North Mississippi VISTA Project Brings $595,000 to Region

OXFORD, Miss. – The Corporation for National and Community Service has approved a $595,000 grant to fund the North Mississippi VISTA Project, housed in the University of Mississippi’s McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement, for the 2017-18 year.

The Volunteers in Service to America project, commonly known as VISTA, officially moved to the McLean Institute in fall 2016. The program was previously administered by the College of Liberal Arts.

NMVP sponsors 17 organizations and has the capacity to recruit 25 full-year VISTA members to serve throughout north Mississippi and the Delta.

“The North Mississippi VISTA Project continues to establish and foster beneficial partnerships and programs that advance education in underserved communities across the state,” said Albert Nylander, McLean Institute director and UM professor of sociology. “The work that our VISTAs do has the singular purpose of fighting poverty through education.”

The project’s volunteers help provide a wide range of educational enrichment activities, said Laura Martin, assistant director of the McLean Institute.

“From writing grants that sustain programming to recruiting and training volunteers, North Mississippi VISTAs help to connect our flagship university’s capacity with nonprofits and school systems all over our state,” she said.

VISTA members commit to one year of service where they focus on building sustainable capacity within local organizations and delivering a measurable impact on the populations they serve. VISTAs work to manage and recruit volunteers, create opportunities for low-income youth, foster social entrepreneurship, write grants, increase access to higher education and more.

“Service is a vital and impactful experience for many of us,” said VISTA leader Shannon Curtis. “The opportunity to serve as a VISTA, as well as a VISTA leader, has allowed me to develop the skills to ensure that our campus and community partners create sustainable systems to further their missions to alleviate poverty through education.”

NMVP service members are serving with several organizations based on campus and in Oxford. This includes United Way of Oxford and Lafayette County, Horizons at UM, Doors of Hope Transition Ministries, the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies, and Yoknapatawpha Arts Council.

Partners outside Lafayette County include the Sunflower County Freedom Project in Sunflower, Quitman County School District in Marks, Rosedale Freedom Project in Rosedale and the Rust College Community Development Corp. in Holly Springs.

In the next year and beyond, the NVMP will continue to develop host sites around north Mississippi, cultivating projects and placing VISTAs with community partners that fight poverty through education. Examples of VISTA projects include the creation of College Corps, the Mississippi Presenters Network, programmatic and fundraising collaborations for LOU Excel By 5 and many other nonprofits around the community, the Travelling Trunks program at the University Museum, and the College Aspiration Initiative, which supports high school juniors and seniors in three different school districts who wish to go to college.

Many VISTAs are recent graduates of Ole Miss programs, such as the Trent Lott Leadership InstituteCroft Institute for International Studies and Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College.

Sara Baker, who graduated from UM in 2015 and served as the Student Opportunities VISTA before becoming a North Mississippi VISTA leader, is the cross service year programming coordinator for NYC Service, an initiative of the city of New York.

“Service has long been a part of my life,” Baker said. “The most fulfilling aspect of being able to serve as a VISTA, VISTA leader and through UM College Corps was getting to know different communities around Mississippi and seeing the hard work that not only organizations and programs, but also community members and volunteers put into fighting poverty.

“I feel truly privileged to have had the opportunity to work with the VISTAs, students and Mississippians who were engaged in the struggle to alleviate poverty. I gained and honed many skills needed to make my professional aspirations a reality while being able to dedicate years of my life to making my home state better.”

Many other VISTAs have continued their education after their year of service. NMVP alumni have gone into graduate programs at Brandeis University, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of Georgia and Vanderbilt University.

Nylander said he is inspired about the prospect of expanding the program and continuing to strengthen connections between the NMVP and the McLean Institute’s other initiatives.

“The goals and mission of NMVP and the McLean Institute align perfectly, and we look forward to NMVP’s future growth and continued success,” he said.

For more information on VISTA service opportunities, contact VISTA leaders Shannon Curtis and Edy Dingus at VISTA@olemiss.edu or 662-915-2397.