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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, have continued into the 21st century, as have the social and political leadership by former VISTAs who stayed on to make their lives in our state. Thousands of VISTA volunteers have worked in West Virginia since 1965. In 2022, more than 3,300 members were active at more than 500 sites in West Virginia under the program now known as AmeriCorps VISTA. In that year, the program generated more than $4.5 million in outside resources from businesses, foundations, public agencies, and other sources. 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 August 30, 2023

Cite This Article

Thibeault, James "VISTA." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 30 August 2023. Web. 22 June 2024.


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