HELENA, Mont. – They may only stay a year, but two AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers at the Montana Credit Union Network hope to leave important legacies: alternatives to payday lending and collaborative financial education programs across the state. Ginny Summey, who focuses her attention on researching payday loan alternatives and implementing an Individual Development Account program, has been on the job for six months. Jessica Baker, who came on board in late July, is developing a comprehensive consumer education resource program. Folks at the league believe they are the only credit union trade association so far to use VISTA volunteers. Jeanne Saarinen, executive director of the league’s Montana Credit Unions for Community Development, explains the idea got started in 2004 when she attended an Individual Development Account conference, heard of support such programs had gotten through VISTA, and scribbled a note, “Look into VISTA.” The idea was soon reinforced when Saarinen received a call from a local non-profit housing group touting the program. “It was as though it was meant to be,” she says. “It was a match made in heaven.” She discovered the Montana Legal Services Association was the agency that actually recruited VISTA volunteers in the state. MLS provided Saarinen with an application and guidelines. It needed to be a new program that required manpower in order to get up and running. That worked. Montana CUs for Community Development was formed to address poverty, another good fit with VISTA. Montana Legal Services posted the request on the national VISTA website which potential volunteers can browse to explore specific potential projects. Within a month or two Legal Services had conducted phone interviews, obtained applications and references, and confirmed a volunteer. “It all ran smoothly. There is a learning curve for a volunteer to learn about credit unions and the financial services industry, and obstacles Montanans have to deal with as opposed to people in other states,” Saaranen says. “The volunteers are typically right out of college, so it’s their first professional role. They’re very ambitious and idealistic. They bring a lot of energy, excitement and enthusiasm. They’re really making a difference.” Saaranen emphasizes “sustainability” is a key word in the VISTA concept. Once a project is researched and development is completed by a VISTA volunteer, the project should be ongoing. Already Summery is working with a committee of Montana credit unions who will carry out the project after she leaves. Each project is allowed three years of VISTA support. A specific volunteer may remain for three years, or move on and be replaced by another volunteer. Summey has decided she wants to return to school to pursue an advanced degree, but another volunteer has already expressed interest in taking her place. For Summey, a North Carolina native who graduated from Catawba College in Salisbury with a degree in political science, her VISTA assignment may lead to a new career path. She looked into VISTA on the advice of a family friend. Summey had just worked on a gubernatorial campaign in North Carolina and had become weary of politics. She was attracted to the North Carolina CU Network project because it seemed worthwhile and would give her an opportunity to see a part of the country she had never visited. A lot of time has been spent on research. “When I first got here I looked at other credit unions around the country to see what they were doing as far as alternatives to payday lending,” Summey says. “Currently I’m working on sample policies and procedures for the programs we want to put in operation in Montana credit unions. Progress has come in stages, with a lot of research and learning involved. I really didn’t have much experience with credit unions prior to coming to Montana, so it’s been a tremendous learning experience.” She is also enthusiastic about the opportunity she has gained to travel around Montana on project business. For a Southerner, Montana has given new meaning to the word “winter.” She recalls being in Billings for a conference with a foot of snow on the ground in April. Yes, “Moving across the country to a totally different environment has been a huge adjustment. But everybody here at the MCUCD, the network and even our member credit unions have been incredibly supportive. They have done everything and anything to make the transition as smooth as possible.” What does she thing she will gain from her VISTA experience? “Focus and direction,” Summey answers. “Originally I wasn’t certain what I wanted to do. I had become extraordinarily jaded about the political scene after working on that campaign. “It has been nice to go from the cutthroat atmosphere of campaigning to the credit union philosophy of people helping people. I have really developed a passion for the credit union movement. I’m looking at the opportunity to combine my love of politics and credit unions. I can see myself lobbying for credit unions.” Baker, the newest VISTA volunteer, is just settling into her assignment. In addition to climbing the learning curve on the job, she’s adjusting to living on a stipend that puts her in the low-income ranks. To cope, she and two other VISTA volunteers are sharing an apartment. “In addition to the fact we all moved across the county, we share our financial standing. We’re all kind of struggling and really have to budget a lot. It helps that we’re in the same boat,” Baker says. After earning a degree in international affairs just over a year ago from Kennesaw State University outside Atlanta, the Georgia native was intrigued by VISTA but had explored other options. When she learned about the opening at the MCUN, she thought it sounded more professional than the alternatives. Although she has been a credit union member for some time, she admits she knew little about credit unions or financial services. Sarranin is enthusiastic about the potential of the VISTA program. “The key is to be able to work with a local intermediary between the national VISTA program and your organization,” she says. “They provide a great deal of support to the volunteer. In a lot of cases the volunteer is moving to a state they’ve never seen before. Legal Services provided so much emotional support and help relocating and getting oriented to the town. “I would encourage any organization that is interested to look at what support is available locally to help them.” Information, including a link to VISTA details and a list of state contacts, is available on the AmeriCorps Web site, americorps.gov. -

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