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AmeriCorps VISTA Working With Partners to Expand Opportunity

by Wendy Spencer

To strengthen our communities, we have to break down the barriers that can discourage Americans from building a better life for themselves and their families. Whether these barriers to economic opportunity are structural or behavioral, change is possible, and our AmeriCorps VISTAs are leading the way by creating partnerships that support service as a solution to our nation's challenges.

AmeriCorps VISTA has been at the forefront of fighting poverty for nearly 50 years, and its members are embracing that heritage through service with public and private sector partners. The Corporation for National and Community Service is proud of VISTA's leadership in creating innovative and cost-effective partnerships to meet national priorities and carry out the goals set by President Obama when he recently established the Task Force on Expanding National Service.

We are excited to tell you about three of these VISTA partnerships to expand economic opportunity that will bear fruit now -- and for many years to come.

In education, it's crucial to create an early spark that can fuel a lifetime of imagination and exploration. Our new Maker AmeriCorps VISTA program will give children the chance to explore science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects in fun and creative ways.

This program, inspired by the Maker movement, will use do-it-yourself projects to bring out the natural curiosity that dwells within every child. Once our young people see the possibilities and real-world application of their studies, they will be more likely to consider the careers of the future that utilize those skills. This new partnership is part of our larger STEM AmeriCorps initiative that aims to inspire young people to excel in STEM education that President Obama announced at the White House Science Fair in April.

Creating economic opportunity requires different strategies when working with families struggling to escape from poverty. These families still need tools to make the most of every dollar and plan for the future, but they are often overlooked because they have limited assets or resources.

Mary Strasser (right), Director of AmeriCorps VISTA, joins new members of the Financial Opportunity Corps for a group photo. The Financial Opportunity Corps is an new partnership between Points of Light, the Bank of America and the Corporation for National and Community Service to create volunteer-led financial coaching programs at existing nonprofit organizations in low- to moderate-income communities.Working with Bank of America and Points of Light, our AmeriCorps VISTAs will provide the backbone for a new Financial Opportunity Corps to bring financial coaching to 10 communities around the nation. By training low- and moderate-income families how to better manage their money, reduce debt, and build emergency funds, these VISTAs can help them change the way they think about their financial situation and provide encouragement that can help them see the light at the end of the tunnel.

As we work to expand economic opportunity, we find that many of our nonprofit partners encounter another barrier to success -- technology. Again, our AmeriCorps VISTAs are working to provide a solution through service.

HandsOn Tech logoHandsOn Tech is an initiative entering its third year that develops the nonprofit sector's ability to use technology to increase community resources and improve outcomes for low-income communities and families. Working with Google and Points of Light, our VISTAs and other skilled volunteers help train poverty-focused nonprofits to create tech plans to help them work more efficiently and increase their effectiveness. Matt Dunne, former VISTA Director and now Head of Community Affairs at Google, reports in a recent blogpost that VISTA members and skills-based volunteers have trained more than 7,700 nonprofit organizations in communities across the country in the last two years.

We all know that we get more done by working together than we can alone. All three of these AmeriCorps VISTA programs are terrific partnerships that show what the public and private sectors can accomplish when we are willing to volunteer our time and resources to help make a difference in our communities.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post blog on Aug. 23, 2013. Wendy Spencer is CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, the Social Innovation Fund, and other service programs. Spencer will co-chair the Task Force on Expanding National Service with Cecilia Muñoz, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

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