Frequently Asked Questions
Click on each question below to find the answer!
What is AmeriCorps VISTA?
AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) is one of several programs under the AmeriCorps umbrella. AmeriCorps State/National and AmeriCorps NCCC are also administered as part of the same suite, though they have distinct missions, means, and policies. Click here for a full description of the AmeriCorps programs.
AmeriCorps VISTA differs from AmeriCorps State/National and AmeriCorps NCCC in that it focuses on indirect service and capacity-building initiatives that directly impact low-income communities. According to the CNCS website, “VISTA members generally do not provide direct services, such as tutoring children or building homes. Instead, they focus their efforts on building the organizational, administrative, and financial capacity of organizations that fight illiteracy, improve health services, foster economic development, and otherwise assist low-income communities. VISTAs develop programs to meet a need, write grants, and recruit and train volunteers.” While VISTAs do not interact with clients extensively their service helps create projects that endure for years.
VISTAs spend a year stationed at a single organization, serving full-time for a modest living stipend. This stipend is equivalent to what a single person would make if they were living at 110% of the area’s poverty level. Click here for more information about VISTAs and what they do.
What is the Mercy Corps Northwest VISTA Program?
The Mercy Corps Northwest (MCNW) VISTA Program is a project run by MCNW and AmeriCorps VISTA. As an intermediary organization, MCNW recruits a team of AmeriCorps VISTAs and places them at partner community-based organizations across the state of Oregon. MCNW organizes training events, manages VISTA relations, and oversees the VISTAs’ progress at their sites and with their individual projects. All of the MCNW VISTA Program’s projects are focused on expanding economic opportunity for low-income community members through economic development, housing, job skills training, asset building, and micro-enterprise.
Where are the MCNW VISTA’s stationed?
The partnering organizations of the MCNW VISTA Program vary from year to year. Our host organizations are spread throughout Oregon, with the majority serving in the Portland Metro Area and Central Oregon. We also have additional VISTAs serving at our MCNW satellite offices in Seattle and Walla Walla, Washington. You can see which sites currently have VISTAs here.
Can I be stationed at the MCNW office?
That depends on whether we have a VISTA position open at the MCNW office. In most years the MCNW hosts 2 VISTA Leader positions and between 1-4 VISTA positions. VISTA Leader positions are always based in the Portland, OR office, while other MCNW positions could be based in our satellite offices in Seattle or Walla Walla, WA. Please review position locations carefully before applying.
What’s the difference between the VISTA member and VISTA Leader roles?
Service & Eligibility Differences:
Just as AmeriCorps VISTA members work to expand and build the capacity of community projects, Leaders work to expand and build the capacity of individual AmeriCorps VISTA members and their respective service sites. VISTA Leaders support the entire VISTA team with the goal of ensuring our VISTAs and their projects have the most meaningful impact possible. To qualify for a VISTA Leader role, candidates must have completed at least one term of service prior to starting the Leader position with AmeriCorps VISTA, AmeriCorps State/National, AmeriCorps NCCC or Peace Corps (VISTA preferred).
The VISTA Leader supports the MCNW VISTA Program by coordinating VISTA member training, mentoring members, coordinating/conducting site visits, supporting outreach/sharing program impact, collecting reports & managing data, and supporting recruitment for new VISTA sites & members. An AmeriCorps VISTA member is not entitled to an AmeriCorps VISTA Leader assignment for simply having completed a previous service assignment. Leaders must have demonstrated leadership skills and qualities during their initial term(s) of service and have accepted a new level of responsibility.
- Pay: In addition, VISTA Leaders are eligible to receive an extra $200 per month in their living allowance.
- End of Service Benefit: choice of Education Award ($6,195) or cash stipend ($3,000 for Leaders). Please note, there is a lifetime limit of 2 Education Awards for all service members and leaders.
- MCNW VISTA Supplemental Benefits: Leaders receive an additional $700 in their professional development stipend to be used towards eligible learning opportunities, resulting in a total supplemental benefit of $1,000 professional development stipend + $3,700 basic needs stipend.
All other benefits remain the same for Leaders as they are for members.
More on VISTA Leaders here
What are the benefits to serving with AmeriCorps VISTA?
