FAIRBANKS — What do The Door, Green Collar Jobs and Fairbanks First have in common?

All three are successful Fairbanks programs initiated by AmeriCorps VISTA members.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, AmeriCorps VISTA has brought 3,900 volunteers to Alaska throughout its history. At any given time, there are 100 volunteers spread across the state and currently in Fairbanks, there are eight.

The above-mentioned projects are just a few of the success stories about this largely unheralded program. VISTAs at the Fairbanks Rescue Mission worked to grow Green Collar Jobs to provide job training and recycling services to Fairbanks residents. Seven years later, the program is still going strong.

VISTA volunteer Sarah Smith, now the local VISTA leader, worked with the Fairbanks Youth Advocates youth shelter, The Door, for three years to write grants, manage volunteers and develop policies for the new youth shelter, which is in its second year of operation.

Fairbanks Economic Development Corp. enlisted VISTAs for a project called Fairbanks First to encourage locals to spend their money locally rather than shopping online or traveling to Anchorage or Seattle.

“The VISTA program in general helps great programs do what they do better,” Smith said. “VISTA’s mission is fighting poverty with passion, but our secondary slogan might as well be building capacity. VISTAs have worked with many local programs to grow what they’re able to provide in the community.”

VISTA members apply directly to their project site through the VISTA program. Agencies partner with VISTA, interview and select the VISTA member based on their own criteria. The majority of VISTAs have college degrees and come from a multitude of backgrounds. Age varies, though the typical VISTA is a young professional. After the agency selects the member, VISTA arranges travel, provides training and clears and swears in the member.

Not all stories end well, Smith said. “Fairbanks isn’t for everyone. Mix VISTAs who’ve come from radically different environments with a commitment to live in poverty in a city where the cost of living is particularly high and the difficult work of building new programs and there are always those who struggle and leave,” she said.

“Thankfully, we have a really strong VISTA group here,” Smith said. “We’ve found that the best way to help prevent VISTAs from quitting is to keep a cohesive, warmly supportive group of other VISTA members locally to draw from. Connecting with others who are all facing similar challenges really helps local VISTAs succeed.”

AmeriCorps VISTA members live and serve in some of the nation’s poorest urban and rural areas. “With passion, commitment and hard work, they create or expand programs designed to bring individuals and communities out of poverty,” Smith said. Volunteers In Service To America, unlike other branches of AmeriCorps, is focused specifically on poverty alleviation.

VISTAs work with local non-profits or government agencies to develop new programs or enhance ongoing programs that help those in poverty but VISTA members generally don’t provide direct services, such as tutoring children or building homes. Instead, they focus on building the organizational, administrative and financial capacity of organizations that fight illiteracy, improve health services, foster economic development and otherwise assist low-income communities. VISTAs develop programs to meet community needs, write grants and recruit and train volunteers. 

VISTA members in Fairbanks have worked on or are working on projects such as:

• Creating a financial literacy program geared toward at-risk and low-income teens, and recruiting volunteers to run the program. (4-H)

• Working to fund, recruiting volunteers and developing policies for a new shelter for homeless youth. (Fairbanks Youth Advocates)

• Expanding opportunities for teens to have healthy and fun activities. (Boys and Girls Club)

• Recruiting mentors and employers to provide work opportunities for children with disabilities. (Access Alaska)

• Creating job training programs for homeless or at-risk adults. (Fairbanks Rescue Mission and Stone Soup Cafe)

The VISTA program has six major focus areas, in addition to fighting poverty and building organizational capacity: disaster services, economic opportunity, education, environmental stewardship, healthy futures and veterans and military families.

“In each case, VISTAs are working to strengthen an organization so it can continue to serve the needs of the community once AmeriCorps VISTA’s support has ended,” Smith said. “Each agency utilizes a VISTA for three years, with the goal of transitioning away from VISTA support for those specific programs at the end of their project.”

VISTA volunteer Aubree Pierce

After earning a bachelor of arts in math and literature and a master’s in liberal arts and sciences at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, Aubree Pierce considered joining the Peace Corps but instead chose the AmeriCorps VISTA program.

