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VISTA has clear vision of volunteering

They serve without titles.

They work for a yearly stipend.

They choose to live at the poverty level so they can understand the challenges of families they are trying to help.

They are Volunteers in Service to America, part of the AmeriCorps program run by the federal government.

During the past year, a very busy group of VISTA volunteers has helped transform some of the neediest neighborhoods in Manatee County by empowering residents to help themselves.

Al Gedeon and David Kaminski, two of the first recruits who are from Bradenton, work with Manatee County’s Neighborhood Services Department. One of their big projects was getting the materials and volunteer help to build wheelchair ramps for the homebound to increase their mobility and independence.

Brenda Freeman spent the year working with the Anna E. Gayle Resource Center in Palmetto, helping to expand the programs for families and teens.

Bridgette Halliburton is working in the East Bradenton neighborhood where she grew up, helping outreach programs at the Central Economic Development Center, the nonprofit arm of the Bradenton Community Redevelopment Agency.

Halliburton’s income tax preparation courses have trained neighborhood leaders to help their neighbors file their tax returns and succeed in getting low-income credits.

All four signed up for one year of service, but they are so involved with their work that they have signed up for a second year.

In all, 15 VISTA members, ranging from their early 20s to 70, are now working in Manatee County, with one more slated to start in February.

They have organized financial literacy courses, worked with the homeless, expanded enrollment in KidCare, the state medical insurance program for low-income families and promoted the use of the United Way of Manasota 211 help line, reports Rosie Wylie, who helped get the 20/20 VISTA Vision Program started in Manatee County.

As 2008 draws to a close, the 20/20 VISTA team celebrates its first anniversary.

Halliburton says her VISTA service has helped fulfill a lifelong dream.

“When I was younger I always thought the people who signed up for the Peace Corps were awesome,” said Halliburton. “I always wanted to do that, but never did. When this came along, a chance to volunteer in the states, I couldn’t say no.”

Halliburton and Central Economic Development Center have been planning all year for the coming tax season.

“Last year we helped 150 people file returns and we had to turn a few away,” Halliburton said. “We are trying to recruit more volunteers this year, but they will have to go through 40 hours of tax preparation training. That’s why it is so difficult.”

Halliburton’s VISTA role is to find those volunteer tax preparers.

This is exactly the kind of project Adraine LaRoza, executive director of Volunteer Manatee, had in mind when she came up with the idea for the local VISTA program four years ago.

“In collaborative meetings, I heard many non-profits say they did not have the resources or funding to meet needs in the community,” LaRoza said.

LaRoza’s idea was to pair trained VISTA workers with local agencies who need skilled leaders to help them expand their missions.

Halliburton cites a small business lending fair held by Central Economic Development Council as one of her most meaningful activities.

“We had 18 vendors come to talk to people in Manatee County about how to start up a business, what they need to do to get financing,” Halliburton said.

LaRoza says the VISTA project is succeeding beyond her wildest dreams, but she admits getting it started was a challenge.

LaRoza is a fervent believer in “neighboring,” a process whereby trained leaders empower the people in poor neighborhoods to become leaders themselves.

First she had to convince the Corporation for National and Community Services in Washington D.C., which oversees the VISTA program, to allow her to pilot a unique program designed to transform neighborhoods rather than organizations.

Hue Jacobs, the state program officer for the corporation, liked LaRoza’s idea.

“Hue understood the concept and had even more ideas of how we could develop the 20/20 VISTA program,” LaRoza said.

Their original idea was to have 20 VISTA members helping 20 nonprofits within a three-year grant period, beginning in 2007.

When the approval came through, the corporation agreed to cover the costs of 10 of those VISTA members, with participating local nonprofits covering the other 10 through a cost-share program.

VISTA members sign on for a year and are paid a living stipend equal to the income of the people they help, about $380 biweekly in Manatee County. They also receive $1,200 in cash or a $4,725 education stipend at the end of the one-year commitment period.

Participating local agencies help share the cost by contributing $10,300 for a VISTA member, LaRoza said.

More than 500 nonprofits in Manatee County signed onto the initial project proposal in hopes of getting VISTA help. In return, they receive the equivalent of a full-time employee, LaRoza said.

The national corporation provides training, medical insurance and other benefits.

During the first year, grants from the Manatee Community Foundation and the Knight Foundation totalling $20,000 helped cover the services of Wylie who served as coordinator to help recruit VISTA members and match them with local projects.

The program is very popular, Wylie said, especially among local retirees and new graduates from college.

“I have 38 people who want to come on board,” Wylie said. “A lot live out of state and want to move here. They just want to make a difference, they are sincere about this.”

Shawn LaPensee, who grew up on Anna Maria Island and recently graduated from Florida State University with a major in international affairs and business, joined the VISTA 20/20 program in June.

The youngest of the Manatee VISTAs, LaPensee says that learning to live at the income level of the families she’s helping has opened her eyes.

“Gosh, this has been a learning experience,” said LaPensee, who works with the Boys and Girls Clubs in the Pride Park area. “I have a tight budget, bills to pay and it’s not easy. But it’s worth it in terms of what I have learned.”

Living within the means of those she is helping has made her a part of the community, LaPensee said. “We interact with neighbors, we listen to their stories. Now, when I see a family that is low income, I can relate to them, because I understand their difficulties better than I ever could have before.”

Her insights have turned LaPensee into an advocate and helped identify where her services can be used to connect families with the programs the Boys and Girls clubs offer.

“If you just sit down and talk to people who live in poverty, you learn what their life is like,” LaPensee said. “Maybe all they need is someone to talk to.”

LaPensee says fellow VISTA volunteers are now good friends.

The deep camaraderie among them surprised LaRoza. “I had hoped they would get together in small groups to help each other, but they have become a tightly knit family. It just blew me away.”

LaRoza says Wylie is the heart of 20/20 VISTA family, but her involvement unfortunately is coming to an end.

While the 20/20 project still has two more years under the current grant, Rosie’s position is in jeopardy, LaRoza explained.

“This program is literally dependent on Rosie,” LaRoza said. “It was Rosie’s passion that turned our project into a meaningful program, but we made a big mistake in planning and we don’t know how to fix it. We did not budget a full-time person to be coordinator.”

The grant money from local foundations to cover Wylie’s position for the first year runs out the end of the month. To date, no other sources of funding have been identified, LaRoza said.

While Wylie will continue in another capacity at Volunteer Manatee, she will not be as involved in the VISTA program, LaRoza said.

Halliburton is taking over as VISTA leader for the project.

While her involvement may be limited in the future, Wylie hopes the 20/20 project will continue to expand.

“These people do this out of the kindness of their heart,” Wylie said. “They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They are very sincere in what they do.”

Wylie says the best measure of service is a comment by the newest recruit, Cathy Semrod, who was thrilled when she found VISTA.

“This is always what I wanted to do,” Semrod said. “I just never knew it.”

Donna Wright, health and social services reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7049.