VISTA offers several tangible and intangible benefits to serving. As a VISTA with MCNW you receive:
- Living Allowance: The following annual living allowance will be provided to each VISTA member/Leader, based on the location of the site they are serving:
- $16,717 per year for VISTA members in the Portland & Vancouver Metro Areas
- $24,119.20 per year for VISTA members in the Seattle Metro Area
- $13,399.15 per year for VISTA members in the rest of Oregon & Washington States
- $19,115.05 per year for VISTA Leaders in the Portland Metro Area
- NOTE: Living allowance is paid via direct deposit in biweekly installments by CNCS (Federal Government). Both state and Federal taxes are deducted from the above stipend amount in Oregon, only Federal taxes are deducted from the stipend in Washington.
- End of Service Benefit: Choice of a $1,800 cash stipend or a $6,195 education award upon completion of service. The education award can be used towards future or former educational expenses, including eligible student loans and tuition expenses. Certain universities will match this award with their own scholarships.
- Health Benefits: Members receive a health allowance of up to $7,900 that can be put towards approved out-of-pocket medical expenses (deductible, co-pays, co-insurance), including dental and vision. Please note that this is not health insurance.
- NOTE: Members must secure their own health insurance, most are eligible for Medicaid plans.
- Relocation Assistance: Members can receive financial assistance for relocation costs if moving more than 50 miles to serve, including:
- Reimbursement of $0.40/per mile traveled to move to service site up to $1,000
- Settling in allowance of $750 to cover move-in costs
- MCNW VISTA Supplemental Benefit: VISTAs serving with the MCNW VISTA Program will receive a $4,000 supplemental benefit for the year from Mercy Corps Northwest, consisting of:
- $300 professional development stipend to use towards learning opportunities like training, classes, conferences, etc.
- $3,700 to be used towards the VISTA’s choice of approved housing, transportation, food, and matched settling in allowance, and/or additional professional development support.
- Childcare: Members can receive childcare assistance (if eligible).
- Leave: Members receive 10 days (80 hours) of personal leave, 10 days (80 hours) of medical leave, and all major holidays that Mercy Corps observes. They may also receive additional emergency leave in the event of a serious injury or family emergency.
- NOTE: Members cannot take personal leave in the first or last month of service.
- Federal Non-Competitive Eligibility: Upon completion of service, members will receive one year of non-competitive eligibility for employment with the Federal Government.
- Training: Members will receive extensive onboarding assistance, orientation, as well as several in-person training opportunities to prepare and support them in completing their year of service successfully. Training topics will include grant writing; marketing and communication; community outreach; project management; diversity, equity and inclusion; career development; and much more!
- Networking: Members will receive exposure to a wide variety of nonprofits and the opportunity to learn about many industries and careers, including nonprofit, local government, and public service paths. They will also have access to a new network of AmeriCorps VISTAs and alums, both through our program and nationally.
- VISTA Leader Support: Our team includes two VISTA Leaders, who provide individual mentorship and guidance to our VISTA members throughout the duration of their service.
How much is the living allowance?
The living allowance* is based on 110% of the area’s poverty level, so our VISTA living allowances vary depending where the project site is located. The following are the current rates for the regions where our VISTAs are placed:
- $16,717 for members in the Portland Metro Area (Multnomah, Washington, and Clark Counties)
- $24,119.20 for members in the Seattle Metro Area
- $13,399.15 for members in all other areas of Oregon and Washington
- $19,115.05 for VISTA Leaders serving in the Portland Metro Area (Multnomah County)
*NOTE: Living allowance amounts are pre-tax; both Federal and State taxes will be withheld in Oregon, Federal taxes are withheld in Washington State. Living allowance is paid to members by direct deposit every 14 days.
Do VISTAs receive health benefits?
While neither Mercy Corps nor AmeriCorps provides health insurance to their VISTA members, AmeriCorps does offer two different healthcare benefit options for members. Members may choose one of two options:
- Health Allowance Plan: Members may enroll in this plan to help cover the cost of out-of-pocket health expenses up to $7,900 that the member may incur during their year of service.
- Under the Health Allowance Plan, members are still responsible for securing their own health insurance if not already covered under a family member or spouse and can use the $7,900 to offset co-pays, co-insurance, deductible, or other approved expenses.
- If not already covered by a family member or spouse, most VISTAs qualify for and enroll in the a Medicaid plan—Oregon Health Plan in Oregon, Apple Health in Washington.
