What started last summer with two newcomers to southern Vermont is now 10 service-minded individuals stationed across the country. 

Their mission? Help underemployed and low-income rural residents access and thrive in digital jobs training programs that can unlock good-paying, resilient career opportunities.

The Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) has expanded the AmeriCorps VISTA program it piloted in Springfield, Vermont, channeling the power of national service to build capacity across six of its Rural Innovation Network communities over the next 12 months. Along the way they will try to identify best practices to apply a similar model in small towns around the country.

The 10 VISTA members joining CORI for the coming year bring unique backgrounds to their service — recent college graduates, former military, Peace Corps members — and hail from all corners of the U.S.

Some will be working in their hometowns, others will be located in places they’ve never been before. 

But before they set out to begin their on-the-ground efforts in Independence, Marquette, Pine Bluff, Portsmouth, Springfield, and Taos, the group gathered at the Black River Innovation Campus (BRIC) in Springfield for an immersive orientation week made possible by the financial support of the Morgridge Family Foundation.

In Springfield, the VISTA team met members of the CORI staff, who helped get them up to speed on the organization’s comprehensive approach to erasing the rural opportunity gap. They learned from and interacted with their predecessors from the pilot program at BRIC, Rachael Grainger and Mike Chirico, during presentations and breakout sessions about the work they’ve already accomplished. They engaged in team-building and social activities that included a sunset kayak, as well as a number of exercises to prepare them for their work in the field.

Encouragement ahead of a year of service

Beth Stern, an outreach representative for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), visited the group on Day 1 to encourage the VISTAs on their journey in the coming year.

“(Sen. Sanders) feels that VISTA and AmeriCorps programs make a really enormous impact on the lives of those who serve and those who receive services,” Stern said. “I know you’ve come to this from many different backgrounds but you share a couple of things. One is an understanding of how important hard work is to reaching your life’s goals. And also a determination to better your community and your country.”

And on the final day of the orientation, the Director of AmeriCorps VISTA, Meg Ansara, joined the group on-site to send the members off inspired to build a new model for rural economic empowerment.

CORI’s VISTA project is a crucial part of its work to address the widening geographic divide in our country, work towards an equitable recovery from COVID-19, and contribute to programs that create sustainable and inclusive economic opportunities for people from all places.

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At the Center on Rural Innovation, we are working with rural communities across the country to help position them to thrive in the 21st-century digital economy. To learn more about our work in this space, be sure to check out our blog and sign up for our newsletter