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  • Writer's pictureCameron Cochran

Volunteers Wilson-Bound on Health Mission

Posted July 18, 2017

By Brie Handgraaf, Wilson Daily Times Staff Writer

Wilson will soon have five new people working to improve the well-being of the county’s most impoverished residents.

“The Service Year NC Initiative will allow us to build awareness and access to programs that are address the health and wellness of communities that have high poverty rates,” said Paula Benson, Wilson 20/20 executive director and member of the initiative leadership team. “Anytime we can take advantage of an opportunity to address or to promote the health and wellness of our citizens, the entire community benefits.”

Wilson recently was selected as one of four communities for the Service Year NC Initiative, which is an effort by the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University to increase use of service year programs such as AmeriCorps and Teach For America to address ongoing community needs.

“There are currently more than 1,400 people serving in service year programs in North Carolina, supporting a variety of community needs such as anti-bullying programs, job training for veterans and literacy support for adults and youth. We want to increase that number,” said Maggie Woods, Service Year NC program manager. “We believe the force of service years at scale can prepare leaders, engage citizens, solve programs and unite North Carolinians.”

Woods said 13 communities were considered for the initiative, but Wilson was selected along with Greenville, Rockingham and Wilkes counties. She said the team of stakeholders assembled in Wilson — with Wilson 20/20, United Way, the Wilson Family YMCA, Wilson County Health Department, the city of Wilson and Barton College uniting to implement the initiative — set the community apart from peers. The first training for participants was held at the Institute for Emerging Issues in June with an overview on the AmeriCorps programs as the bulk of the discussion, but Wilson had already settled on VISTA — Volunteers in Service to America — being the right path for the service year placements.

“The VISTA is typically a longer term placement than NCCC and we felt like it was the best match for the partners we’d established and the service the placements could provide,” said Benson.

Interviews are underway to hire a full-time VISTA staff coordinator through the United Way to oversee the volunteers as well as the VISTA volunteers themselves. A grant application was submitted to the Healthcare Foundation of Wilson to cover the cost of the coordinator position and the bulk of the cost associated with the volunteers is paid for by VISTA funding with about 25 percent of the stipend on Wilson community partners.

“VISTA members are expected to live right above the poverty level,” Benson said. “Barton College stepped up to provide support by housing the VISTAs and any support offered by our community will help tremendously. I’m optimistic the Wilson community will work together to make the experience positive for the placements.”

Once selected and in place, the volunteers will each be assigned a project to work on. The projects themselves vary from focusing on increasing community gardens and access to healthy food to improving physical activity of area youth.

“Utilizing VISTAs provides an opportunity for each of these partners to expand the capacity of existing programs and the cost to each agency is significantly less than hiring a full-time employee,” Benson said. “The other thing is we hope it will attract and retain talent in Wilson as people take these placements. We hope they’ll build relationships with the community and choose Wilson to live and work after their service year is over.”

Currently there are two service year volunteers through the College Advising Corps who help students at Fike and Beddingfield high schools select colleges.

“Service year members provide more people power,” said Woods. “It means more people serving to make Wilson a better place.”

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