In the middle of the celebration of VISTA's first 15 years, one of its early guiding lights, Sargent Shriver, evoked the name Howard Phillips. There were loud hisses at the mention of the man who was ordered by former President Richard Nixon to dismantle the poverty and volunteer programs.
"But," said Shriver, looking around at the volunteers, creators and legislative patrons gathered for the day-long celebration, VISTA survived "because of far better creative leadership." Then there were shouts.
Given the near demise of VISTA in the early '70s and the perilous time it had this past year receiving reauthorization from Congress, the VISTA party took on the air of a determined couple, repeating their marriage vows.
There was recommitment everywhere. Sens. Charles Percy (R-Ill.), Harrison Williams (D-N.J.), Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Rep. Frank Thompson, former Labor secretary Willard Wirtz and Lynda Johnson Robb all echoed Sen. Jacob Javits' (R.N.Y.) summary of the work of the full-time volunteers. "It represents the best of our human decency," Javits told 150 people at the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
Earlier in the day President Carter spoke before 24 VISTA volunteers from around the country and promised to increase the number from 3,400 current volunteers to "as many as 5,000." Since the program started in 1965, more than 50,000 volunteers have worked in low-income communities.
At the celebration, Sister Francesca Bartos, a volunteer from Flemingsburgh, Ky., spoke excitedly about her conversation with President Carter. "I certainly felt he was with us, he was really listening," she said. "And when I had to speak, I told him I would have to talk off the top of my head and everything might sound mixed up. He said he often had to speak without preparation. An all I could say was,'you've had more practice' He laughed."
During the day, groups of volunteers met with Cabinet members. The session with Attorney General Banjamin Civiletti was described by Mary King, ACTION deputy director, as free-wheeling. Wong Fonglo, a volunteer who moved to the United States almost four years ago, said he raised a question about the Indochina refugees. "We had a fair discussion about the length of time needed for adjustment, and when I told him two years was not enough, Civiletti seemed to agree," said Fonglo, who teaches English to newly arrived refugees in New York City's Chinatown.
When the issue of migrant workers came up with Labor Secretary Ray Marshall, a volunteer started discussing the hardships of farming. Marshall, a former farmer, told the group that picking citrus fruits was harder than anything, but the volunteer insisted that tying onions was harder. "Marshall finally said, "Well, I guess sugar cane is the hardest'" said Margery Tabankin, the director of VISTA.
Explaining that the need for poverty workers hadn't lessened over the years, Hyman Bookbinder of the American Jewish Committee told the story of a Montgomery County schoolteacher who had discovered that two of her students had nothing to eat or drink except water over the weekend because their family couldn't afford anything else. "Now that happened in the country's richest county. Those kids hadn't eaten from their Friday lunch to Monday breakfast. So when people ask why VISTA, tell them that story."