Best VISTA Member and Best VISTA Project 2020

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Release Date: 
Friday, March 13, 2020

We are grateful for our VISTA members and the unique perspectives and strengths they bring to the public defense world. For National AmeriCorps Week, to honor our outstanding members, we asked for nominations for Best VISTA Member and Best VISTA Project. After reviewing the incredible nominations, we have our winners!

With fanfare, we announce that Grace Ortez at the Office of the Appellate Defender (OAD) in NYC won Best VISTA Member and Yamilex Pena, at the Lubbock Private Defender Office (LPDO), won Best VISTA Project for her 911 Alternatives Community Engagement. A’Narris, our Detroit VISTA member and Wan Qi, one of our New Orleans VISTA members, follow-up winners for Best VISTA member. Amanda in Santa Barbara and Coulter in New Orleans are follow-up winners for Best VISTA Projects.


Grace, serving her second year, has consistently shown generosity and tireless passion for improving services for public defense clients and her community. Grace puts OAD’s clients and community at the center of her work and uses her warm and energetic personality to bring in non-attorney partnerships that clients need. Not only does she seek out partnerships for her office, she goes out of her way to mentor other VISTA members and welcome new VISTA members to the national team. She deeply understands how connected indigent defense is everywhere and shares the resources to build sustainable change across the country.


Our runner-up, A’Narris, has emerged as a community leader, showing empathy and strength, in her VISTA year. Other VISTA members has been inspired by her passion for justice and community wellness. A’Narris helps her office engage with their community in a holistic manner, through workshops that empower clients to grow beyond their circumstances. She champions second opportunities and creates possibilities for others to succeed wherever she goes. She has truly taken the opportunities that AmeriCorps has given her to make the world a better place for people who struggle the most.


Wan Qi, our next runner up, shows vision and embodies the mission of VISTA to build capacity for alleviating poverty. Since joining the Orleans Public Defenders as a Community Outreach VISTA, she has shown wisdom, grace and professionalism well beyond her years. She has helped spearhead our Equity Campaign to establish funding and resource parity for our office, singlehandedly created a 10 week financial literacy course for the community, helped to bring participatory defense to New Orleans, and taken over managing a very overstretched, yet well-intentioned, group of social justice activists in creating a city-wide Know Your Rights presentation.


For Best VISTA Project, Yamilex, a 2018-19 member, created a curriculum to engage the community in how to respond to mental health crises. Through this, she has engaged the Lubbock, Texas community, particularly a local coffee shop that now recruits volunteers to provide transportation to clients. The problems of the criminal justice system can seem too large for community members to know where to begin, but Yamilex’s creative project has educated, broke down stigma, and made Lubbock safer.


Amanda, one of our runner-ups, started her service in an emergency point in Santa Barbara, California. She helped her office prevent the arrest of 200 people evicted from a riverbed homeless encampment and from there; she made it her mission to serve clients experiencing homelessness. She assisted in reducing recidivism programming for justice-involved homeless clients, developed resource guides, organized sleeping bag drives, and helped develop the Community Defender Division.


Our next runner up, Coulter, has changed how the Orleans Public Defender uses data to tell the story of their work and service for clients, particularly for mental health representation. He has shown a willingness to help where necessary, think critically and creatively, and brainstorm inventive ways to better serve our clients and show the impact of that work. His research and service is laying the groundwork for the new Municipal Mental Health Unit.


We are so thankful for the amazing VISTA members and host sites. Check back later today to read Grace’s Why as we finish out National AmeriCorps Week.