When President Lyndon Johnson took office in 1963, he declared war on poverty. The nation’s poverty rate was at nineteen percent. Over the course of his term, he initiated more than 200 bills and ushered in many of the federal programs active today, including the Medicare and Medicaid programs, early Head Start programs, a host of rural and small-business loan programs, and the VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program. One of the most successful of these VISTA programs is the Arkansas River Valley Area Council (ARVAC), an agency continuing to serve a low-income citizens in a nine-county region in rural central Arkansas.
The VISTA program was created with the passage of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act, which also gave rise to a host of anti-poverty programs, including Upward Bound, Job Corps, work study programs, and rural loan programs. Operating much like a domestic version of the Peace Corps, VISTA had volunteers who were typically middle-class college graduates, and recruitment was often held on college campuses. In some cases, signing on to the VISTA program allowed participants consideration for deferment from military service. All volunteers, who were paid a small stipend, were required to engage in a six- to eight-week training program and were then sent to work in low-income communities across the nation.
In the early years, VISTA workers partnered with Community Action Programs (CAP), which were locally based programs formed under the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) that provided structure for both state and local agencies to receive anti-poverty funding. VISTA programs across the nation were both lauded and highly controversial; program leaders sought to address root causes of poverty and, in many cases, engaged in direct action and local organizing to change the state and community-based structures giving rise to economic inequality, thus challenging local governments. Over the years, VISTA work became more narrowly focused, employing local volunteers to address local problems.
In the 1960s, the poverty rate in the central Arkansas River Valley was around forty percent, much higher than the already high national average. As author Marvin Schwartz notes in the book In Service to America: A History of VISTA in Arkansas, 1965–1985, “Arkansas pioneer life flourished for generations, but by the 1920s the last of the virgin timber stands were gone and so was a livelihood for many river valley residents.” By the 1930s, massive floods, crumbling cotton economies, and the subsequent economic depression devastated the region, forcing already poor residents into dire conditions.
The Yell County region first began engaging with the federal government’s War on Poverty programming in 1964 when a newly organized Yell County Economic Opportunity Program was chosen as one of the first pilot programs in the nation to receive an OEO grant. However, by the following year, ARVAC developed and absorbed the former program, expanding to cover a nine-county service area, including Conway, Franklin, Johnson, Logan, Perry, Polk, Pope, Scott, and Yell counties.
According to early VISTA workers, ARVAC did not develop because of the War on Poverty but rather as a way to bring local leaders together around economic development and issues relating to flood control and navigation of the Arkansas River. According to Bob Adkison, an advocate for the rights of low-income Arkansans who served as executive director of ARVAC until his death in 2013, poverty was not a key issue in the minds of community leaders until they realized the economic opportunities inherent in a VISTA partnership.
As a result of the work of Adkison and early volunteer Lou Vitale, who came to Yell County via early VISTA programming, ARVAC is known today as one of the most successful early programs in VISTA history. In the early days, ARVAC was home to multiple projects focusing on mental health, housing, and folk crafts. In 1965, a short-lived housing co-operative served the African-American community in Dardanelle (Yell County), including services helping residents qualify for Federal Housing Authority (FHA) loans. Counseling Associates was established in 1968 under the name ARVAC Community Health Program, raising funds to provide medicine for the chronically mentally ill. In concert with the goals of VISTA, many of the early programs were incubated within the ARVAC organization but eventually became independent agencies. Some programs were short-lived, while others still exist in the twenty-first century.
A craft co-op began in 1975 under the direction of Lou Vitale and became a separate nonprofit corporation in 1980. The goal of the co-op was to provide a market for area craftspeople to sell their wares to raise money for their families. With the creation of state highways and Interstate 40 running through the area, the craft co-op soon became a large moneymaker. The board of the ARVAC Crafts Co-op was one of the first racially integrated boards in the region, and the operation stayed in business until the 1990s. ARVAC also began a seed bank for area gardeners, started a food pantry, and created programs to help residents with heating bills.
Universal Inc., first known as the ARVAC Housing Development Corporation, utilized the rural tradition of barn-raising to provide housing for low-income families. In 1975, ARVAC opened a residential alcohol, drug, and treatment service for men, eventually growing to include an outpatient facility for women in 1979. Freedom House, as it is known today, serves as an addiction treatment center for anyone eighteen years and older. The center has served more than 14,000 community members, helping people return to their homes and community.