I See VISTA’s Legacy

Alumni story
Ralph Munro

While I never served as a VISTA, I’ve seen firsthand the impact VISTA has had on an entire state.

In 1965, a developmentally challenged child was abandoned and placed in a state institution. When I met him in 1966, I was a volunteer in that facility. The boy had never spoken a word. Everyone thought he never would, but that was unacceptable to me. I had become a volunteer to make a difference in people’s lives, so I taught him to speak.

That experience affected me both personally and professionally in ways I wouldn’t realize for years. For more than the next three decades, I would serve the state of Washington in several positions, most prominently as the state’s longest-tenured Secretary of State. Throughout my career, VISTA contributed to the improvement of our state in many ways.

The story of VISTA’s impact on me and our home state begins with the Governor’s visit to the facility where I was volunteering and where that little boy lived. He was impressed and complimentary of the breakthrough with the boy. Several weeks later he called me and personally asked me to head downstate to be the state’s first volunteer coordinator. Of course, VISTAs made up a portion of the volunteers I was to assist with.

The need for VISTA shined through on one of my first, most challenging, and most memorable projects.

It was the mid-to-late seventies, the Vietnam War was over, and the United States had to find a place for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Southeast Asia. These were people who had supported the American presence during the war and now faced retribution from a new regime if they remained. Many had fought alongside our troops in Vietnam. Some had even worked for the deposed South Vietnamese government. Now they needed a place to make a new life.

So they fled to the United States, the land of opportunity. Men, women, and children carried all they owned in bags or sacks. For temporary housing, the refugees were sent to Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, Calif. But they obviously couldn’t remain there indefinitely. Washington’s Governor, along with the state House and Senate, agreed to resettle many of the refugees in Washington. But it wasn’t as easy as saying, “Hey, sure, come live in our state.”

We called on VISTA to help. Volunteers set up a temporary settlement camp and worked with other groups to settle refugees in communities throughout the state and find jobs for them. In short, the VISTAs on that project pointed the way for these settlers to rebuild their lives.

Around the time I was elected to my first term as Secretary of State, VISTAs were also confronting the social problems on our Native American reservations. The reservations were in a sorry state — crime was rampant, drug and alcohol abuse was all too frequent, and the tribes were flat broke. None of that deterred the VISTAs. Instead, they focused on fixing the problems.

With so many issues, they decided that getting reservation children through school would be the best place to begin. VISTAs kept the kids in school and set up community and athletic programs. This reestablished community pride and kept many kids off drugs and out of gangs. In turn, crime rates dropped.

Because of all the good work VISTA did in Washington, the Governor wanted volunteerism to grow across the state. Representatives from both sides of the aisle in the statehouse agreed and worked together to develop the Washington Service Corps—kind of like a Washington State VISTA.

During my tenure as Secretary of State, I constantly advocated VISTA or the Service Corps to young people. I wrote letters of recommendation for countless young citizens because I saw this as an incredible opportunity for them. Plus, there’s an old saying that it’s easier to get a job when you have a job. And VISTAs work 24/7, 365 days a year. The experience and opportunities the program provided have been a boon to the community by helping the volunteers grow and develop careers.

VISTA has helped us to better serve the people of our state and it has been an honor and a privilege to see the direct, long-term effect of the VISTA program:

In 1996, I saw VISTA’s legacy in the communities where the Vietnamese refugees had settled. As part of the 20th anniversary of their resettlement, I went to high school graduations where the children of refugees were valedictorians of their classes. And their parents were no longer “refugees.” They were Americans, part of the fabric of their communities.

I see VISTA’s legacy when looking at Washington’s Native American reservations. The kids who participated in VISTA programs 25 years ago are now the tribal leaders. Those tribes are much better off now and they have a bright future.

I see VISTA’s legacy when the Washington Service Corps teaches children to read, responds to natural disasters, or restores our environment. VISTA was not only a catalyst for this in-state program, but the two organizations have also partnered on several occasions.

I see VISTA’s legacy in Washington’s House of Representatives, in its superior and lower court judges, in its prominent business people, in its hospitals and doctor’s offices, as well as in its schools and colleges, because that’s where many of those who served in VISTA, and those they helped, now work.

I see VISTA’s legacy in the eyes of that boy we taught to speak. He’s 40-years-old now, just like VISTA, and I am his legal guardian. Through him I discovered the rewards of volunteering and VISTA—not by serving—but by benefiting from that service in my professional capacity.

VISTA’s legacy lives on in communities across Washington and in the people who have made a better life because of it. VISTA’s legacy is that it has, without a doubt, made—and continues to make—our state, our country, a better place.

Decade: 1960s