Q&A with Deirdre McKee

Alumni story
Deirdre McKee 1969 1970 Austin
Photo of Deidre and Neighborhood Boys (OK City 1967)
Dierdre Mckee, center

Viewfinder: How did you first learn about VISTA?

Dierdre: Ever since I heard John Kennedy's quote, "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," and read the book Grapes of Wrath I had been paying attention to the War on Poverty. I was in high school and was interested in the Peace Corps but really wanted to do something for the United States.

When I was a sophomore in college I realized that I had such a privileged life and wanted to prove that I could do something for other people, so I joined VISTA.

Grapes of Wrath and John Kennedy changed my life.

VF: Why did you choose to serve?

Dierdre: I can remember asking my father "why was I born in the United States and why was I born white?" and him responding "you know I have no idea." I came from a family where my father had a good job and my family would send me to college no matter what, but I knew that there were people that didn't have this. I realized I had it pretty easy and that it wasn't quite fair that I had it easy, so surely I could do something.

VF: What types of projects did you accomplish as a VISTA?

Dierdre: In Oklahoma, my roommate and I decided to start a Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, and Brownies program. So we became leaders and talked to the administration at the school. They were really excited about the program especially because the students at the school (mainly poor white and American Indians) didn't have anything like that. It was kind of funny that I got involved in starting this program because when I was younger I actually quit the Girl Scouts.

In Texas, I worked on organizing housing projects. They had little organization and really needed it. They were mainly housing developments in the Mexican American community and we worked to help them get better living conditions. I also helped to elect a Mexican American to the Austin city council, since at the time there was no representation of Mexican Americans in Austin political positions. I'm not sure that was completely allowed, but definitely worth it.

VF: Tell us your best story about being a VISTA.

Dierdre: One of the stories that I always tell people about my time in VISTA is that when I was working in Oklahoma, on the other side of the tracks was the African American neighborhood where VISTAs were working. I used to go over there in the evenings and we would all hang out with some of the younger guys from the community. I was 19 and I had never met any black people in my life. So when we were all hanging out they would ask me if I knew artists like Aretha Franklin or Lou Rawls, and I had never heard of them before. Then they would jokingly ask if I had heard of Peter, Paul and Mary, which of course I had. It really put me in my place and made me realize that they knew artists I listened to, but I didn't know anybody they listened to.

Another, really great story was that when we were running our Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, and Brownies program a lot of the programming really didn't relate to people in poverty. But we really wanted them to earn badges. So, we worked on getting them the cooking badge. We had them come over to our house and make Rice-A-Roni. They earned their cooking badge for it! We had a ceremony and everything for them at their school. They were very proud.

VF: What did you get out of serving?

Dierdre: I think, like every VISTA would say, I got a lot more out of it than what I put in. I've learned to always remember that there are people whose lives are not easy. And whenever I think my life or someone with a similar lifestyle thinks their life is rough to remember that it really isn't.

I've also became dedicated to working for people who have not been as lucky as I have been. VISTA taught me the importance of voting and voting correctly and how important education really is.

VF: What are you doing now?

Dierdre: I've just retired. Before retirement I was mostly working in retail management, however the last 9 years I was a Macy's salesperson. Though this job doesn't seem to be directly helping people, many of the people I managed or later worked with at Macy's were 19 and 20 and had 3 kids already. Retail isn't the way it used to be, it is now a case of the working poor. So I spent my time helping the other employees the best I could.

Now I'm trying to get involved in service again. I've been working at a food pantry and I'm looking into options and seeing how I can best be involved in my area.

VF: What advice do you have for current VISTAs or for people thinking about joining VISTA?

Dierdre: I would say that if a person is thinking about joining VISTA, they need to realize what they are getting into. Your background will be quite different and you can be isolated from the people you are helping at times. But if you want to join, then join and do it now. As you get older you will get more involved in other things and don't end up with the time.

It was the most life changing experience for me; it gave me true knowledge about the culture of poverty and made me truly empathic, plus taught me about the importance of voting and voting correctly.

Decade: 1960s