This post was written this month for the blog of the organization I have served as an AmeriCorps VISTA to for the past year, UGIVE.ORG.
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My year with VISTA reinforced my belief in small kindnesses and change that happens bit by bit. Mother Teresa once said, “if you can’t feed 100 people, just feed one,” and VISTA is a passionate group of people whose small, focused deeds weave into a beautiful quilt of volunteerism and civic activism that blankets the country. I didn’t end poverty as we know it in the US, but I also didn’t choose AmeriCorps thinking it was a 1-man show of fame or glory or magnificent acts that will go down in history books.
UGIVE enabled me to spend time with high school students of all backgrounds, and the responses students had to us/UGIVE were not always palatable (to say the least). But one thing we were able to do as VISTAs—beyond practicing what we preached when trying to get them excited about volunteering—was to encourage them to dig deeper within themselves to understand why they are expected to serve in their communities. It’s beyond feeling good or earning school credit; our conversations often wrapped up with students deciding that we as human beings volunteer to create change surrounding something we dislike or disagree with. VISTA provides its members with the tools and network they need to get innovative and start breaking down the wall of systemic, generational, pervasive poverty one brick at a time by empowering and inspiring eager citizens of a community. Many hands make light work, right?
As with any experience, I came into a lot of self-awareness. I prefer direct service more than indirect (the latter tends to leave me feeling drained). I am also TERRIBLE with personal budgeting, and while there isn’t much to bank as a VISTA, I am certain I could have been a bit more resourceful in my finances. Thankfully (on several levels), many of my friends are also AmeriCorps members/post-grad volunteers, so spending time with them made me feel supported and encouraged in finding sweet deals without eliminating small luxuries. The blogs, emails, and social media outputs of those friends also reminded me of la lucha I had chosen for the year and why I should continue to build capacity, even if I was feeling discouraged or unmotivated or bored.
We as post-grad volunteers come out of unemployment/“poverty” because we are among the 1% of college-educated persons in the entire world. We have work experience and references. We have built professional and social networks during the year. AmeriCorps shines the light on poverty but doesn’t recreate it, and that is because poverty is far too complicated to simulate for just one year. I think my understanding that my temporary void-of-a-bank-account was just that—short-lived—really allowed me to ask the more intimidating questions about poverty, like what I will do in my life to continue actively combating it once June 20 rolls around.
So now, my advice to you:
- REFLECT. Release your experiences. Reflecting can turn the best AND worst moments into lessons that can stay with us without eroding away our souls (and our willingness to take action—BOO cynicism!). Reflecting can be a vehicle for sharing your perspective with others not experiencingVISTA. Revisiting your tasks and results will also increase the likelihood that what you’re doing is effective and necessary in your community. If it’s not those things, why are you wasting your energy?
- LOOK AROUND YOU. UGIVE VISTAs (and many in AmeriCorps in general) are lucky—it’s part of our jobs to know of local resources so that our community can learn to sustain itself based on its needs and assets. There are endless numbers of awesome organizations in Cleveland that I’d never even known of (even as someone who grew up here); my pride in northeast Ohio since discovering so many has
skyrocketed. Good things are happening—you simply have tochoose to have the eyes to notice them.
- LEAVE A LEGACY. What are you doing that will actually make a difference to a client, a student, a high school course, or a coworker? Legacies do not always mean your name is in blinking lights to claim credit for a finished product, but if you’re doing what you are good at, you will undoubtedly touch someone or something with your authenticity and the courage you have to really put a piece of yourself into the work you do during your year of service.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”