Dallas, Let's Recapture the Volunteerism Spirit of 1969

As we reflect on the events of 1969, I am asked what I did as a recent college graduate that summer. I reply I was a VISTA volunteer. The questioner usually looks puzzled. "You know," I continue, "Volunteers in Service to America?"The truth is that many have never heard of VISTA. Lost among the images of men walking on the moon and young people sitting in the mud at Woodstock is the spirit of volunteerism that took place that summer. In the midst of widespread unrest and a frayed generational divide came the decision by many to get involved — a decision that maintains its relevance 50 years later.Launched in 1965, VISTA targeted poverty in low-income communities. Within three years, it had received more than 46,000 applications for service and, by 1970, had 4,000 volunteers. Other national volunteer organizations at that time included the Peace Corps, Active Corps of Executives and the Senior Corps of Retired Executives. The Dallas Morning News declared a "New Wave of Volunteerism Sweeps Nation." VISTA continues today as AmeriCorps VISTA.I joined in August 1969 and was assigned to Hands Inc., a senior citizen center in rural Minnesota. Rural poverty rates were the highest in the state, with seniors especially impacted. Hands provided supplemental income, specializing in hand assembly contracts, for example, placing wheels on toy trucks. There was a staff of five and 40 production workers.Those workers and I didn't have much in common. I was 22 years old; the workers' average age was 68. I grew up in the Northeast and the workers in the Midwest. The workers at Hands had been through two world wars and the Great Depression, and they wanted stability. My generation had not, and we wanted change.Yet, we came to appreciate and support one another. The most likely answer as to why is that I was able to spend a year immersed in their community, getting to know the people, their environment and culture. I remember sitting on a farmhouse porch sharing homemade pie and a few laughs. Developed trust can lead to friendships, even between a Northeast youth and a Midwest farmer.From their start in 1969, Hands grew into a corporation with average annual revenue of $1.5 million, serving over 20 communities for 40 years. At its peak, Hands brought 700 people per day into the region and provided income, and a sense of purpose, to over 2,500 seniors. Hands is one of many VISTA success stories.There are great volunteers and volunteer organizations today in Dallas. Yet, it is tempting to stay on the sideline; this was true in 1969 and remains true today. The difference is that, in 1969, people of all ages heeded the call to action, while today a key participation indicator shows Dallas lagging in voter turnout. Let's make a pledge this summer to recapture the spirit of volunteerism, coming out of our comfort zone to make a difference.Eric Sebo is a writer and retiree in Dallas. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.  Continue reading...

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