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2018 VISTA members

Billings Metro VISTA members were congratulated by Gov. Steve Bullock and Mayor Bill Cole on Jan. 25 after completing training.

Plans to enhance early childhood education in Red Lodge got a big boost last month when volunteer Brittnee Coiner started a project for the Red Lodge Community Foundation.

VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) members Marissa Meade, Jacob Cote, Shawn Koptz and Claire Yang are volunteering on developing affordable housing through the Montana Department of Commerce in Helena and the Missoula and Billings city planning divisions.

Miya Pontes is with the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council to help expand mental health and substance abuse treatment services.

Family Promise of Yellowstone Valley, Dress for Success, Billings Public Library and the Native American Development Corporation are among the Montana nonprofits and government agencies getting their projects accomplished with VISTAs. Altogether 31 young adult volunteers started their year of service through the Billings Metro VISTA project last month.

They receive modest stipends through a federal program, Corporation for National and Community Service and assistance with reducing their college debts.

Billings, Red Lodge and other communities receive valuable, energetic volunteers who are passionate about improving the lives of people affected by poverty.

Brenda Beckett, who manages this wonderfully successful program for the Billings Planning Division, admits that these jobs probably wouldn’t get done without VISTA volunteers.

“These are the jobs that those organizations dream about,” Beckett said. They aren’t direct service, but rather building capacity or enhancing the organization’s ability to serve its community.

The main idea behind Americorps VISTA is to assist organizations working to eliminate poverty, Beckett said. The projects are designed by the local organization to meet their community’s needs.

It’s good to know what VISTA volunteers are doing for Billings and Montana because the program, once again, is under threat of being virtually eliminated in President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal. That budget blueprint proposes slashing the 2017 Corporation for National and Community Service appropriation by 90 percent next year.

“Funding community service and subsidizing the operation of nonprofit organizations is outside the proper role of the federal government,” the administration budget proposal says.

That rationale for cutting Americorps VISTA makes no sense. The public-private partnerships and local direction of these bright, young volunteers provides a significant return on the federal government’s annual appropriation. By reducing poverty, VISTA workers reduce some of the costs associated with poverty: homelessness, poor health, dropping out of school. The volunteers’ work translates into helping communities prepare more workers to be successful, to help residents improve health care access and to overcome other obstacles that can hinder low-income individuals and families from becoming productive citizens.

Other poverty-fighting programs now working in Billings also would be drastically reduced under the administration’s 2019 proposal: Community Development Block Grants and the HOME Investment Partnership Program. These programs assist first-time homebuyers, rehabilitate homes and help homeowners avoid foreclosure.

As previously reported by The Gazette’s Mike Ferguson, the White House proposed similar cutbacks last year, but they were not included in the 2018 budget that is still being finalized in Congress.

“The big concern here locally is the sustainability of the community development programs even as we see ups and downs in (Department of Housing and Urban Development) funding for them,” Wyeth Friday, Billings planning and community service director, told Ferguson.

The city council and concerned citizens should ensure that Montana’s congressional delegation knows the good that VISTA volunteers and CBDG and HOME are doing right here in Billings, Bozeman, Red Lodge, Helena, Missoula and Great Falls. Over the years, 212 young people have served in the Billings Metro VISTA project.

Hopefully, Congress will recognize that these longstanding programs continue to prove their worth. But let’s take nothing for granted. The Billings Metro VISTA project is a success story that Steve Daines, Greg Gianforte and Jon Tester must hear.