“I figured it was a good way to get involved in service in the nonprofit world while also working in fields I’m interested in and serving the community,” Pierce said.

She is halfway through her year of service at Bread Line Stone Soup Cafe. “I wanted to come to Alaska and work with a soup kitchen to try to build my skills in project development in food systems work,” she said. “It’s helping people from the ground up. It’s getting at the root of poverty and hunger in Fairbanks.”

Pierce arrived at Stone Soup shortly after a new job-training program, Stone’s Throw, had been created. “We’re developing a program, a social enterprise, to provide real world job experience for Stone’s Throw students,” she said. “We are meeting unmet food needs in the community, improving food access in Fairbanks and creating additional revenue for Stone Soup.”

Pierce, 28, spent the summer surveying local residents and shockingly discovered that 50 percent of the people she talked to face food insecurity. When she narrowed the focus to those living within a one-mile radius of Stone Soup Café, she learned that 20 percent had gone without food for a day at least once during the past year.

Pierce has also been working with residents of income-based housing properties like Golden Towers and Southall Manor to initiate potluck or community meals.

“I’m learning a lot about working with a nonprofit agency,” Pierce said. “It’s inside knowledge I don’t know if I could have gotten elsewhere. It’s a behind the scenes way to combat poverty.”

When her year ends she will have written a business plan and applied for grants to help Stone Soup continue its culinary job training program.

While she hails from North Carolina, Pierce has found Fairbanks to be a warm place. “I’ve had such a positive, welcoming experience in Fairbanks,” she said. “Everybody has been so helpful and willing to collaborate.”

The challenge has been figuring things out as she goes along. “I have experience but through a different lens. It’s hard to get everything done that I want to. You have this year-long project and a narrow focus. You don’t see progress right away and you get a little disheartened. Maybe you don’t see results but they’ll come eventually.”

With all the workload, Pierce is still making time to enjoy life in Alaska by hiking, taking road trips, camping, aurora hunting, cooking, skiing and snowshoeing. She spearheaded Stone Soup’s community garden effort over the summer, working with a cadre of volunteers to grow 500 pounds of fresh vegetables.

She enjoys socializing with the VISTA group. “I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive unit,” she said. “We reach out to each other.”

Her goals are to continue working in community service, build her knowledge and experience with local food systems and revitalize non-industrialized food systems to improve public health.

Pierce highly recommends AmeriCorps VISTA. “It’s a good way to transition from college to real world experience and gain a lot of important skills for the business world while working in community service,” she said.

Jennifer Jolis, executive director of Bread Line Stone Soup Cafe, said, “We began the process of looking for a VISTA to help us determine how the Stone’s Throw job training project could expand Bread Line’s ability to address the needs of hungry people in our community a full year ago. There are so many ways Aubree has been of service; the work she did in developing and implementing a survey of the unmet food needs of our fellow Fairbanksans has been pivotal.  

“Not only that Bread Line has a clearer vision of how we, as an organization, and Stone’s Throw specifically, can work to meet some of those needs but providing insight into the degree of food insecurity almost literally at our own back door. With this knowledge we can reach out to others in the community who work to alleviate and mitigate hunger and find new partnerships, new ways to collaborate or support such efforts. Her work has helped the board see that feeding people and enhancing lives does not have to be limited to only the four walls of Stone Soup Cafe but that we can make a difference in the lives of our most vulnerable neighbors In the coming months, Aubree will be working to develop business plans/models for possible responses to the food insecurity issues in the area surrounding Stone Soup for Board discussion and action. She has been truly the right fit for us.”

VISTA volunteer Helen Pile

Helen Pile of Edinburgh, Scotland, married a Fairbanks man but it was AmeriCorps VISTA that brought her here.

Pile earned a bachelor of science in forensic psychology at the University of Abertay in Dundee, Scotland, and while there met Fairbanksan John Pile. They eventually married, and Helen visited Fairbanks in the summer, thinking it was a nice place. After the couple settled in Seattle, Pile, 32, grabbed the opportunity to serve as a VISTA volunteer in Fairbanks.

