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VISTA Darkening 

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Beth Ament has helped rebuild a playground on the North Side, a park in Homewood and jazz on the Hill, but now she's leaving Pittsburgh because she's discouraged, not by the city but by the federal program that brought her here: VISTA, the domestic version of the Peace Corps.

"Mostly because I'm frustrated with all the cutbacks," she says. VISTA, a decades-old program now under the auspices of the Bill Clinton-created AmeriCorps, will likely face slimmer budgets under President George W. Bush, though he earlier pledged to expand AmeriCorps programs. (See "Corps Values," June 25.)

Ament, a Lancaster, Pa. native, works with a volunteer VISTA crew of three out of the Environmental Protection Agency office on Washington's Landing. She's also the team leader for VISTA's mid-Atlantic region. Normally, after a year's service at poverty wages, one Pittsburgh VISTA trio would be replaced by another, who continue the same projects. A third group is supposed to see the projects through the third year. But Ament will have no replacement when she leaves this month, she says.

To rebuild the Alpine Gardens playground on the North Side, for instance, the group raised money and worked with the city, a landscape architect and two dozen neighborhood residents who helped them survey the neighborhood's desires. The playground will include a garden and a mural by local artists and will be installed entirely in one day -- July 31 -- by 200 volunteers.

For the North Murtland Park project in Homewood, VISTA members recruited neighborhood volunteers, used minority contractors, secured grants and worked with the City of Pittsburgh's public works department and an environmental group to remove three truckloads of industrial trash, making room for benches, fountains and plants.

"We went into these communities and said: 'Look at us, we're going to help you,'" she says. "It's not like we did everything. Every detail was organized by us, then we sought out people in the community. We came in and lit a fire under everyone." And now the fire may go out, she fears. "We had to go in front of the community meeting and say 'We're here to help in any way we can.' And we heard, 'Why should we let you help?'"

Says Ament's VISTA colleague Jennifer Flanagan, late of Brooklyn: "When we had programs for kids we literally had to round them up. I went door to door: 'Ma'am, I'll walk your kid there and I'll walk him home."

Such poor, mostly black communities are used to white, only temporarily impoverished people dropping in to help and being airlifted out at the end, with no follow-up, Ament laments: "A year after gaining trust, we're going to have to leave."

"There's a lot of class issues and a lot of race issues and a lot of things you don't see when you're just moving through your day-to-day life," says Flanagan, who is set to experience the North Side first-hand -- albeit from a home on the Mexican War Streets, thanks to her fiancé. "You've got people making over $100,000 and people making just over the poverty level, which in this area means $10,000. You can drive into your home on the Mexican War Streets and never have to deal with what is going on up the hill. It's not just the single mother not arranging for daycare. When you get into their lives you find out all the other issues they're dealing with.

"There's valid issues on both sides" of the economic and racial divide, she allows, but "there's very little one-on-one discussion going on between the sides." Up the street from her new home, for instance, she meets 5-year-olds hanging out with drug dealers. "These issues happen elsewhere," she says. "It's just in the North Side they're pushed up against each other."

VISTA won't be able to help such neighborhoods if their EPA program isn't continued, volunteers fear. Ament worries the North Side playground maintenance won't be funded and the Homewood park's amenities -- only partly purchased and installed -- won't be finished. 

"I would not be surprised," she concludes, "if I came back next year and there's three truckloads of trash on it again."
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