I first joined VISTA in 1968: the year of the Beatles, flower children, demonstrations, LSD, marijuana and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. After graduate school, I could have joined the demonstrations or “dropped out,” but I wanted to connect to a dividing nation. I needed to get involved.
That’s when a friend told me about a new program. He had just returned from a year’s service in VISTA and talked about giving back to the community, of gaining experience and knowledge of himself and the world. I wanted a meaningful, rewarding experience where I could make a difference, grow and reach out to others. VISTA seemed to fit the bill.
After a week training in the seedy Tenderloin district of San Francisco and another week in the beautiful Napa Valley wine country, five of us were sent to a Women’s Job Corps Center in Albuquerque, N.M., to be resident advisors for the young women living there in an old converted hotel. The women arrived mostly from surrounding states, but included a small group from Hawaii.
The group was predominately African-American, followed by Hispanic, Caucasian and Hawaiian. The Job Corps provided education courses so they could get their GED (general equivalency diploma). To help ensure stability for their future, Job Corps also offered training for occupations ranging from secretarial to childcare to store clerks. Some women even attended beauty school. Two of us had teaching credentials and were able to substitute in many of the GED classes.
We spent most of our time with the residents serving as their mentors and confidants. We were expected to interact with them as much as possible. At night, when the head advisor left, it was our responsibility to keep order and watch over the women. There was one security guard on duty and cameras surrounding the building. It was like being in a fortress. All of the inhabitants, except for us, were expected to be in by curfew.
There really was no way we could have been prepared for what we walked into at the center. There was underlying tension at all times; arguments and racial problems were always there, waiting to surface. It was our job to ensure that these did not escalate or erupt. Not an easy task. The atmosphere was unlike anything we had ever experienced. The women we came to know and understand had led lives drastically different than ours. We never had to overcome the barriers of race and poverty. We were not viewed as their equals because we were privileged: white, educated, upper class and free. We had seemingly unlimited access to the world, whereas they were bound by norms and stereotypes.
Over time, the residents did come to respect and accept us as a valuable resource, their friends. I found it amusing that they actually had more money than we did; and were always willing to buy us soda, candy and other treats. They lived and ate, joked and sang with us, but still we were different. We wanted to include them in our society, but I realize now we actually wanted them to be the same as we were. I naively thought that if they were to accept all we represented, their lives would be fine.
I'm not sure if we made any difference in the world. I'd like to think we did, but I'll never be truly sure. I met a lot of different women, and I hope I helped and inspired more than one. I do know that year made a huge difference in my life. I was never the same person again. That naive young woman was permanently changed. I learned there are others around me who are different, and that is how it should be. I came to appreciate the diversity in our world and never looked at our social system in quite the same way again. Now I am more cognizant of the needs of those around us and the ways we can all give to others. Although a part of me has become a little jaded with time, I still believe in the goodness of people and service.
My VISTA story, however, didn’t end in the 1960s. I went on to become a teacher, wife, and mother. After retiring, I saw an advertisement for an AmeriCorps*VISTA position with the Washington Reading Corps, a program that helps struggling readers. I was immediately attracted to the opportunity to promote literacy because literacy and education are things close to my heart.
After becoming an AmeriCorps*VISTA Leader, I helped establish Tutoring and Volunteer Management curriculums and trainings. My involvement with the United Way, Member Development Institutes, Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, AmeriCorps, Points of Light Conference, and local youth committees helped prepare me for these duties. I built partnerships with local businesses that donated capital and materials to help the Washington Reading Corps program and I recruited volunteers that provided individualized attention to students. I also assisted with community beautification projects, as well as empowered and increased awareness of marginalized groups via the Civic Engagement Program.
My dedication to achieving the Washington Reading Corps goals led to my current position as a co-site supervisor at Lowell Elementary School in Everett, Wash. I oversee AmeriCorps members who have volunteered their year of service here. Together, we test, schedule, tutor, recruit and train adult and peer/cross-age tutors, set up and coordinate an after-school reading program, and involve the parents and the community in all of our events.
What I’m doing is challenging and rewarding. I love every minute of it. When you're in service to others you become a positive force that helps someone attain new levels, levels that would not have been reached without you. Your efforts, no matter how small, can help someone achieve their fullest potential.
While personally satisfying and rewarding; service also adds perspective to struggles and hardships you might encounter. But if you forge ahead with devotion to your cause and your eye on the future, it helps make your service a success.
In many ways my time serving as a VISTA came full circle. The Kennedys, two of the Beatles, and Martin Luther King are gone, and once again our country faces a turbulent time. There are still drugs, racial problems, and young men dying in faraway countries. I still see fear in the eyes of our children. People still go to bed hungry, unable to read or find employment.
I know now, though, that people still work, as I do, to make a difference. As long as we continue enlisting others in service to one another, we will be successful. Martin Luther King’s dream has not yet been realized, but we're a little closer.