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Paul Monteiro urges students, others to consider signing on with Americorps/VISTA

It might seem like a tough sell: Convincing college students to spend a year after graduation performing public service while earning poverty-level wages.

But consider that during the past 50 years, tens of thousands of Americans have enthusiastically reaped the rewards that come from helping people lift themselves out of poverty.

That’s the message President Barack Obama’s 34-year-old Director of AmeriCorps/Volunteers in Service To America (VISTA), Paul Monteiro, brought to Pacific University Monday in daytime meetings with students and later, in an evening talk, to the wider community.

Today in Oregon, close to 100 AmeriCorps/VISTA recruits assist nonprofit organizations with efforts to alleviate poverty and homelessness, Monteiro told a group of about 30 in Taylor Auditorium in Marsh Hall on Pacific’s Forest Grove campus.

More people want to enlist than there are positions for them to fill, added Monteiro, who described his role as “salesman” touting Americorps/VISTA as a pathway to gaining skills that will serve the volunteers well in a number of careers.

He called national service an “investment” with benefits people miss out on when they’re put off by the poverty-level stipend.

“Citizenship comes with responsibilities,” is how Monteiro described Obama’s pitch for national service. “He was a community organizer. He gets the importance and the transformative impact that service can have on certainly the communities that they’re serving, but [also] the people.”

On Feb. 25, a 50th Anniversary VISTA National Solutions Summit at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., will pay tribute to VISTA’s “proud history of building communities and creating opportunities to lift individuals out of poverty,” Monteiro said. AmeriCorps is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Chuck Currie, Pacific’s chaplain and director of its Center for Peace and Spirituality, invited Monteiro to visit and meet with students interested in learning about AmeriCorps and VISTA. The two became acquainted during Obama’s 2007 presidential campaign, when Monteiro was working to enlist faith communities in efforts to address poverty and homelessness.

As director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, Monteiro sought advice about strategies for assisting homeless veterans. Currie was a National Coalition for the Homeless board member and longtime Portland social worker before becoming Pacific’s chaplain.

“Pacific [has] a strong culture of civic engagement,” Currie said. “One of my hopes for students is that as they graduate from Pacific they will consider going into AmeriCorps, going into VISTA, going into the Peace Corps, taking careers with nonprofits and in the public sector working in government — maybe even running for office.

“I think when they see somebody as young as Paul who’s had as much experience as he has had, they will look at him and aspire to do the type of work that he’s done.”

Members of Pacific’s Black Student Union had dinner with Monteiro before his evening talk. Afterward, sophomore business administration major and football player, Aderemi Adeyemo, said he’s considering a stint with AmeriCorps/VISTA.

“I’m definitely intrigued by staying in the United States [and] being able to help out,” Adeyemo said.

AmeriCorps/VISTA doesn’t take its federal funding for granted, Monteiro said. “Certainly we should be consistently showing how we are a good investment and leverage the federal dollar more effectively than most other programs, and VISTA especially has a great story to tell on that score.

“I challenge people to show me another government program where you give $94 million to VISTA and they regularly double that in terms of generating resources ... for the nonprofits they work with.”

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