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AmeriCorps VISTA members essential to Georgia's 4-H program By Sarah Turner

In its mission to reach youth around the state, Georgia’s 4-H program has found the perfect teammate: AmeriCorps.

University of Georgia’s Extension budget in Georgia 4-H’s southwest district decreased by 31 percent from 2008 to 2012. With fewer 4-H leaders at its disposal, UGA Extension has turned to Americorps VISTA members to help county agents build capacity for their programs. According to Melinda Miller, 4-H program development coordinator of the southwest district, VISTAs build capacity through fund development, volunteer recruitment and public relations. They also lead community service efforts such as MLK Day of Service and 9/11 Day of Service.

“VISTA members are basically just helping us in counties that have larger populations or counties that suffer extreme poverty,” Miller said. “They help us better reach out to those at-risk audiences and get those young people engaged in 4-H. They also help raise the funding and support for students who might not otherwise be able to participate.”

After proposing a grant to AmeriCorps, a branch of the Corporation for National and Community Service, five years ago, Georgia 4-H now has a stronger community service program that is constantly growing.

“Georgia 4-H is in the process of submitting our renewal for another three-year grant cycle with AmeriCorps VISTA. With this in mind, we are continually promoting the VISTA program and opportunities for placing 4-H VISTAs in our counties approximately every 3-4 months as spots become available to fill,” Miller said.

VISTAs currently in the southwest district are Heather Ferguson (Ben Hill County), Stephen Houston (Calhoun County), Sarah Benjamin (Peach County) and Joi Whitaker (Thomas County). Two more will start on March 1; Daisy Howard (Houston County) and Bridget Howard (Terrell County).

VISTA members’ goal is to build stronger and more sustainable systems in their assigned counties so the 4-H program can continue to develop once the VISTA’s year-long term has ended, Miller said.

As of January 2013, VISTA members have raised $469,027 dollars, and $47,769 non-cash resources and recruited 387 Georgia 4-H volunteers. In exchange for their service, VISTA members receive a small housing allowance and health benefit plan from the Corporation for National and Community Service. With that kind of success at no cost, Georgia 4-H looks to fill more positions in different Georgia counties. “We are always in the cycle of filling positions,” Miller said. “We get notifications to fill spots in counties about once per quarter.”

For more information and how to apply to be a VISTA, visit nationalservice.gov.

Benjamin, 21, is the first VISTA member in Peach County. Benjamin focuses on fundraising and marketing and helps create awareness for the program by submitting several newspaper articles per month in her area. Currently, she is working on fundraisers, which include a road race, a rabies clinic and a local coupon book.

She recently moved to Georgia from California and says working to help others allows her to better herself.

“I think, overall, the experience is fairly rewarding for me and the ones I work for,” Benjamin said. “I have an associate degree in business management, so on a professional level, it gives me so much experience. On a personal level it gives me an opportunity to help people, which is something I’ve always enjoyed doing.”

The possibilities of what a VISTA member can do to help their county are endless.

“In Thomas County, our VISTA member is conducting mid-year school supply drive for children in need in the community and she’s getting local businesses and individuals to support that project,” Miller said.

VISTA members also conduct informational sessions on how to find college funding to help students find the resources that will allow them to attend college.

VISTA work
VISTA work

Joi Whitaker (standing, far right), a VISTA member serving in Thomas County, helped lead the MLK Day of Service School Supply Drive.

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Joi Whitaker (standing, far right), a VISTA member serving in Thomas County, helped lead the MLK Day of Service School Supply Drive. Download Image
Heather Ferguson
Heather Ferguson

Heather Ferguson is a VISTA member serving in Ben Hill County.

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