For over 47 years the federal Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program has been a vital resource in the fight against poverty in the United States. Although in the early years many lawyers launched their public service careers as VISTA members, more recent history reveals that AmeriCorps VISTA has been under-used by the legal services community. That’s why the U.S. Department of Justice Access to Justice Initiative, in partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service, has released a Guide to the AmeriCorps VISTA Program for Legal Services Organizations.
The Guide is designed to
- introduce the VISTA program to legal services organizations that are not familiar with it;
- demonstrate how the VISTA program can work effectively in the context of legal services; and
- provide additional resources for organizations that are interested in sponsoring a VISTA project at their site. Thanks to contributions by 10 current or recent VISTA legal services program sponsors, the Appendix contains more than two dozen sample project descriptions to illustrate the range of ways VISTA members can benefit a legal aid program.
Legal services organizations have used VISTA members in a wide variety of projects that meet the priorities and requirements of the VISTA program and the needs of legal services providers and their clients. Although VISTAs cannot represent clients themselves, through conducting common duties such as volunteer recruitment, developing new technology or resources, conducting outreach, building partnerships, and fundraising, VISTA members can expand an organization’s ability to provide the community with legal services or information.
Some examples of VISTA projects described more fully in the Guide include:
- At the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, VISTA members recruited, coordinated, trained and supported volunteer attorneys and interpreters for a program to assist immigrant victims of domestic violence applying for U.S. citizenship under the Violence Against Women Act and a legal hotline for people denied public benefits. In one two-year period the VISTAs recruited almost 250 volunteer attorneys who contributed 10,000 hours of legal services annually and served more than 1,100 clients.
- Minnesota Legal Services used their VISTA members to update and enhance a statewide legal help website, www.LawHelpMN.org, adding hundreds of additional resources to the site including a “LiveHelp” chat navigational assistance tool and Somali and Spanish language versions of the website.
- Prairie State Legal Services VISTA members created a mortgage foreclosure helpdesk at an Illinois county courthouse that has provided legal information to more than 1,500 people.
- A Montana Legal Services Association VISTA conducted a legal needs survey in Montana.
- Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago and Prairie State Legal Services all used VISTA members to launch and coordinate medical-legal partnerships with local hospitals and community health clinics.
- The Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota used VISTAs to help with grant writing and prospecting.
To learn more about the Access to Justice Initiative, visit www.justice.gov/atj. To learn more about the Corporation for National and Community Service AmeriCorps programs, visit http://www.nationalservice.gov/.