Scottsdale seems an unlikely place to locate a band of VISTA volunteers. What acts of selflessness might these persistent do-gooders be committing in the shadow of the Galleria? Ladling out Evian to overheated tourists? Counseling the aesthetically challenged on the finer points of turquoise procurement?
Created in 1964, VISTA--Volunteers in Service to America--was designed to be sort of a domestic Peace Corps, the shock troops in the Democrats' "war on poverty" in such places as the inner cities, Indian reservations and Appalachia.
The women gathered in the cramped office near 68th Street and Thomas Road smile when it's suggested people might visualize VISTA personnel in Scottsdale ensconced in some tall-ceilinged condo. Folding metal chairs supplement the office's cheap furniture and an open pizza box holding a leftover slice is the only conspicuous sign of consumption.
This is the Scottsdale office of EMPACT-Suicide Prevention Center, a nonprofit organization based in Tempe. For the next year, four VISTA volunteers will work out of this office in this rather tidy neighborhood of duplexes and apartments called Holiday Park.
Years ago the neighborhood's small duplexes housed snowbirds and baseball players during spring training. Now most of the people who live here--as many as 15 to an apartment--are poor Hispanics who migrate from Mexico to work at area resorts or tend the lawns of the gentry. Often they speak no English; sometimes they enter this country illegally. While EMPACT isn't designed solely to aid Hispanics, the agency's request for VISTA help describes the majority of the neighborhood's residents as "first-generation families, monolingual, uneducated, illiterate and of poor backgrounds."
"We don't turn anyone away," says Stella Johnson, a prevention specialist with EMPACT who, along with Alma Estefano, opened this satellite office in July 1991. "We'll help them any way we can, mainly by referring them to the proper agency that can help them."
As soon as the four VISTA volunteers complete their informal training--which consists largely of finding out what services are available to whom--they will join Johnson and Estefano, guiding the Holiday Park clients through such intricacies as enrolling their children in school and acquiring automobile insurance. Necessarily bilingual, the VISTA volunteers will conduct classes in English and in "parenting" and generally serve as liaisons between the community and the social-services bureaucracy. The volunteers might also be loaned out to other social-service agencies when there's a need for clerical or translation work. They'll help--by any means necessary.
"It's like when you see a guy living in the street," says Eva Nuanez, one of the VISTA volunteers. "And you think, 'Well, all right, this is America, why is this guy living in the street when if he would just go to the right agency, he could get some help, he could get set up with educational opportunities, he could become a productive person?' But maybe he's too depressed, he's sick, he doesn't know where to go, or maybe he can't speak English or he can't read or write--we're trying to help that person."
Eva and her sister, Pauline Nuanez, are not the stereotypical white, out-of-towner VISTA volunteers. Young Hispanic women with backgrounds in social work, both lived in the Valley for years before becoming involved with VISTA. Pauline looked at the Peace Corps after she graduated from Phoenix College, but chose to stay close to home and work with the poor. Eva joined the program after her children grew old enough to allow her the luxury of a few days a week outside her west Phoenix household.
Similarly, Mary Holland, an older woman who thought her bilingual skills might be put to good use in the program, is a longtime resident of Scottsdale.
"I just thought I could help," she says, "that I could serve as a bridge of understanding between the people here and the agencies. I believe one person sometimes makes a difference, and if they can use me I'm willing to help."
Only Abigail Clay, recently graduated from Lynchburg College in Virginia, has the classic profile of a VISTA volunteer. After her year in VISTA, she intends to go to graduate school at American University in Washington, D.C., or, perhaps, at the American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale. For the past six weeks, Clay has been living in Holiday Park amid the people she will assist. "It's a good neighborhood with honest people," she says. "The only problems here seem to be cultural ones--sometimes the Anglos don't understand why their Mexican neighbors like to sit out at night, play guitar, laugh and socialize. They're just not used to it and it causes some tension. But I'm not nervous about living down here, not at all."
Clay's assessment is echoed by John Willen, a Scottsdale police officer who patrols the Holiday Park area. "It's definitely not a bad neighborhood," he says. "It's a poor neighborhood, but it's certainly no worse than a lot of places in Scottsdale. They've got gangs up in north Scottsdale, too, in these subdivisions filled with $200,000 homes. Just because mommy and daddy have a big house and a maid doesn't mean their kids aren't out doing something they shouldn't."
A few blocks from the EMPACT office stands Paiute Park, emblematic of a proud community. Here EMPACT shares a small, cinder-block room with the police, who stop by once or twice a day to write up reports. After chatting briefly with the newly arrived volunteers, Willen walks to his cruiser and produces some Polaroid photographs of the park taken last March.
Then the high wooden fence that snakes along the park's eastern border was dappled with graffiti, the work of a Valleywide gang called the "Wetback Posse." Today the fence is unblemished, the grass remarkably free of cigarette butts.
"The city gets rid of the graffiti within 24 hours," Willen says, "but the people here appreciate this park. They appreciate it a lot more than they might someplace else. And the people from EMPACT, they do good work. They definitely make my job easier."
The policeman watches as the four volunteers walk away, his head slowly nodding in approval.
"There's a lot of good things going on here.