A group of volunteers huddled in the parking lot of the Poudre Learning Center on Wednesday morning, zipping jackets over their United Way T-shirts and laughing with one another while they waited to start pulling weeds from along the Poudre River Trail as part of the September 11th National Day of Service and Remembrance.
The volunteers were the Weld VISTAs, or Volunteers In Service To America. There are 17 VISTAs in Weld right now. One of those was sick and one out of town Wednesday, but a former member came to help.
VISTA is an AmeriCorps program that enlists volunteers for a year of full-time service. They are given a modest living allowance and a stipend at the end of their service. When a volunteer signs up, they can be sent anywhere in the country. This group is unusual in that three of its members are from Colorado. That’s more than usual. The rest are from out of state.
James Lopez, 26, said that he is one of those unusual cases.
“I joined VISTA because I really wanted to help the place I grew up in,” said Lopez, who lives in Weld County.
There are two national days of service, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Sept. 11.
Mark Tucker, director of marketing and community development for United Way of Weld County, said that the participation of the Weld VISTAs in the days of service depends on who is the leader.
Many of the volunteers on Wednesday had experience with community service from before they joined the VISTA program, so some of them had participated in a day of service before Wednesday.
“I’ve actually done it with United Way when I was in high school,” Lopez said.
Cheryl Secorski, 23, has also participated before. The Michigan native helped plan this year’s day of service for Weld.
The volunteers were out to fix up the appearance of the trail while enjoying the cool weather. The weeds were pulled to make the trail look nicer, but also for the practical reason that some of the spikier weeds can give bikes flat tires.
The Poudre River Trail is always accepting volunteers to spruce up the trail, and the gloves the VISTAs were donning and shears they were grabbing are for the service of the trail. Maintenance works best in large groups, so Secorski thought her group would be perfect.
“We thought it might be a good opportunity to talk to people on the trail as we worked,” Secorski said.
The VISTAs were split up into groups to cover different areas of the trail.
“Today we’re gonna be pulling weeds. That’s straight up all it is,” Lopez said of the day’s work.
As the groups set off down the trail, hoping for a lot of weeds to pull, they were promised lunch when they got back. That lunch is another part of the day of service. Secorski said that during the lunch, there would be a discussion about service learning.
“We’ll talk about what the day of service means to them,” she said.
Service is important to the VISTAs. They were excited to get to work, and many of them had volunteer history. Secorski was well-placed to help plan this year because she participated in last year’s day of service as a member of another AmeriCorps program.
“I did a different AmeriCorps program last year. It was more hands-on service,” Secorski said.
The VISTA program provides an inside look at volunteer work, she said. She wants to dedicate her life to volunteer work, saying that with a degree in public and non-profit administration, she’s addicted.
Bekah Swanson, 24, of Minneapolis, also came to VISTA after a year of volunteer service.
“I did a volunteer year in England last year, and came home, and still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life,” Swanson said.
One of the hallmarks of the VISTA program is the opportunity for entry-level workers to get real world experience. Swanson said that the ability to jump in and gain skills without a lot of other experience is one of the reasons she joined VISTA.
Volunteers said the VISTA program has expanded since the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I think it’s really mushroomed since Sept. 11,” Tucker said.
When the Weld program began in 2007, there were 10 programs in the country. Now, there are 17.
Weld is a paragon of the program, cited as an example for Colorado by the organization on the national level.
Despite the acclaim, Wednesday’s weed pulling showed Weld VISTAs are still not afraid to get their hands dirty.