VISTA workers making a difference as

February 8, 2013 10:16:01 AM

Sarah Fowler - [email protected]


In nearly two years as executive director of the Columbus Arts Council, Tina Sweeten has revolutionized the way the organization operates. Known for her grant writing skills, Sweeten garnered enough grant money to fund 10 Volunteers In Service In America (VISTA) workers. VISTA not only helps the Columbus Arts Council but other local agencies as well.  


Speaking to the Exchange Club Thursday afternoon, Sweeten explained just what the volunteers have been doing since the program began in November.  


Designed specifically to fight poverty, VISTA is sort of like a domestic version of the Peace Corps.  


Sweeten said the 10 volunteers in Columbus will create programs, write grants and teach organizations how to improve.  


"The idea is that at the end of their time, they'll have worked themselves out of a job," Sweeten said.  


Funded by grant money, VISTA volunteers work full-time and are paid $11,400 annually. They are also provided with health care and, if applicable, child care expenses. At the end of their service, VISTA workers are also eligible for non competitive status when applying for federal jobs. 


Sweeten said that even though the salary is low, 35 applicants applied for the 10 available positions. Their goals throughout the year are to bring in 100 new volunteers to the organization they work for, to receive a grant that provides 60-percent of the organization's funding, to start a new program on healthy living and to plan two community wide events.  


Katrina Speed is a VISTA volunteer at Contact Helpline. Speed said that as part of her service, she and another volunteer have created the Contact a Friend program, designed as suicide prevention for teenagers.  


Speed said Contact Helpline is also planning a back-to-school program where they hope to provide 1,000 students with free backpacks filled with school supplies. The program began last year and 400 children received the backpacks. The program was so well received that they outgrew their location at the Trotter Convention Center and will be moving to the American Legion facility for this year's program.  


Maria Andrews is one of two volunteers at the arts council. The former art teacher and stay-at-home mom said she got involved with the program because she wanted to teach again.  


"I heard about it and I thought, 'This is exactly what I've been looking for,'" she said. "I get to teach and it's great for the community." 


Since she started at the arts council, Andrews has organized the First Saturday Arts for All, a monthly program that Andrews described as an affordable activity for families.  


"We have a diverse group of students, a wide variety of ages and backgrounds," she said. "I can already see the difference we're making. I'm glad I'm part of a group that making a difference in the community." 


The volunteers come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Andrews is a native of Japan who moved to Columbus to pursue her degree at Mississippi University for Women. Dionne Humphries, another MUW grad, previously volunteered with Contact Helpline during her time in college and was anxious to work with a similar program. She is the VISTA volunteer at Loaves and Fishes and Helping Hands.  


"This is a great way for me to get me feet wet, help the community and create some programs that I can say I started," she said.  


The 10 volunteers will serve a three-year commitment with the option to relocate to a different program after each year. VISTA volunteers currently serve at the arts council, Contact Helpline, Loaves and Fishes and Helping Hands, The Boys and Girls Club in both Columbus and Starkville, the Frank P. Phillips YMCA, United Way of Lowndes County and HEARTS after school tutoring.

Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.