On weekdays, the Athens-Clarke County Library on Baxter Street is a popular destination for students from nearby Clarke Middle and Clarke Central High schools.

With no daily programming for the students, the library staff last year was busy keeping the peace as the dozens of students gathered to hang out and socialize.

But this year, after UGA’s Office of Service-Learning (OSL) placed an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) at the library, the place has hummed with activity, with the sixth to 12th grade students engaged in chess, painting by water color and learning how to play drums, among other things. More than 5,000 middle and high school students have participated in more than 200 after-school programs offered at the library so far.

“It was momentous year for the young adult department,” says Devera Chandler, teen services coordinator for the Athens Regional Library System, which includes four library branches in Athens and seven branches in surrounding communities. “We are hitting above the national average in attendance for programs.”

Nishat Sial, a 2017 UGA graduate, was selected as an AmeriCorps VISTA and was assigned to the library in July.

Charged with finding activities that would engage teenagers, Sial reached out to community leaders, local businesses and UGA organizations, asking them to volunteer their time and expertise to provide meaningful after-school programs at the library. The response, she said, was tremendous.

“I’ve learned there are so many people willing to contribute in the community,” Sial says. “It’s just a matter of identifying and utilizing those resources to empower others.”

About 72 volunteers signed on to work with the teens and the activities varied greatly. EcoReach, a UGA organization with student members mostly from the Odom School of Ecology, holds environment-centered programs once a month. The mission of EcoReach is to raise awareness and enthusiasm for science among school-age children through fun, hands-on activities.

“I like that the programs are fun and innovative,” says Antonio Starks, an eighth-grade student from Clarke Middle School. Antonio is at the library most afternoons and recently participated in an EcoReach program on butterflies, which examined caterpillars and taught students about the lifecycle of the insect.

In addition, the library hosted a Bling-Your-Prom event in January, offering free dresses, suits, shoes, accessories, ties, makeup and jewelry to teens. Over 500 materials were donated for teens and 123 high school students showed up to prepare for prom. Volunteer seamstresses offered alterations, and all event attendees received a voucher for a free book. All unused items were kept for next year’s Bling-Your-Prom, donated to high schools or to Project SAFE, a charity dedicated to stopping domestic violence.

“Seeing the kids’ reaction was priceless,” says Chandler, who, with Sial, made the library look like a store, with racks of clothes and makeshift dressing rooms. Bling-Your-Prom is something Chandler had wanted to do for several years, and she was able to make it happen with Sial recruiting volunteers and identifying community partnerships. The event was such a success the library plans to make it an annual event.

Sial had committed to the VISTA program before she graduated with a degree in English.

“What drew me to apply to the VISTA program was that it was specifically designed to fight poverty through capacity building and identifying long-term solutions,” Sial says. “The opportunity to go into something like that was appealing to me.”

“The VISTAs are a great addition to UGA and to the local community and they complement work already being done by faculty and students,” says Shannon Wilder, director of the Office of Service-Learning. “It is exciting to see Nishat bring so many volunteers together to share their talents and expertise with Clarke County teenagers.”

Even more students are flocking to the library now, Chandler said, and instead of just hanging out they are taking advantage of the resources that it has to offer.

In 2013, 3,300 young adult books were checked out of the Athens-Clarke County Library on Baxter Street. From July 2017 to March 2018, visitors checked out about 20,000 books and movies.

“We are increasing literacy and changing the perception of what a library is today,” Chandler says. “That’s what having a VISTA member has enabled us to do.”

Having the planned programs also addresses a financial problem that loomed over the county. The library had estimated it would need $38,000 for additional security to manage the after-school crowds. Hearing that, Clarke County Commissioner Kelly Girtz, now Athens mayor-elect, organized a meeting between the library and the OSL, which resulted in the new VISTA position. Clarke County is funding the position, about $13,000 a year—significantly less than what additional security would cost.

“It’s been so successful I want to see it sustained permanently,” Girtz says. “As long as there are (teenagers), there is a need.”

Established in 1965, the AmeriCorps VISTA network connects volunteers with organizations that help to alleviate poverty. VISTA members design long-term, sustainable solutions to problems, recruiting other volunteers and strengthening communities by offering new services. VISTA members serve for typically a year, although some positions may be shorter. Sponsors, like the UGA Office of Service-Learning, supervise and mentor VISTAs during their assignments.

Since 2013, the OSL has coordinated VISTA volunteers to help campus organizations, like the UGArden and the Campus Kitchen at UGA; and community organizations like the Clarke County Mentor Program, the Athens Community Council on Aging and the library.


Writer: Leah Moss, leahmoss@uga.edu, 706-583-0964

Photos: Shannah Montgomery, smont@uga.edu, 706-542-3638

Contact: Shannon Wilder, swilder@uga.edu, 706-542-0535