- The healthcare allowance cannot be applied to insurance premiums, costs for non-essential health benefits (such as elective or cosmetic services), costs associated with going outside of your PPO (primary network), and costs associated with the care of your spouse and/or dependents.
- Health Benefit Plan: Provided they meet certain provisions and qualify for the appropriate exemptions under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), members may receive coverage under a basic health benefit program. NOTE: the
- Health Benefit Plan does not cover for care related to most pre-existing medical conditions and does not cover common routine preventative benefits you may find standard on most ACA compliant health plans.
- Vision and dental are not included in the health benefit program. Yearly physicals are not covered. Women are eligible to receive yearly well woman checkups.
- The Health Benefit Plan is not compliant with the ACA and members who elect to enroll in it must either file a waiver, or enroll in additional compliant coverage, or pay the tax penalty associated with noncompliance.
The extreme majority of members enroll in the Healthcare Allowance Plan.
VISTAs may receive coverage through COBRA or another health policy if they choose.
Applicants are advised to very thoroughly review the materials contained on the official website of the health carrier for these AmeriCorps Health Plans, IMG Global, to determine the best fit. More information on the IMG Global site here.
I see in the listings for positions with the MCNW VISTA Program that there is a $4,000 supplemental benefit provided to VISTAs. Can you provide more details on this benefit?
To ensure our VISTA Program is inclusive and accessible to all who would like to participate, in early 2020, Mercy Corps Northwest started providing an additional supplemental benefit to all VISTAs serving with our program. For the 2020-21 service year, VISTAs serving with the MCNW VISTA Program will receive a $4,000 supplemental benefit consisting of:
- $300 professional development stipend to be used towards learning opportunities that support the VISTA in accomplishing their project, including: classes, conferences, training, networking opportunities etc.
- $3,700 basic needs stipend to be used towards the VISTA’s choice of any combination of the following: housing assistance, transportation support, CSA food box, matched settling-in allowance, and/or additional professional development support.
NOTE: Due to federal restrictions, basic needs stipends cannot be paid directly to the VISTA member and access to benefits, especially for housing assistance, has other eligibility requirements. Usage of all basic needs options is not guaranteed, but requires VISTAs to meet certain guidelines. Please review guideline details below or reach out to the VISTA Program team for more information and full guidance.
Guidelines on each option below:
- Housing Assistance: For rent and mortgage payment assistance. Must be paid directly by MCNW to the member’s landlord/property management company. Requires additional paperwork and parameters for participation in this benefit, including the landlord’s willingness to provide an invoice and W9 to MCNW for payment. More details on these parameters will be provided in the onboarding process or are available by request.
- Transportation Support: Can be selected to cover the costs of a public transportation pass. Members will be eligible for low-income/discounted passes and are responsible for securing their pass, but can then request reimbursement from MCNW. In rural communities where public transportation is not accessible, members can instead use this benefit to receive monthly reimbursement for mileage traveled to and from their site using a personal vehicle.
- CSA Food Box: Provided through Full Circle Farms, this benefit will allow members to receive a community supported agriculture (CSA) food box full of fresh, local produce. Boxes are delivered right to the member’s doorstep every two weeks. Service through Full Circle may not be available in some locations outside of metro areas. In those situations, MCNW will work with members who want to select this benefit on a case by case basis to find another CSA provider who serves their area.
- Matched Settling-In Allowance: Up to $750 can be provided to each member, regardless of miles traveled, to help cover the additional costs associated with settling into a new city or home that often exceed CNCS’s settling-in allowance (such as rental or lease application fees, credit check fees, security deposit, first and last month rent, deposits to turn on gas and utilities, etc.). Will be paid to the VISTA after they start service by reimbursement.
- Additional Professional Development Support: Members can select to use more supplemental benefits beyond the $300 towards allowable professional development costs, including training, classes, conference fees, travel, lodging and meals, per diem that applies to standard employees, etc.
When and how do I apply to become a VISTA with the MCNW VISTA Program?
We recruit members twice a year. We recruit for positions that start in mid-March from early December through early February. We recruit for positions that start in mid-August from May through July.
Please be sure to check our Recruitment Page for more information and current openings.
For more information about applying to VISTA or other policies around VISTA (requirements, the Education Award, student loan deferment, etc.) please see AmeriCorps VISTA FAQ page.
