They also are setting the standard for volunteer mobilization and leading the charge to answer President Obama's call for every American to become engaged in their community through volunteer service.

Additional Information
Read VISTA ... In Service to America (PDF)
VISTA Historic Photo Gallery

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