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‘We dig in the dirt’

MANATEE

Americorps VISTA volunteers lay down ground rules for Manatee County nonprofits and government agencies that seek their services.

They don’t answer telephones.

They don’t scrub floors.

Almost everything else, though, eventually becomes part of the job for those who join the 20/20 Vision Project.

“We dig in the dirt,” was how volunteer Geneva Presha put it.

VISTA, or Volunteers in Service to America, members have been getting their hands dirty for three and a half years.

Their charge is to dream up and organize programs to help people lift themselves out of poverty or generally make Manatee a better place to live.

They’re not supposed to be foot soldiers.

“We were primarily meant to solicit volunteers to do various programs,” said Alan Gedeon, one of four original VISTA volunteers who served the maximum three years in the program. “With many, many of the things we got involved in, it was almost impossible to do that. We had to do hands-on, if you will, if nothing else to show the volunteers how to do the things.”

The program will wrap up in August as federal funding runs out as scheduled, a sad fact for the volunteers and the groups that employ them.

By the end, 46 people will have taken the oath to work 35 hours per week for a year at a time. Their reward? A small living allowance and either a college stipend or a monetary award.

They have revitalized neighborhoods -- Washington Park and Samoset are among them -- built wheelchair ramps, started community gardens, designed playgrounds and put together community coalitions to help the poor and get young people involved in government.

And that’s just a sampling.

“I don’t think anything can replace what this VISTA project has done,” said project leader Rosie Wiley during a meeting with six of her current and former volunteers this past week at the Herald. “I never dreamed it could become what it is. ... I don’t know if it can be replicated.”

“These are people that are here almost full time,” said Cheri Coryea, Manatee County’s neighborhood services manager, who has worked with five VISTA volunteers. “The whole rest of their life is put on hold to help people. Everywhere I’d go, they’d be there.”

Success story

Organizations that hire VISTA volunteers get a near-full-time employee for $7,500 a year.

That would be a bargain for almost any type of worker. But VISTA volunteers often are retired professionals or recent college graduates who offer expertise in their fields of interest.

Manatee Technical Institute has been a typical beneficiary of the program.

VISTA volunteer Virginia Sirocky, a former marketing consultant, agreed to organize an alumni association for MTI to keep former students connected and spark fundraising. It just so happened Sirocky was once a member of the Alumni Council at Penn State and was named the school’s 2004 Volunteer of the Year.

When Sirocky’s year with VISTA was up, MTI hired her to continue her work. Sirocky is one of four recent VISTA volunteers -- Gedeon, who worked in the county neighborhood services department, is another -- hired by their agencies.

“You talk about prayers being answered,” MTI Director Mary Cantrell said. “Here is someone who knows how to do what nobody else here knows how to do.”

Former IBM executive Pat Brahm signed on to help MTI integrate computer software. Previously, the school had one student tracking system used for records sent to the School District of Manatee County and another for the state. Essentially the same information had to be entered twice into different computers.

Brahm found a way to get the two programs to work together. Her solution has been successful in field tests, Cantrell said. The same type of project in Orange County cost the school district $6 million, Cantrell said. Brahm did it for $6,000.

“These were all people who contributed before they retired, but they have done so much for MTI. Without these VISTA volunteers, we wouldn’t have made it last year,” she said.

Exceeding expectations

The VISTA 20/20 Project was started in September 2007 with the promise of three annual $100,000 grants from the National & Community Service Florida State Office. The Manatee County Foundation added another $20,000 for program administration.

The project actually has lasted into its fourth year, allowing volunteers who signed up at the end of the third year to complete their obligation. Wiley is the lone salaried employee.

Adraine McKell is the executive director of Volunteer Manatee, the organization that came up with the project. She never imagined how many people would be affected by her idea. About 25 Manatee County groups have employed VISTA volunteers.

“Are you kidding? It has far exceeded all expectations,” McKell said. “When we started, we thought they would be little grassroots organizations that could not handle programming. We found out the big guys, for instance the school board and county government, wanted VISTAs, too.”

Volunteers receive a living allowance of $10,600 for each year they work in the program. After every year, they can choose $5,300 for college or to pay off a student loan or $1,500.

The majority of the volunteers are retirees trying to stay active and help their community.

But this year saw an influx of younger volunteers, including Anyelle DeLeon, an outreach coordinator for Florida KidCare.

“I just kind of found it, and I thought, ‘This is fabulous. I get to do something good and also get something for my own experience,’ ” said DeLeon, 21, a New College of Florida graduate who hopes to use her college stipend to attend law school at Florida State.

Florida KidCare is a health insurance for children in low-income families, and it’s DeLeon’s job to help parents, some of whom speak only Spanish, to navigate the application process.

She worries about what will happen at the end of the project.

“I know there are very few people qualified to assist with applications or who have the time or ability to do outreach. I’m usually the only person at any community events doing Florida KidCare applications,” she said.

Many of the volunteers said they have gained as much as they have given.

David Kaminski, a former golf course superintendent, spent three years with the county’s neighborhood services department. He learned while working with the poor that all people, regardless of color or where they live, deserve respect.

“My whole way of thinking totally changed,” Kaminski said. “I sit around the table with my friends and hear comments that make me want to stop them and say, ‘Wait a minute. You don’t get it. I’ve worked with these people. It’s not the way you think it is. Come with me one time.’

“It’s not what I did; it’s what it gave to me. It opens your eyes.”

Timothy R. Wolfrum, Herald writer, can be reached at 745-7015.

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