What makes for a competitive applicant?
Compelling applicants come from many different backgrounds and levels of experience.
Typically, members have some college experience and have some volunteer or work experience, though in some cases relevant work experience may substitute on a year-by-year basis for a college degree. We look for a combination of personal and professional attributes that indicate maturity, sincerity, and resilience, including regular engagement in volunteerism, work experience, lived experience, and strong recommendations. When considering an application, we place special emphasis on the writing sample: clarity and concision, depth of thinking, and a genuine interest in confronting poverty must all be evident.
The vast majority of successful applicants have extensive volunteer and/or community experience relevant to their positions. We prefer to see sustained engagement with one organization or issue rather than several briefer involvements. Recommenders should know you well, have supervised your work in a professional, volunteer, or academic capacity, and not be related by blood or marriage.
All members must have an earnest commitment to completing 365 days of service from start to finish and be willing to live at the federal poverty level for the duration of that time.
Can I apply to multiple VISTA positions with the MCNW VISTA Program?
Yes! It does not weaken your standing to apply to multiple positions, so long as you are able to explain your motivation for applying to each role. Applying to multiple positions could demonstrate your dedication to joining our team and also offers more chances to be selected as a finalist, if your application is a match for the positions the host sites we are recruiting for.
What are the citizenship requirements for joining AmeriCorps VISTA?
To be eligible for AmeriCorps service you must be a U.S. Citizen, U.S. National, Lawful Permanent Resident, or person legally residing in a state that have one of the following legal residency classifications: refugee, asylum or asylee, or temporary protected status. All applicants must provide appropriate primary documentation of their residency or citizenship status. Visa sponsorship is not available. As this is a federal policy exceptions cannot be granted.
Can I become an AmeriCorps VISTA if I don’t have a college degree?
Yes! We recognize that higher education is a privilege and that many intelligent, dedicated, and talented people do not have the opportunity to attend college or, due to pressures beyond their control, are forced to work instead of pursuing an advanced degree. We believe that the opportunity to serve in AmeriCorps VISTA should be available to as many people as possible. For those reasons, we do not require a completed college degree for our positions.
If you don’t have a degree and want to serve with us you can substitute relevant work experience for education on a year-for-year basis. So, in most cases this would mean that a position will require four years of higher education, or four years of relevant work experience, or some combination thereof (ex: two years of college and two years of work).
Can I become an AmeriCorps VISTA if I have a criminal record?
Yes, in some cases. Our agency serves formerly incarcerated individuals, and we believe that their experiences and perspectives can contribute invaluably to our AmeriCorps VISTA program.
However, as per federal regulations that govern AmeriCorps, persons convicted murder or registered as a sex offender are not eligible for the VISTA program. Provided that the conditions of their probation or parole have been met, persons convicted of other crimes are still eligible and have participated in VISTA in the past. If you are still on parole or probation you may be eligible for VISTA, if circumstances are truly extraordinary and extenuating. As these are federal policies, exceptions cannot be granted.
All applicants, no matter criminal history, undergo a full FBI background check and must disclose any convictions when submitting an application. Failure to disclose a conviction and/or unwillingness to undergo a background check can result in deselection from VISTA.
When reviewing applications, offenses will be weighed based on their severity, the time elapsed since conviction, steps taken towards change or recovery, and a person’s work history and involvement in the community since the conviction. It can be beneficial if a caseworker, reentry navigator/mentor, or parole officer writes you a recommendation for service with AmeriCorps. In some cases, such as those projects that focus on prison re-entry services, we view experience with the justice system as an asset.
If you do have a criminal history of any sort and intend to apply to VISTA be aware that you will be required to present court documentation that indicates your case, verdict, and sentencing, and that all conditions of your sentencing have been satisfied. These documents can take several weeks for the courts to process if they are not on hand. If you are intending to apply and do not have these documents on hand contact the court immediately to secure copies.
What happens after I submit my VISTA application?
The MCNW VISTA Program team reviews every application submitted on a rolling basis (as they come in). We pass along applications that meet basic qualifications to the site supervisor (based at the host organization), who will then review applications and reach out for first round interviews if they feel the application is a fit. If you are being considered for the role, you will hear first from the site supervisor based at the host organization. This process should take no more than 2-3 weeks from the time you submit your application.
