From recent college graduates to retirees, social workers to construction workers, the members of Housing Action Illinois’ diverse AmeriCorps VISTA Network are united under one goal: to end poverty by expanding access to affordable housing. “While the VISTA program aims to build the sustainable capacity of organizations to carry out their mission, it ends up doing so much more,” says Willie Heineke, Housing Action’s Outreach Associate. “This program empowers the next generation of change agents.”

Part of our work to expand the capacity of member organizations to end housing insecurity throughout Illinois is our VISTA Network. We manage and support 30 full-year VISTAs, as well as nearly 30 VISTA Summer Associates, placed at organizations throughout the state. Since we became a VISTA sponsor in 2010, our VISTA Network has nearly doubled in size and recently expanded to include a Summer Associates program; these exciting changes are due in part to Willie’s hard work.

Willie (right front) joins VISTAs in a service project for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Alongside Outreach Manager Gianna Baker, Willie coordinates our VISTA Network by supervising two VISTA Leaders, providing training and professional development opportunities for the VISTA network, collaborating with member organizations to design effective VISTA positions, and developing opportunities to sustain and expand the program. He also supports Housing Action’s policy advocacy, public education, and organizing efforts.

The AmeriCorps VISTA program is nothing new for Willie. He was hired as the Outreach Associate in November 2016 after spending a year with us as a VISTA Leader. Before that, he served two VISTA terms in Prescott, Arizona, where he helped expand the use of SNAP at local farmer’s markets and developed a culinary training and gardening program for formerly homeless veterans.

While completing his Bachelor’s in Cultural and Regional Studies: Justice Studies, Willie co-founded the nongovernmental organization Rainforest Rescue Coalition, as well as a grassroots activist collective called World Action Collective. Willie says his passion for the AmeriCorps VISTA program grew from a history of working for community-oriented change. “One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from my coursework and activism is that truly lasting and radical social change stems from local people working on local issues,” he said. “As someone native to the Chicago area, it’s important that my work has a positive impact on those working to promote housing justice in Illinois communities.”

In his daily work, Willie sees how the VISTA program helps develop engaged community leaders. “One of the most enjoyable and fulfilling aspects of my work is noticing the difference in confidence and competency of the AmeriCorps VISTA Members and Summer Associates between orientation and the end of their term.” Willie said. “VISTAs tend to be more timid and unsure of their capabilities in the beginning, but by the time they finish their service, they have developed an awareness of their skills and a dauntless vision for their future professional endeavors that inspires me.”