Lifting the Plateau

With a one-of-a-kind Americorps VISTA program, Sewanee and its community partners help build capacity among vital organizations to fight poverty and spur community development across the South Cumberland region.

TUESDAYS ARE Rotary days at the Dutch Maid Bakery in Tracy City, Tennessee, and on those days, near the noon hour, a convivial bunch gathers around the meat and three and the generous servings of cobbler, topped—naturally—by ice cream. There are good wishes all around. 

Such a day occurred on a pleasant day in mid-January, an interlude between the bone-chilling early month and the later snows and ice. On that day, good cheer and good wishes were especially on the menu for a younger band of Rotarians, a group that always sits together, enjoying the fellowship and the pie. These people of smiles and good cheer are VISTA members, participants in the South Cumberland Plateau Americorps VISTA Program, which is managed through a partnership between Sewanee’s Office of Civic Engagement and the South Cumberland Community Fund (SCCF). That day, the Grundy Rotary said farewell to three  “VISTAs,” or Volunteers in Service to America: Sarah Baumgardner, Sarah Edmonds, and Dominic Gialdini. 

Since 2014, the VISTA program has been building capacity and friendship all around the South Cumberland Plateau. Nicky Hamilton, C’99, who was the first director of the program says, “It’s all about connections.” These volunteers work for a one-year term (sometimes adding a second, or third, year) on a project to enhance the ability of their sponsoring organization to accomplish their missions. Departing VISTA Baumgardner wrote a volunteer manual for Grundy Recovery Alliance Community Endeavor, or GRACE, and built systems to track clients and measure results. Edmonds wrote a grant for a summer meal program, recruited 17 community partner food distribution sites, and managed a program that served 60,908 meals in the area. For his service year, Gialdini built a sustainable tourism program for Grundy County, an area that features stunning natural beauty as well as what Mayor Michael Brady calls "its greatest asset—its people.”

“I’m so grateful to Dominic for the work he did forming the tourism board,” says Brady. “I wasn’t sure at first. When he applied for this job, we had a phone interview. I knew he was from California, and I just wanted to be as transparent as possible, so I told him, ‘This is not California.’ I’ll never forget his reply. ‘Yes, mayor. Just so you know, I’ve been to Kentucky.’ So I thought, ‘We’re in good shape.’” Gialdini now has a position with Grundy County as its sustainable tourism coordinator. 

Before the Beginning

THE HISTORY OF the VISTA program at Sewanee runs in parallel with a community development program operated in partnership with the South Cumberland Community Fund (SCCF). This partnership is perhaps the only one of its kind in the country. SCCF and the University jointly pay the salary of a Sewanee employee (first Hamilton and now Katie Goforth) who works alongside community volunteers who serve on SCCF’s community development committee. For its part, SCCF makes grants to local nonprofits, schools, and government agencies. 

“Early on, we had a meeting with the first grant recipients,” says Jack Murrah, one of the founders of the SCCF. “We wanted to find out their experiences. Were the grants they received relevant and beneficial? We really had to dig at this. They acknowledged that they were fragile. The basics were not in good shape. They needed help.” As Murrah tells it, those community conversations (a practice that has become fundamental for SCCF) yielded the notion that grants were not enough and that the partnership (Sewanee, SCCF, and all its partners, the grantees) needed to focus on capacity building. 

It was that context that led Jim Peterman, director of Sewanee’s Office of Civic Engagement, to suggest to the group the possibility of writing a grant proposal to establish a VISTA program on the South Cumberland Plateau. “Jim had been going to meetings with people from other colleges that had Bonner programs,” says Murrah, “and he brought back the idea that this was something a quality program might do.” 

For his part, Peterman now says, “If we had known everything we might have to learn how to do, we might not have done it. But we did it anyway.”

The Beginning

ALMOST EVERYONE involved agrees that what made the VISTA program work was the genius of Nicky Hamilton, who was hired to be the program manager soon after the grant was awarded. Hamilton, who had earned a master of public service degree from the Clinton School at the University of Arkansas, had to be a quick study. “Jim hired me, and literally two days later he called to tell me he was going to China,” Hamilton remembers. The China trip was connected to the philosophy professor’s scholarship on Confucianism, and he had a good opportunity to study Chinese. But that meant that even before Hamilton moved to Sewanee from Arkansas, she was already recruiting VISTAs and helping community partners with their position descriptions. “I was working with people I had never met and helping them think of just the right project for a VISTA member without ever visiting their organization.” 

Hamilton was able to recruit eight VISTA members that first year. At first, the Americorps grant covered only a portion of Hamilton’s salary, with Sewanee and SCCF kicking in the rest, but eventually, the grant increased, allowing Hamilton to hire a part-time assistant and a VISTA leader, Sarah Hess, a seasoned VISTA who could help train and encourage the corps. “It took two and a half years to get Sarah,” says Hamilton. “She’s my ride or die—the best ever.”