If, after the first round interview, the site supervisor would like to move a candidate forward as a finalist, the MCNW VISTA Program team will reach out to conduct a confirmation interview. From there, the last step is formally selecting the candidate as the finalist in the AmeriCorps system and waiting for federal approval. No candidate is officially approved and placed for service as the finalist until they’ve received federal approval.
Once a finalist is selected and approved by the Federal Government, the MCNW VISTA Program team will send onboarding materials and all information the finalist needs to know before starting service.
If I’m recruited, when will I start service?
Members start VISTA at one of two points during the year: mid-March or August. Members may not start VISTA with the MCNW VISTA Program at any other point in the year. Other VISTA programs may offer different start dates. We do not.
If recruited, what will my schedule look like?
VISTA members serve their nation 24/7 and are expected to be available for service whenever needed. In practice, the typical daily VISTA schedule follows the MCNW work schedule, which is from 8:50 am to 5:00 pm, Monday-Friday. However, VISTAs can be called to serve at any time, including evenings, weekends, and holidays. Holidays include Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Christmas Eve and Day, New Years Eve and Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day. VISTAs are required to serve at an Marting Luther King Jr. Day service project, coordinated by MCNW, and will be required to attend group training events throughout the year.
VISTAs are allotted 10 personal days and 10 sick days during their service year. Personal days cannot be used in the first or last month of service, save in truly exceptional circumstances. It is very rare that exceptions are made.
Upon taking the oath of service, VISTAs are expected to serve for 365 days. Save for exceptional circumstances detailed in the AmeriCorps VISTA Handbook, members must sacrifice their education award or end of service stipend if they depart or are removed from service early. Admission to graduate school or accepting a job offer are not exceptional circumstances.
Will I receive assistance if I move from outside the area to serve?
If your home of record is more than 50 miles from your service site you will receive the following relocation assistance:
- Settling in allowance of $750
- Reimbursement for mileage traveled from your home of record to your service site by the shortest route at a rate set by the Federal Government (currently $.40/mile) for a maximum of $1,000.
- Support from VISTA Leaders with the housing search process. We do our best to connect members moving from other regions to find housing together if at all possible!
The settling in allowance and mileage reimbursement are paid directly by the Federal Government and usually arrives from 6-10 weeks after the start of service. Find out more here.
Can I be employed elsewhere while serving as a VISTA?
Yes, as of May 4th, 2015 VISTAs are allowed to be employed elsewhere during their term so long as the employment is part-time, legal, and does not interfere with VISTA responsibilities, which must come first. The VISTA also must secure the written approval of their supervisor and submit a formal request to CNCS. Applicants are advised that outside employment can raise a VISTA’s living wages and may cause them to be ineligible for certain public services such as food stamps, Medicaid, or housing assistance. Potential VISTAs are additionally advised that their VISTA duties must come before responsibilities associated with outside employment and will be expected to modify the schedule and expectations of such outside employment to accommodate VISTA schedules and responsibilities.
Am I guaranteed a job after completing VISTA service?
No. All members will be able to develop their professional skills and network throughout their term of service, but they are not guaranteed a job with any organization upon completion of their term.
Though professional development is an appropriate goal of participating in VISTA, applicants are strongly discouraged from applying to join VISTA for exclusively professional reasons or with the hope of getting a job with a particular organization. While in recent years, about 20% of our members have been hired on by their sponsoring organization after their term of service, there is no guarantee of this happening.
However, members do receive non-competitive eligibility for federal jobs for one year after the completion of a successful service term. In addition, alumni receive the benefit of the Employers of National Service program, a coalition of organizations that have indicated preference in hiring AmeriCorps alums. Members are provided with assistance in writing resumes, cover letters, interviewing, and job hunting. Within one month of completing service a sizable portion of our members are either employed and/or enrolled in graduate school. VISTA presents the opportunity to hold responsibilities far greater than those of many entry-level roles, and members benefit from the leadership and program management skills they learn in their positions. Potential employers are often impressed by the hard work and dedication of AmeriCorps members.
What else should I know?
VISTA is a challenging and life-changing experience that allows you dedicate a year of your life exclusively to supporting the community. We’re proud of each and every one of our members and enjoy getting to know them throughout the year as they change, learn, and serve. By joining you’ll be part of a 50 year tradition that has improved the lives of countless Americans.