AmeriCorps VISTA changed my life for the better

May 25, 2017

Shelby Soberalski

AmeriCorps VISTA changed my life for the better

An essay by Shelby Soberalski

“Should the government put into place programs that help people out of homelessness?” was the on-stage question that I was asked while competing at the Miss Michigan Pageant last June; a question that I randomly pulled out of a bowl and had to answer on the spot. “Our Country is strongest as a whole and nobody should be left behind. I believe that we all need to work together for the common good of our people and yes, the government should have programs in place.”

Just a week later, I started my first job after college at the Pennies from Heaven Foundation where I later made the decision to transition into being an AmeriCorps VISTA member. During my year of service as Miss Ludington Area that overlapped with my work with Pennies from Heaven, I learned first hand the needs of our community. This past summer volunteering at the Mason County Mobile Food Pantry, I will never forget the little girl who excitedly proclaimed, “Look mommy! The queen is giving us food!!” She was so excited to meet Miss Ludington Area, but even more excited to receive food. It is moments like this that made my desire to serve our community even greater.

Every child gets asked the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For me, it was always an easy question to answer. I knew I wanted a career that allowed me to help people and create a better lifestyle for others. Being an AmeriCorps VISTA member has been life changing to say the least. VISTA stands for “Volunteers In Service To America”. To put it simply, I am a full-time professional volunteer. Through AmeriCorps, I receive a living stipend that equals 100% of the Federal Poverty level which equals about $12,000 a year. I do what I love for the sake of serving others and our community, not for the paycheck. Each member makes at least a year commitment to serve.

AmeriCorps VISTA is a federal anti-poverty program that aims to end poverty in rural areas and beyond. The idea behind the VISTA program is to place members in rural areas to build capacity at foundations and non-profits. Luckily for me, there was a position available in my hometown. Each member has a VISTA Assignment Description (VAD) that helps map out their service year. My VAD includes creating marketing and communications strategies, help build and strengthen policies and procedures, and promote collaboration in the community. I also work on projects that support early education and literacy, safe and affordable housing, and food insecurity. For each member, their VAD is different and impacts their communities differently. There are AmeriCorps programs that focus on tax help, Habitat for Humanity, United Way, tutoring, college prep, disaster relief and much more!

Becoming an AmeriCorps VISTA member, means to join into something larger than yourself. Proposed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, President Johnson founded the VISTA Program in 1965 as a way to fight the war on poverty. In the 1970’s VISTA merged with the Peace Corps and National Senior Service Programs. In 1993 President Bill Clinton incorporated VISTA into the AmeriCorps network of programs. Annually there are 80,000 AmeriCorps members who serve in the United States. Since 1994, one million Americans have served their country through AmeriCorps. This equates to 1.4 Billion hours served. Programs such as Head Start and credit unions were expanded by VISTA Members.

AmeriCorps takes care of its members. It offer benefits such as healthcare, childcare, professional development training and relocation allowance, just to name a few. At the end of your year of service, you have the option of choosing a $1,500 cash stipend or an education award of $5,815 that can be used for furthering your education or paying student loans. Some colleges and universities will match the education award too!

To qualify to be an AmeriCorps member, you have to be at least 18 years of age and be a U.S. citizen, national or legal permanent U.S. alien. For most AmeriCorps programs, you need to be willing to commit to one year of service and have a passion for giving back. It is helpful that you possess an education or life-skill that would help you be a successful VISTA member.

As I’m halfway through my year of service, I am glad I took this opportunity to serve. AmeriCorps has given me an amazing platform to better serve our community. It has made me more aware of the needs in our area and given me a better understanding of how poverty can affect people, thusly affecting our community as a whole. I look back at my onstage question at Miss Michigan and perhaps it was a sign that I was meant to serve. Looking forward to the rest of my service year and beyond, I am eager to continuing serving for the rest of my life. John F. Kennedy quoted, “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.”

For more information about the AmeriCorps VISTA program, please visit If you are interested in becoming an AmeriCorps VISTA, there are positions opening locally, with the Lakeshore Resource Network and Pennies from Heaven Foundation. Please visit or as applications are currently being accepted.


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