Domestic Volunteer Service Act of 1973 (Vista)

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Domestic Volunteer Service Act of 1973 (VISTA)

Lawrence Schlam

The idea of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) arose in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy expressed the desire to create a domestic volunteer program modeled after the Peace Corps, created in 1961.

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson granted Kennedy's wish when he signed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, an act that created the Volunteers in Service to America. Congress founded VISTA under the belief that it had solved the biggest problems of the nation with the help of citizen volunteers, and that by providing the people of impoverished communities with volunteers from across the country, it would help empower the poor to raise their standards of living.

By the end of 1965, VISTA had volunteers working to build homes in the Appalachian Mountains, supporting migrant workers in California, and helping the poor in Connecticut. By the end of the 1960s, VISTA had helped begin the first Head Start programs to provide early preparation for preschoolers, and Job Corps camps to engage in vocational training.

VISTA also began to recruit trained professionals to serve in low-income neighborhoods. Doctors set up free clinics in areas with little or no access to health care. Architects were asked to donate time to design new low-income housing or help renovate existing housing. Lawyers assisted the poor in obtaining benefits to which they were entitled and lobbied courts and legislators for expansion of existing protections for low-income people. These lawyers also helped start agricultural cooperatives, community groups, and small businesses.

In 1973 Congress merged VISTA with the Peace Corps under a new federal "ACTION" agency, which would run all domestic volunteer programs. Depending on the type of service the individual supplied, terms of service ran from as little as a summer, to as long as five years. Congress established the Domestic Volunteer Service Act of 1973 (P.L. 93-113), in part, to provide funding and regulations for the operation of VISTA. Senator Alan Cranston introduced the act on March 9, 1973, with the support of several other prominent senators and President Richard M. Nixon.

Proponents of the act cited the long-standing importance of volunteerism throughout American history, and sought greater involvement on the part of both young and older citizens in this tradition. In the words of the enacting legislation:

The purpose of this [Act] is to foster and expand voluntary citizen service in communities throughout the Nation in activities designed to help poor, disadvantaged, the vulnerable, and the elderly. In carrying out this purpose, the Corporation for National and Community Service shall utilize to the fullest extent the programs authorized under this chapter, coordinate with other Federal, State, and local agencies and utilize the energy, innovative spirit, experience, and skills of all Americans.

The statute detailed the requirements, goals and funding for VISTA, expanded testing and development of innovations in volunteer activities, and specified that health services, housing, the environment, educational development, manpower, and community planning would be the main areas of focus of VISTA activities.

Among the innovative provisions in the act were those addressing the University Year for VISTA, which provided academic credits for full-time volunteer services in anti-poverty projects, and new voluntary activities and demonstration programs providing alternatives to incarceration for youthful offenders, services and opportunities for returning veterans, and communitybased peer counseling for the drug and alcohol addicted.

In addition, the act created a Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) and a Foster Grandparents (FGP), both geared towards providing services to the elderly and to use retired citizens as volunteers. Title III of the Act restated the divisions of responsibility between ACTION and the SCORE/ACE volunteers. SCORE is the Service Corps of Retired Executives, and ACE is the Active Corps of Executives, comprised of both businesspersons and volunteer organizations.


The Domestic Volunteer Services Act has under gone many amendments since 1973. In the 1980s, VISTA began to encourage less outside volunteerism, and instead emphasized community self-help. In 1986, amendments established the VISTA Literacy Corps and "literacy councils" intended to expand adult education. A large majority of VISTA's work was then focused on trying to raise the literacy rates throughout the nation. In 1990, VISTA returned to its roots of national volunteerism for all of the needs of the poor when President George H.W. Bush formed the Commission on National and Community Service as part of his "Thousand Points of Light" program.

In 1993 President Bill Clinton created AmeriCorps and merged it with VISTA, creating AmeriCorpsVISTA to develop new programs to meet the changing needs of the impoverished. The new agency developed tenant-owned, cooperative low-income housing, and expanded Individual Development Accounts to assist poor individuals in saving money to help adjust to the transition from welfare to work.

The most significant case interpreting the act has been Cook County Legal Assistance Foundation v. Pauken (1983). This case dealt with the rights, responsibilities, and ability of agencies sponsoring volunteers to recover reimbursement for actions done on behalf of VISTA. VISTA failed to renew a legal aid corporation as a VISTA sponsor because, although VISTA's objective was to have sponsors direct community organizations toward self-help, the plaintiff legal agency was providing "direct services." The court ruled that sponsors were not constitutionally entitled to refunding once the term of funding had expired, and that neither the Administrative Procedure Act nor Domestic Volunteer Service Act conferred any right to money damages against the United States. Other court decisions have dealt with whether VISTA volunteers should claim their VISTA stipends as income, whether states could include VISTA workers as part of their worker's compensation schemes.

On October 30, 2000, VISTA's thirty-fifth anniversary, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia entered in the congressional record a written statement by a prominent former VISTA volunteer, John Gherty, CEO of Land-o-Lakes, who described the impact VISTA has had on society and the important learning experience that VISTA can offer volunteers. The statement included comments concerning the value of taking responsibility and creating opportunities, the essential role of teamwork and team building, the importance of building effective alliances, strength in diversity, and the need to identify leaders and build leadership skills in America.

See also: Economic Opportunity Act of 1964; Peace Corps Act of 1961.


Committee on Education and Labor. Domestic Volunteer Service Act of 1973: Report (to Accompany H.R. 7265). Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1973.

Committee on Labor and Public Welfare. Domestic Volunteer Service Act of 1973: Report (to Accompany S. 1148). Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1973.

Robinson, Dale H. Domestic Volunteer Service Act Programs. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1994.

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