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North Mississippi VISTA Project Persists in Mission to End Poverty

By Dayton Ashby

University of Mississippi

VISTA summer associate Mohamed Marzouk (left) and VISTA member Jaden Pounds (middle) serve with the Oxford Community Market to reduce barriers to accessing nutritious food made with local produce. Submitted photo

The federal AmeriCorps agency has renewed national service grant funding for the Grisham-McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement at the University of Mississippi. 

This continues a 12-year investment toward alleviating poverty through the North Mississippi VISTA Project. The grant brings more than $500,000 to the region annually.

This support will allow the project to place up to 25 Volunteers in Service to America members with local nonprofit organizations and Title I school districts throughout northern Mississippi on projects to enhance educational opportunities, support healthy futures, encourage economic development and build sustainable communities.

“The North Mississippi VISTA Project is a signature initiative of the Grisham-McLean Institute and our mission to partner with Mississippi communities to fight poverty through education, innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Albert Nylander, professor of sociology and director of the institute. “VISTA members build capacity for community partner organizations, which means that they amplify our collective impact.”

Since 2010, 350 yearlong VISTA members and summer associates have served with the project, representing an investment of $8.2 million of human capital devoted to poverty alleviation and community-campus partnerships across the state. 

The project transforms communities as well as the lives of the members who serve.

Lexington was part of the pilot phase of M Partner, a signature initiative of the Grisham-McLean Institute that uses university resources to advance community and economic development projects in partner communities. 

To promote partnerships across Lexington, three VISTA summer associates worked with local youth in food distribution events led by the Lexington Food Pantry. Besides supporting 49 students in their academic efforts, the associates organized volunteers to distribute 196 food boxes to food-insecure households in the Holmes County area. 

“Working with the Boys and Girls Club of Lexington as a VISTA summer associate has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life,” said Brady Culbertson, a 2022 Ole Miss graduate who serves as a VISTA for the Boys and Girls Club of Lexington. “It is an honor to help the youth in this community grow and shape themselves into becoming leaders who make a difference in their community.”

Alumnus Gabby Rush served two terms as a VISTA for Doors of Hope Transition Ministries, which serves Oxford families who are homeless and at risk of losing their housing. Demand for the organization’s services surged during the pandemic. 

Rush focused on resource development, raising more than $61,000 during her most recent term of service. She also identified additional resources to better serve the site’s clients, including school and household supplies. 

She also drew on her Ole Miss graphic design training and created advertisements and social media content to promote the annual Doors of Hope fundraising event.

“Working with AmeriCorps and Doors of Hope Transition Ministries has been the most rewarding two years of my life,” Rush said. “From working with our at-risk homeless families to working on the fundraisers that help those families, I felt lucky to be in the position I was in. 

“Not only was it rewarding, but it also opened up so many doors in my life. I learned about grant opportunities for my small business, I was accepted into the Leadership Lafayette program and I even found my career that I am now in after my two years of service.”

Jaden Pounds, a 2021 UM graduate, served as a VISTA for the Oxford Community Market, where she conducted community engagement efforts, including university partnerships. 

She developed a service-learning partnership with the university’s coordinated program in dietetics as a rotation site for its students. During a weekly Taste OCSM tasting tour at the market, UM students conducted live cooking demonstrations using fresh ingredients from market vendors. 

Pounds also implemented the Post-Market Photo Contest on OXCM’s social media, which encouraged customers to post pictures of their market purchases, with winners getting a market T-shirt. Besides these community engagement strategies, Pounds raised more than $56,000 for the market. 

Brianna McCollum, a 2022 graduate, worked with Pounds as a market volunteer and transitioned into the VISTA role this past fall. 

“Through my VISTA service, I find that I am able to form stronger relationships with my community and better serve their needs,” McCollum said. “This aspect of being a VISTA is evidenced by the longevity of market programs that have continued into my term as a VISTA member.” 

The North Mississippi VISTA Project is recruiting for yearlong placements. VISTA members support the anti-poverty mission of their host sites by building capacity through indirect service. They receive a living stipend, health insurance and an end-of-service education or cash award. 

For more information about the North Mississippi VISTA Project, click here or email vista@olemiss.edu. To apply, send a resume and cover letter to vista@olemiss.edu and apply here

“If you are thinking about joining, do it,” Rush said. “I’m so thankful I did because I truly wouldn’t be where I am without this experience.”

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