VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) had its beginning in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy spoke of a domestic volunteer program modeled after the newly established Peace Corps. The next year, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a ‘‘war on poverty’’ and signed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The act created the VISTA program and housed it in the Office of Economic Development. The first VISTA members started in January 1965. In 1971, ACTION became the federal agency that oversaw both VISTA and the Peace Corps. This arrangement continued until 1993, when the federal Corporation for National and Community Service was created to oversee AmeriCorps and all domestic service programs, including VISTA.
West Virginia received its first VISTA workers in 1965. Quickly this turned into a flood of community organizers, who worked on social, environmental, and economic issues. Often called ‘‘hippies’’ by their detractors and sometimes denounced as meddling outsiders, by late 1968 VISTA volunteers had streamed into the most rural and hard-pressed areas of the state, frequently coming into conflict with local power brokers. Governor Arch Moore responded with an unprecedented action requiring his approval of every VISTA assignment made in West Virginia.
These early VISTA workers came of age during a period of activism on America’s college campuses, anti-war protests, the Civil Rights movement, and feminism. By and large they were the children of America’s middle class, well-off by the standards of rural West Virginia. Their appreciation for the arts and crafts and West Virginia folkways connected them to the back-to-the-land movement, which brought many more of their generation to the state at about the same time.
Enduring legacies in the form of environmental organizations, and Cabin Creek Quilts and other cooperatives continue into the 21st century, as does the social and political leadership by former VISTAs who stayed on to make their lives in our state. Close to 3,000 VISTA volunteers have worked in West Virginia since 1965. More than 100 were active in the state in 2005 under the program then known as AmeriCorps-VISTA. The emphasis is now on service as compared to the more controversial organizing and community development efforts of the original program.
This Article was written by James Thibeault
Last Revised on November 05, 2010