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``What's VISTA?'

That's a question often heard at The Learning Place in Reidsville. When visitors spy the nameplates of Bettie Maness and Elaine Vernon identifying them as VISTA volunteers, the query ``What's VISTA?' invariably follows.It's a question the two women themselves once asked. Before Vernon and Maness were hired by VISTA to work in Rockingham County's literacy program, neither had heard of the federal volunteer agency.

``I didn't know there was any such organization,' said Vernon.

These days the two women can tell you all about Volunteers in Service to America. VISTA, sometimes called the domestic Peace Corps, began in 1964; volunteers have been working in North Carolina since 1971. Currently 90 VISTA volunteers serve in literacy programs, food banks, drug abuse programs and agencies for the homeless in about 35 counties in North Carolina.

Those who are familiar with VISTA may think of volunteers as young long-haired types who serve in backward, remote areas of the country. In reality, VISTA volunteers are men and women of all ages who are as likely to serve in urban areas as they are in isolated spots. Vernon and Maness are good examples.

Vernon had been retired from her job as a nursing assistant at Annie Penn Memorial Hospital for four years when she decided to look for part-time work in 1987.

``The four walls were closing in,' said the 68-year-old.

When Vernon saw an ad for the VISTA position in a local newspaper, she was interested despite the fact that the job required a 40-hour work week. She was hired and placed with the Rockingham County Public Library's literacy program in March 1987.

``I've been here ever since,' she said.

Maness, 58, had just graduated from Rockingham Community College's child-care worker program in the fall of 1990 when she saw a VISTA position advertised. The year before, Maness's husband had lost his job when Cone Mills closed its plant in Rockingham County. Maness, who had not worked since 1972, decided she had better acquire some marketable skills.

The VISTA position was not exactly what she had in mind for her first job.

``Right about the time I graduated I saw the ad,' said Maness, who had aspired to be a teaching assistant. ``Something about it kept nagging me. I filled out an application but left it lying on the table for about three weeks.'

Eventually Maness submitted her application and was hired. She joined Vernon at The Learning Place in November 1990.

Maness now believes she made the right decision in becoming a VISTA volunteer.

``I enjoy it so much more than I think I would being a teaching assistant,' she said.

Coming face-to-face with the illiteracy problem in the county has been a shock to VISTA workers.

``I could not believe the number of people who couldn't read,' said Vernon. ``I've always known there were some, but not to this extent. It was devastating to me. I've always been an avid reader. I couldn't understand why anybody didn't pick up a book and read.'

Like Vernon, Maness was astounded at the extent of the illiteracy problem. At the first reading test she watched being administered, ``I could have cried,' she said. ``I was so hurt for this young man who had been to school for 10 years and read on a second-grade level. To see someone not being given that privilege, to have been in school and missed the essential reading skills, is appalling to me.'

Both Maness and Vernon have turned their shock at the county's high illiteracy rate into action to combat the problem.

``We really need a war on illiteracy in this county,' said Maness.

The two women do battle in that war by recruiting volunteer tutors, creating and distributing brochures on the literacy program, publishing a newsletter for tutors and keeping records for the program. Although they do not tutor students themselves except to fill in for absent tutors, they help with the tutor training workshops and are always on the lookout for materials that might be helpful to volunteer tutors.

Literacy coordinator Joyce Strope, who has had four VISTA volunteers in the literacy program since 1986, says she doesn't know what she'd do without them.

``The program as it is now couldn't exist without them because they do so many things,' she said. ``They all have been very dedicated, enthusiastic about their work and sensitive to the needs of the nonreader. They're excellent.'

Both Maness and Vernon describe their work as rewarding and fulfilling. Vernon mentions her experiences with one student who could read only the word ``up' when he came to the literacy program.

``When he sits down and reads a sentence, he thinks he's slow, but if I could read only 'up,' and then I could read a whole sentence, I'd think it was the greatest thing in the world,' she said.

To Maness, her VISTA job offers an opportunity to serve others.

``Everybody is born with an innate desire to help their fellow man,' she said. ``VISTA affords the opportunity to do that.'

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