|Prairie State’s VISTAs: Bridging the gap to justice
April Foster was enjoying doing service work, when a new opportunity caught her eye.
Nathaniel Bovell was seeking to help his community and gain some new skills.
Anne Piron was an attorney who was seeking to do more than family law.
All three, with something to contribute to society, found their way to Prairie State Legal Services as part of the AmeriCorps VISTA Program. Here, they put their skills to use in doing the work that needed to be done beyond the courtroom.
“They have been an invaluable resource in extending our reach to further assist future clients in need of our service at Prairie State,” says Sarah Megan, Co-Director of Litigation, who coordinates the VISTA program at Prairie State. Prairie State has utilized the program since June 2010.
VISTA, short for Volunteers In Service to America, has existed since 1965 when the national program was created during President John F. Kennedy’s administration. VISTAs commit to a full year of full-time service to help fight poverty. In return for their service, members are provided with orientation and training, a monthly stipend, and other benefits.
The ultimate benefit, according to the VISTA program, is making a difference in the community. That made all the difference for Foster, who serves as a VISTA for Prairie State’s Peoria office. She learned about the program while attending an activity in her neighborhood and spoke to the VISTA who manned the desk there. She was thinking of it more for her daughter, but she ultimately took advantage of the opportunity for herself. Her work has taken her across the Peoria office’s service area—nine counties total—educating area organizations and agencies about the services Prairie State offers.
Nathaniel Bovell, who works in the five counties served by the Rockford office, does similar work as Foster. “It was an opportunity to help the community in a way I never thought of before,” Bovell says. He applied to be a VISTA after looking for different opportunities in Rockford and wanting to perform community development work to help people in poverty. The opportunity has given him a chance to learn more about Rockford and develop other skills.
“This work forces me to be more assertive, which I’m learning about by going into the community and doing presentations,” Bovell says. “It’s helped me gain vital communications skills.”
After having children and doing some freelance legal work, Anne Piron was ready to explore another path and start her legal career. “I wanted another perspective, not just divorces,” says Piron, who had experience as a family law attorney.
The VISTA program was a great fit for her and she spent her year in Prairie State’s St. Charles office coordinating the Advocacy Project for Persons with Disabilities. The project assists persons with disabilities with their applications for disability benefits, evaluates cases, recruits volunteers, and assigns cases to volunteers. The project's ultimate goal is to help clients obtain their benefits years sooner than they would on their own. The need for this project was evident, as Piron handled up to 20 clients at once during her time as a VISTA, which ended in August 2019. She feels accomplished by the work she has done and how it has helped her. “It’s been surprising to me that we’re taking on so many clients in this project,” Piron says. “It makes me feel good that we’re making a difference.”
Learn more about Prairie State’s VISTA program at https://www.pslegal.org/psls-career-detail.asp?jobID=194.