For the last year, Samantha Cripe has served as a VISTA leader for LAF and a number of other legal service organizations around Chicago and across the state of Illinois. She leads forty-five VISTAs (short for “Volunteers in Service to America”), who volunteer full-time for a year at organizations working on poverty reduction.
Whatever organization they serve, in whatever part of the country, VISTAs complete projects aimed at building the capacity of nonprofits for the long term. This could mean recruiting volunteers, securing new funding, or piloting new projects. Whatever the task a VISTA takes on, their goal after their year of service is to leave their host organization in a better position to carry out its mission than when the VISTA started.
What does that mean for LAF? The VISTAs Samantha manages work on projects like expanding our legal clinic model, or conducting outreach to enroll more eligible Chicagoans in public benefits programs. They’ve worked to improve our intake system so that clients with an urgent legal issue can find us more easily and get the help they need more quickly. They’ve recruited pro bono attorneys to take on more cases, and to staff our different legal aid help desks.
LAF’s partner organizations in the VISTA program include other direct legal service providers like Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation and Prairie State Legal Services; as well as organizations more focused on advocacy and research like the Shriver Center; or on a narrower range of issues, like the Loyola Health Justice Project.
As for Sam, she helps staff members at LAF, and its partner organizations, to take their ideas for increasing their impact and turn them into projects that VISTA members can complete during a term of service, then hand back off to the organization to run.
“It starts with an idea for something that we could do better,” says Samantha. She then turns that idea into a position description, recruits someone to fill the role, and introduces them to the place where they will spend the next year. “Then I get to see the work they do, which is always far beyond what I or anyone else had planned.”
Before moving into her current role as a VISTA leader, she completed her own service year, working with City Year in Boston, providing supplemental Language Arts instruction to sixth and seventh grade students from low-income neighborhoods.
“I loved my kids,” says Samantha, “but I also loved my teammates and watching them build their own values and skills.” That’s what she likes about working at LAF, too. “I love my work because I know that while I don’t get to assist clients directly, I get to brag about the amazing work that all of our VISTA members do. My job is make all of their jobs easier,” she says.
And ultimately, all that hard work behind the scenes translates to better service for people experiencing poverty. As Samantha says, “Our goal is to provide resources so that we can better serve people who are suffering, and I trust that the people at LAF will appreciate all that work, and that they’ll use those resources well.”