One Year of Service

Today is my last day as an AmeriCorps VISTA (volunteer in service to America), and after one year I have some thoughts about what it means to serve, what this position in particular has meant to me, and some actual, for real reflection about the last year (they ask us a lot of reflection questions at work but unfortunately “I think I recovered from my eating disorder” is not something you tell your supervisor).

I think many people come into their  year of service with a lot of idealistic hopes, intending to make Big Changes, or Change a Life. I don’t know that I’ve done either of those, but what I can say is that I’ve worked hard to leave my organization better than it was when I came in, and I believe in the work my organization does. One of the hallmarks of the VISTA program is that those who are part of it are expected to live on poverty level wages for their year of service in order to have some understanding of what it’s like to live in poverty, or to have the experiences of those that they are helping.

One of the most important takeaways that I get from service is that I will never know what it’s like to actually have the experiences of true poverty or homelessness. I have savings, I have a safety net that will provide for me, and my life will never be like the lives of those who are truly struggling. But I have learned that my struggles are no less valid for that, and that it’s fairly inappropriate and slightly fetishizing to spend my time wondering about what the lives of “those less fortunate” are like. I’d rather spend my time looking at data of how to actually make a difference and then providing real help to real people, whether those people are living in poverty, working for nonprofits, or an obscenely rich donor. I am always committed to those who are oppressed, but I have started to tend towards the mindset that making life easier and happier for anyone is an improvement.

I don’t feel as if I’ve had some life changing experience of making the world a better place, but I do feel like I can say that I’ve actually lived out my commitment to social justice on some level and I have made some sacrifices to do so. That’s a good feeling and I hope that moving forward it will push me to continue doing work like this. If there is anything that this year does for the people who engage in it, I hope it’s that it gives them a solid base to continue working on hard problems (because let’s be honest the year of service itself is not going to solve any problems). This year is far more for the people who are serving than for those their service supposedly benefits because it gives them access to experiences and teachers they otherwise would never have.

And those learning experiences are what have really made my past year worthwhile. GiveMN is a great organization, and I strongly believe in its mission (to grow giving, to democratize giving, to provide opportunities to accept gifts to small nonprofits at low/no cost). Fundraising is really hard and really expensive, and the easier we make it, the more time, money, and energy can go to actual mission work. I am not sure if I would rather be doing direct service, but I love that this work can impact so many other groups and has the potential to drastically change the whole model of nonprofit fundraising. But for me personally, this year has been about learning what it means to work for a nonprofit, meeting literally hundreds of nonprofits and finding out about their missions, exploring different types of nonprofit work, and talking to people about what their career paths have been like. Informational interviews are stressful and uncomfortable, but man are they helpful and interesting.

And through all of this I learned how to be an employee and what my strengths and weaknesses are and how to take criticism and how to work with other personalities. I’ve learned how I need to be deliberate when I work because I tend to speed through projects, and I’ve learned that I need to be more collaborative (surprise surprise). These are the real benefits of the VISTA year because they put young and inexperienced people in positions that demand a fair amount, and say “figure it out”. I feel far more confident in my figuring it out abilities than I have in the past.

But unrelated to my job or my work, I’ve also kind of kicked ass in my personal life this year. I met a lot of people and improved a lot of friendships and started eating more and doing less harmful things. I finally got to start exercising again, my jerkbrain has finally quieted to some extent, and I made a lot of big and important life choices that would have scared the pants off of me in the past. And a big part of this was having a job that expected me to function like an adult, to make phone calls despite high anxiety, to have a performance review and not break down in the middle of it. Expectations are fantastic when they demand more of you than you think you can give.

I suppose the point of all of this is that if you’re interested in an experience that will teach you a lot, will illustrate to you that you can probably survive most anything (including poverty level wages), and give you a good taste for the nonprofit sector, AmeriCorps VISTA is for you. Despite all my whining and moaning I think it was what I wanted and needed.

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