When AmeriCorps VISTA began more than 50 years ago, some of the first VISTA volunteers started their service at migrant farm worker camps in California. The VISTAs joined the United Farm Workers, members of the faith communities, and other organizations to support the call of justice for farmworkers.
Today - and each year on March 31 - as we celebrate the legacy of Cesar Chavez, it is important to recognize the work of the past, acknowledge the ongoing efforts of the present, and recommit ourselves to the challenges of the future.
Cesar Chavez's life is a testament to what one dedicated individual can do for the benefit of many. Through his work, Chavez brought awareness of the conditions and unfair wages of those who picked and processed the food that ended up on our kitchen tables. He was a civil rights activist who took the farm workers' struggle and turned it into a moral cause that garnered nationwide support.
Those first VISTA volunteers tutored the migrant workers' children, arranged for childcare and organized health care services. William Crook, a former VISTA director, described their service in his book, Warriors for the Poor: The Story of VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America:
"There are approximately 150 VISTA Volunteers who work and live among the migrants and the seasonal farm workers. Some travel with migrants as they move, up from Florida to New Jersey and Long Island. Others go into the migrant camps, and live and work as the migrants do in an effort to gain their confidence. The Volunteers tutor migrant children, arrange for doctors in camps where no doctor has ever set foot, and establish child-care centers.
They will probably keep on coming as long as they are needed, and no end to the need is in sight."
That was 1966.
Today the work continues.
A few weeks ago, I returned to the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas -- one of the poorest regions of our country to this day. There I met an AmeriCorps VISTA member Gabriela, who through her service, is working to increase availability of summer meals for children in the underserved colonias, unincorporated towns that still lack many basic services. I also met Karen, another AmeriCorps VISTA member who is empowering communities to establish successful small businesses and expand the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program. Both young women are serving through AmeriCorps VISTA to benefit farm workers, their families, and those who are just a generation removed from the fields.
This work is not exclusive to Texas. AmeriCorps VISTA members also support a project expanding migrant programs and services in North Carolina. These AmeriCorps VISTA members provide instructional and support services to farmworker children and their families, expanding opportunities for these young people through custom-developed materials, trainings, and workshops. These resources are especially valuable for this population -- three-quarters have not participated in any college access programs and less than 1-in-2 have participated in summer enrichment programs.
Today, there are between 1 million and 3 million migrant farm workers in the United States every year. While we have made great strides in protecting their rights, unjust practices and abuse persist. Adding to this burden, 61 percent of U.S. farm workers' income fall below the poverty level.
While the look of their work may have changed, their goal has not. AmeriCorps VISTA members strive to alleviate poverty among all Americans. Farm workers remain among the most vulnerable. I have been fortunate to work together with the children and grandchildren of Cesar Chavez. They continue his commitment to improve the lives of others, and so can we.
AmeriCorps VISTA is most successful when we recruit members from the communities in which we serve. We want to provide the children of farm workers the opportunity to serve their country as an AmeriCorps VISTA, while developing a skillset for career and life success and earning a scholarship to further their education.
I encourage you -- no matter your age, education, or socio-economic background -- to consider serving with AmeriCorps VISTA. Live in the Rio Grande Valley, rural North Carolina, or Central California and experience the most impactful year of your life.
As Chavez reminded us, "The fight is never about the grapes or lettuce. It is always about people."
As his life and legacy prove, along with so many others who serve those in need, "Si se puede" - yes, it can be done.