Friday, July 18, 2014

It started with VISTA

Not long ago on a hot and wringingly humid Saturday afternoon, I was outside, door-knocking for a political party (I’ve leave you to guess which one). Ambling down a shady sidewalk on South Illinois Street, I greeted a couple lounging on their front porch. The woman called out, “Fred? Is that you?”

I recognized the voice immediately as that of Earlestine Dandy. I hurried up the steps and we hugged. Later, we sat on lawn chairs and reminisced of the days when she was a VISTA Volunteer. Back in the 1970s Earlestine was a low-income mother eking out a meager existence. But she is as responsible as anyone for the creation of the Community Health Improvement Center (CHIC).

One key piece of Dove’s past is the organization’s fling with the VISTA Volunteer program. Forty years ago, I was at the center of it.

In 1974, the Torrence Park Citizens Committee, a neighborhood group that employed me as its community organizer, was going out of business. The TPCC (as it was known) had developed a VISTA project. VISTA is a federal program; the acronym stands for “Volunteers in Service to America.”

As it met its self-imposed demise, the TPCC willed its VISTA project to Dove. The plan was for me to come to Dove as part of the package to manage the VISTA Volunteers’ work. However, Dove’s board wasn’t sure it wanted this bequest. Dove had up to that point survived on donations from churches and individuals, and its board was not at all excited about accepting its first piece of government support.

One late summer evening, the board sat at a table in the organization’s decrepit bungalow at 1112 East Locust Street. As the director – and only paid staff – Ray Batman recommended that the board accept the VISTA project. I sat nervously; this was my first Dove meeting, and my only future job prospect was on the line.

After a long and heated discussion the board voted (not unanimously) to take on the project. This decision led in future years to Dove undertaking such other grant-funded programs as RSVP, Domestic Violence, and Community Services. But at that time, it led only to Dove taking over the management of VISTA Volunteers.

For the next three years, my one and only job was to coordinate and oversee the work of VISTA Volunteers from a dingy and smoky office in the southeast corner of the Dove House basement. Gotta say, I enjoyed that job as much as any I’ve had before or since.

The project Dove inherited and later managed was a great one. We used a mix of local Decatur people and “national VISTAs,” who were mostly recent college graduates. At times we had as many as a score of VISTAs in town. Each one worked for a year or more and received a modest living allowance. Their dedicated work led to the creation of CHIC, legal assistance services, credit counseling, a nonprofit housing corporation, and numerous youth programs.

To form CHIC, VISTA Earlestine worked with Ray and me, and with another local VISTA, Shirley White, who is now Shirley Paceley, the internationally-known director of Blue Tower Training, based in Decatur. Other Decatur-grown VISTAs who left their mark on our community include my wonderful ex-sister-in-law Anita Buckner, recently retired from a long career in youth development, and former Macon County Presiding Judge Ted Paine.

A few national VISTAs remained in Decatur. Lawyer Russel Hoerbert directed the Decatur office of the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation until his death in 1998. As a VISTA, Russ’ wife Jan (nee Howard) started the Dove Youth Program, which later evolved into the Community Services Program; she now works in the Legal Department for the City of Decatur. Retired attorney Jessica Stricklin Disbrow is a respected and talented regional artist. Tom Malenshek served as a VISTA Housing Specialist and later worked for the City as a Plan Inspector.

Sadly, I’ve since lost track of all of the national VISTAs except for two. Patrick Curley is Chief of Staff for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and Jean Johnson is a Presbyterian minister in rural Montana.

These are a few of the many lives touched positively by Dove over its nearly 45 years of existence.
 Fred Spannaus


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