Viewfinder: What was it like for you to live on the VISTA living allowance?
Ericc: It definitely made me establish good spending habits!
Being low-income as a VISTA turned out to be a blessing. It helped me realize that you can still live a very good life on not a lot of money. You can still be happy.
When you think about the people living in poverty and hear their stories, it makes you feel blessed but it also makes you realize there are so many people with circumstances much worse than mine. Many times they don't complain and often they are the ones giving me hope. No matter how bad my situation gets, I realize there are always people worse off than me, and therefore I am called to find out what they need in order to bring themselves out of poverty.
VF: Why did you choose to serve?
Ericc: It all started with my parents. They raised me to have the philosophy that if you have enough to live on, you should give back. In high school, I started experiencing how good it felt to give back and how much of an impact you can make on other people's lives.
After college, I knew I wanted to take a year off before graduate school – I wasn't ready to go into the "real" world. I wanted to give back even if it was not in my community. I also wanted to use the experience that I gained in college to help inspire others.
VF: Would you say your perspective on poverty changed throughout your year of service? If yes, how?
Ericc: Yes. I learned more about how poverty is not necessarily just physical or obvious to the naked eye. There is internal poverty, spiritual poverty, mental poverty, and so on. In working as a VISTA through Rhode Island Campus Compact, I learned more about just how broad the term poverty really is. Is poverty not having enough food to eat? Is poverty thought of as sleeping on a park bench at night? Is poverty equated to not having a decent education? Is poverty tied to feeling lonely and isolated? I would answer yes to all of the above.
The term poverty often conjures up certain images in one's mind, and perhaps one can say that the word poverty is overused or misused in situations. Whatever the case may be, there are people suffering unjustly (and some justly as a result of their own personal decisions). Everyone deserves access to resources to tend to their basic human needs.
VF: What did you get out of serving?
Ericc: My current job! I'm a training coordinator with the Corporation for National and Community Service. I coordinate AmeriCorps*VISTA & Supervisor Orientations, ensuring that details and logistics are taken care of prior to and during the orientations.
I also really gained an unexpected passion – a serious passion – for VISTA. To me VISTA is not just an experience or eliminating poverty or serving to help people. It's really devoting your life to help make the world a better place.
When I first signed up, I thought I would have a good experience. But I didn't expect to meet all of these amazing people and make such great connections.
VF: Do you think VISTAs should be allowed to work part-time?
Ericc: No, for many reasons. For one, if VISTAs are allowed to work part-time, you'd have to be very clear about how you define part-time. There would be too many "what ifs" and specific scenarios to be addressed. Secondly, it would take away from the experience. For example many of my meetings took place in the evenings with the students and if I had a part-time job, this wouldn't have been possible. Finally, part of the mission of VISTA is to live a simple life – focus on your community and your project and to not be overwhelmed by external factors like work/school.
You have your entire life to work – this should be a year of gaining experience and learning what you can.
VF: What is your advice for VISTA's on how to make the most out of the living allowance?
Ericc: Get to know people in your organization and the environment you're working with – this can lead to people taking you out to lunch! Meet people in the community and explain what VISTA is along with your story. They will want to help you out.
Here are some more tips:
- Get used to fact that you're not making a lot of money – realize this is not a time in your career to make money
- Accept the circumstances
- Mypoints.com, a free website where you get points for making purchases and redeem them for gift/gas cards
- Make gifts for people instead of buying gifts
- Use coupons
- Buy groceries at the store and farmer's markets instead of eating out
- Consider applying for food stamps
- Create a budget and stick to it
- Avoid borrowing money from parents or relatives (unless it is absolutely necessary) because it's part of what makes the experience
- Don't suffer alone! Make your sponsor organization aware of your challenges. Not that it's their role to fix it, but perhaps the organization can accommodate some of your needs.
VF: Any final words?
Ericc: When I'm working at PSO, I always hear people talk about how a year of VISTA is a stepping stone. Use it as a stepping stone but as you step up bring that stone with you. Once a VISTA, always a VISTA. If you really invest yourself, it will stay with you and impact your life and career.