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Profiles in Service: AmeriCorps VISTA Members Create a Job Opportunity Center

by Fred Wong

On April 21, 2009, President Obama signed the Serve America Act into law – the most sweeping expansion of national service in a generation. To mark the one year anniversary, we are going to spotlight the stories of everyday service heroes who are transforming lives and local communities across the country. Here is a story from AmeriCorps VISTA.

As unemployment rises due to a troubled economy, library patronage is rising. This projects aims to address the first trend by building the capacity of the second. The economic hardship that Wisconsin residents are facing falls hardest on low-income and high-poverty communities. Libraries are critical to meeting economic recovery needs such as job training, financial literacy, home loss prevention, and legal assistance.

AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) members placed in libraries across the state have established job training centers, connected libraries and patrons with relevant community resources, developed financial literacy programs, and worked with library staff and community members to eliminate barriers to employment including education level, transportation, and access to computers and the internet.

AmeriCorps VISTA members Sara Byrnes and Josh Cowles were instrumental in helping the Fond du Lac Public Library create the Opportunity Center, which provides library services to displaced workers. Byrnes and Cowles have been offering Job Smart U classes for the community. The classes help individuals gain important skills in the job search including resume writing, interviewing, financial literacy, re-entering the work force as older adults, and computer skills. The courses are offered free of charge and taught by volunteers recruited by Byrnes and Cowles.

Josh, Sara and Ken at the Opportunity Center

Key partners in this work include the Volunteer Center, the Job Center, and the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac. Opportunity Center use has increased by 62% since it opened and more than 200 individuals have taken classes through the Job Smart U program. Additionally, within their first month of service, the VISTAs secured Library Services and Technology Act grant that funded a mobile computer lab, bringing the library services and employment training to surrounding county libraries.

Library Director Ken Hall commented, “With assistance from our VISTA volunteers and the increased communication between libraries, we hope to use these programs to make a real difference for people who could benefit from our help.”

Learn more about AmeriCorps VISTA.

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