“It’s incredible how it all worked,” says Bonnie McCardell, an SCCF board member and an original member of SCCF’s community development committee. “Take the Grundy County sheriff. He received a grant to build a greenhouse at the jail, and that made him a partner. So then, he figured out he could reach out to get a VISTA.”

Getting contacted by the sheriff was not exactly what Hamilton expected. “Everybody started telling me that the sheriff wanted to see me. I was just a little concerned. I told Jim, ‘You’ve got to go with me,’ so we went to the sheriff’s office—the old jail. We sat in this little room waiting for our appointment, and taped all over the wall were articles about how to use data in law enforcement and the data-informed jail. I thought, ‘Who is this guy?’”  

Sheriff Clint Shrum turned out to be a guy who was deeply committed to keeping people out of jail, and he knew the place to start was with getting prisoners ready for reentry after their sentences were served. Hamilton helped him recruit Dana Rasch as a VISTA member. Rasch had a Ph.D. in sociology and was deeply interested in recidivism and reentry. As a VISTA, he applied for a grant, and with the funds started a reentry program that is a model for rural communities around the country.  

“The VISTA Program has been a cornerstone in the evolution of our reentry program,” says Shrum. “I have watched as our community has changed the way it views the stigma of incarceration as well as lives being transformed. The value of this partnership has far exceeded my wildest expectations.”

Eventually, the work of more than one VISTA member focused on the county jail. The prisoners began growing their own food, thanks to that grant-funded greenhouse. Former VISTA member Hilda Vaughn began a program called Arts Inside, providing art therapy to prisoners, a program that is now its own nonprofit and is the sponsor for a current VISTA member. 

Since 2014, the VISTA program has recruited 84 full-time VISTAs and about that many summer VISTAs. Twenty-four sponsoring organizations have increased their capacity to fulfill their missions through new grants, new management systems, new educational programs, and new ways to serve the public. In the process, their experience as volunteers has pointed them in the direction of service through ordained ministry, leadership positions in community development, or founding new business for the public good (like the national award-winning BetterFi, launched by former VISTA Spike Hosch) or new nonprofit organizations like Arts Inside. They have come from as far away as California and as close as Sewanee, and they have all lent their energy and talents to a better life on our Mountain. 

“Capacity really has grown because of the VISTAs,” says Bonnie McCardell, “and our experience is really VISTA at its best. The members are not doing the same thing over and over again. One VISTA completes their service and the next extends that work to build new capacity. Without VISTAs, so many things would not have happened because the staff at those organizations did not have time in their day to do them.” 

After the Beginning

BY ANY REASONABLE measure, the South Cumberland Plateau has been successful in increasing the capacity of local organizations to address the effects of poverty on the South Cumberland Plateau. In the process, the program has made connections and friendships all across the Plateau and helped turn what the Frameworks Institute called a “patchwork of services” into a real network for good in the area. 

Katie Goforth, who was director of the VISTA program from 2018 to 2021, had firsthand knowledge of the networking aspects of the program. “My experience with the program started as a community member, and I could see the collaboration that was happening,” she says. “One reason for that is that VISTA members were meeting with each other all the time, and they could understand the connections between organizations in ways their supervisors at the nonprofits could not.” Goforth could see the value, first as a community member, and then as a VISTA administrator, of this kind of cross-pollination. “The site supervisors were really focusing on doing their daily necessary work, and having the VISTAs around gave them the luxury of dreaming big.”

Robin Corindo, who previously was the director of the state VISTA program in Tennessee and now heads up Americorps Senior, is happy about the work that was done on her watch. 

“We had long recognized that the South Cumberland Plateau was a place with such a high need, but we didn’t know how to get into the area. It was great that the University stepped up and said, ‘We have the capacity.’” Corindo says that the South Cumberland project is a model for VISTA projects, where a lead organization can connect with the complicated world of federal grantmaking to the benefit of smaller organizations that need the capacity building that VISTA members provide. She also sees a direct connection between VISTA and the role of a university. “With VISTA and other Americorps programs, we are trying to raise up the next group of leaders, and that really pairs well with Sewanee’s mission.” 

Despite the good feelings, the future of the VISTA program is something of an open question. The latest grant did not include as much funding for administration as the previous grants, and SCCF stepped in to help shore up funding by covering staff salaries for the year. In addition, discussions are taking place about whether or not to transition from a VISTA program to the main Americorps program, essentially a domestic Peace Corps. “Americorps members can do it all,” says Hamilton. “They can do capacity building and direct service.”

Some in the conversation are hesitant to move from VISTA. The transformative accomplishments of the VISTA program are substantial and notable and are features of a renaissance on the Plateau that is animated by local talent and the energy of young volunteers who come every week to the Rotary meeting at the Dutch Maid Bakery. Whatever happens, the Sewanee/SCCF partnership is holding on to the notion that it is the community that leads. “To some degree, we have to listen to the community organizations that have been our partners,” says Jack Murrah. “In the past, the ones that have wanted VISTAs have wanted to keep them. If they are in a different place now, we need to hear what they have to say.”