“I was looking for something a little different,” she said. “When I saw the violence prevention program I had to be a part of it.” Pile is working with the Interior Center for Non-Violent Living to grow a program called Girls on the Run with a goal of preventing sexual assault. The empowerment program for third through fifth grade girls seeks to build self-esteem and positive relationships.

“It’s an evidence-based program,” Pile said. Her work is with children at the Boys and Girls Club, the first community hosted site for Girls on the Run in Alaska. Incorporating life lessons with running, Pile and the girls will participate in an indoor 5K. “It’s a national program but things have to be done differently in Alaska,” Pile said.

She wasn’t even a runner, but she pushed herself to get moving because she saw the girls working so hard.

Fairbanks has eight coaches volunteering with girls at various schools. “The running community really stepped up,” Pile said. She wants to expand to more schools and provide scholarships so more girls can participate.

Pile is thrilled to be a part of something bigger than herself and relishes the camaraderie of the VISTA volunteers. “It’s great to be around people who see the world in a similar way and think we can make a change.” Outings with the other VISTA members this summer included camping, hiking and a trip to Chena Hot Springs. In her free time, Pile volunteers with Pride and PFLAG.

Time has been her greatest challenge. “Even in a community like Fairbanks that welcomes people you still have to have time to build relationships,” Pile said. She will always remember the way Fairbanks embraces people and how friendly they are. And she will never forget spending a year in a dry cabin. “It’s a huge challenge for me,” she said. “I’m trying to get through the winter with a smile on my face.”

For AmeriCorps Vistas to be successful they have to have a passion for what they are doing, Pile said. “My ultimate goal is to make sure people understand things matter in the world, but I’m not sure how to do that.”

VISTA volunteer David Carlisle

David Carlisle, 22, wanted to complement his past work in conservation with the energy field and found the perfect place with Interior Gas Utility, creating a program to help people with lower incomes navigate the process to convert to natural gas.

After graduating from Michigan State University with a bachelor of arts in religion and a bachelor of arts in comparative cultures and politics, Carlisle came to Fairbanks in June as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. “I’m exploring a host of options,” he said.

Carlisle looks for grants, financing options and is working to connect people to available resources and find solutions for owners and renters. Tax incentives for landlords and property owners are another avenue.

He is not using federal poverty guidelines but wants his research to reflect the real needs of the community and assist what he calls the “energy poor.”

“People are really interested in natural gas,” he said. “They’ve been wanting it for decades and I’m getting a lot of positive responses.

What he loves about VISTA is being part of a network of people working toward poverty alleviation. “We have phenomenal support and networks striving toward the same goal,” he said. “It’s a great way to be inspired and focus on the work.”

The most challenging aspect is the one-year timeline, Carlisle said. “The gas is still a variable. In my year I won’t see an individual convert to natural gas. It’s a foundation for the next VISTA to use.”

He enjoys the outdoor life in Alaska and went camping nearly every weekend over the summer. He is also an avid reader.

What will stand out in his memory of his AmeriCorps service is the way so many different organizations and individuals are working together on natural gas. “It’s sometimes hectic, sometimes coordinated,” he said. “It’s almost like choreography. This has been an impactful, profound lesson.”

Carlisle’s goal is to have an income-restricted program designed before his year is up. “My personal goal is to survive my first winter in Fairbanks,” he said.

The AmeriCorps program always needs passionate individuals, he noted. “There is certainly a need in the community.”

Mindy O’Neall, community affairs manager for IGU, said, “David has been an outstanding addition to the Interior Gas Utility. In the face of a constantly changing project, he has remained steadfast in his conviction to help solve conversions issues for low income residents in our community.

“He has brought an outside perspective of compassion and dedication to the VISTA mission, to the IGU and to the Fairbanks North Star Borough. This project has advanced because of his work ethic and belief in making a difference, and we feel fortunate to have his expertise working on developing this program.”

Nancy Tarnai, a former News-Miner reporter, is a freelance writer living in Fairbanks. She can be reached at njtarnai@gmail.com.