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Service aims to end persistent poverty in Georgia By J. Faith Peppers

According to 2008 census data, the latest national numbers available, 15 percent of Georgians live in poverty. The state ties Arizona for the 14th highest percentage of residents living in poverty in the U.S. In southwest Georgia, 39 of the regions' 41 counties are considered persistently poor. University of Georgia Cooperative Extension will use an AmeriCorps VISTA grant to help the area’s impoverished residents get a hand up.

Working in the counties

Through the three-year grant, four full-time employees will be hired to work across southwest Georgia. Two will be hired to work on the UGA campus in Athens, Ga. Each position is charged to address specific needs in the home county. In addition, they will support Georgia 4-H by helping write grants, market programs and work with fund and volunteer development.

VISTA employees will partner with UGA 4-H faculty, too, to address poverty issues and help reach underserved audiences like Hispanics in Colquitt County and military families in Houston County. Others will work to resolve poverty issues in Sumter and Lowndes counties.

A generational problem

“You don’t have to look very far to see the harsh realities of persistent poverty anywhere in Georgia,” said Laura Perry Johnson, 4-H program development coordinator for UGA Extension in southwest Georgia. “But, southwest Georgia disproportionately suffers from pervasive generational poverty. Extension has worked to address these issues across the state with particular emphasis in southwest Georgia. The partnership between AmeriCorps VISTA and Georgia 4-H will strengthen our ability to deliver programming that strives to break that cycle.”

AmeriCorps VISTA is a national service program designed specifically to fight poverty. Founded as Volunteers in Service to America in 1965 and incorporated into the AmeriCorps network of programs in 1993, VISTA has been on the front lines in the fight against poverty in America for more than 40 years.

Head Start and Upward Bound are two of VISTA's most recognizable programs. VISTA members commit to serve full-time for a year at a nonprofit organization or local government agency, working to fight illiteracy, improve health services, create businesses and strengthen community groups. They create or expand programs designed to bring individuals and communities out of poverty.

Positions filled this summer

The six current positions are open for applications. Johnson hopes to have all the positions filled by July 30. Each position includes a monthly living allowance, a relocation allowance, health insurance coverage, childcare assistance for eligible workers and a choice of an education award or monthly stipend.

“The most valuable benefit,” Johnson said, “is the training, professional development and documented experience the workers gain through the experience.”

Application information is available online. Or, contact Johnson at lpj4h@uga.edu. Learn more about AmeriCorp VISTA at www.americorps.gov/about/programs/vista.asp

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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