Viewfinder: You have the best story I've heard about how you discovered VISTA.
Christy: When I graduated from college, I started working a full-time job in retail so that I could pay off my student loans. At the time, my mother, who is a librarian, was required to read romance novels in an effort to familiarize herself with the genre. She came across Fire and Rain by Kathleen Eagle, which is based on the author's experiences as a VISTA in 1971 at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. My mom thought that doing VISTA might interest me and so she pressured me to read the book, which I did reluctantly but ended up loving. So yeah, that's where I got the idea to become a VISTA – from a romance novel! I did some online research, found the AmeriCorps website, and submitted several applications to sites out West and/or on Indian Reservations.
VF: What was it like serving with GEAR UP in Hugo, OK?
Christy: Hugo is situated in Choctaw County, where many of the residents are of Native American descent from the Choctaw Nation. GEAR UP was a The Hugo Housing Authority actually donated my apartment to me during my term of service - this is one of my neighors playing guitar with her son. federally-funded program based out of Southeastern Oklahoma State University that encouraged children to pursue college. The program had sites in middle schools throughout Southeast Oklahoma. I worked at the Hugo Junior High, with a cohort group of 7th and 8th grade students who were pre-tested to determine where they were falling behind academically. My job was to recruit community volunteers to serve as one-on-one tutors to the kids who needed additional help with reading, writing, and math.
VF: How did you help these kids?
Christy: Most of the volunteers I recruited were from the local high school. I paired them with students and they worked together on a variety of classroom assignments. I taught some of the children myself, who were targeted by the school to participate in the program because they had behavioral problems on top of struggling to keep up in class.
GEAR UP had implemented some rigorous guidelines for how the tutoring should take place, but it became clear after a few months that these kids weren't responding. I had very little to no experience with teaching, so I improvised as best I could and tried to integrate their academic needs into more creative assignments. I bought each student their own journal and they wrote every day. We also read together, watched classic films (To Sir with Love was one of their favorites) and made artwork.
VF: Did the schools support the program?
Christy: Not in Hugo. We were met with a lot of resistance. The teachers were supportive, but there was a definite gap between the kids and the administration, who expressed frustration with the program because they thought it was a waste of time. In fact, the principal asked why we didn't just give him the money in "a WalMart sack" so he could do what he wanted with it. The classroom I was given was referred to by school staff as "the crow's nest" because it was situated above the gym at the far end of the school and had absolutely no visibility.
VF:How did you handle the resistance from the schools and the administration?
Christy: I just did the best I could. My very first student, Sammy, was very smart but failing almost every subject. He had troubles at home and had run away several times, which made it difficult for him to focus in school. He told me that all he wanted was to pass the eighth grade, so we worked hard every day to catch him up. The principal warned me that I was wasting my time. He said, "That kid is a bad apple who's taking advantage or you. He'll never pass." It made me so angry.
Sammy and I continued to work diligently. Sometimes he brought his guitar to play in my classroom. By the end of the semester he had caught up and passed. He left Hugo shortly afterwards to be with his mom and younger brother in Oregon.
Months later, I still didn't have a thriving program because the school was allowing very few students to participate. One afternoon, while sitting all alone in my "crow's nest" I began to wonder what good I was really doing and actually started crying. Suddenly, the school secretary came onto the loudspeaker to announce that I had a call from Oregon. It was Sammy, who sounded happy and let me know that he was doing well. He even played his guitar over the phone for a bit. I took it at as a small sign from the universe that something good had in fact happened and that I was fortunate enough to have realized it.
VF: That was good timing! What else did you accomplish that you are proud of?
Christy: Just before the school year ended, I attended a Choctaw County Arts Council meeting with a friend of mine who was a local artist. We had tossed around the idea of doing a mural with the kids, and we knew that the Arts Council was getting ready to plan their projects for the summer. So we suggested doing the mural and the Council was very receptive to the idea. We explained that as long as we could get matching funds (in-kind or cash), GEAR UP would help pay for the project.
Shortly afterwards, we met with the American Legion, who owned a huge building with an empty, 700 square foot wall. They agreed to donate the space, which was such a boon since it was right in the middle of town on the main street (I could imagine our principal passing it every day to and from work). The Choctaw Nation agreed to donate snacks and a local business gave us scaffolding. The local paper agreed to photograph and write about our progress every week. Members of the Arts Council volunteered their time to help plan.
Once school was out, we began working with about twenty-five kids who led the project from inception to completion. They chose to make the mural one that contained historical images of Hugo and so they painted everything from the circus and the rodeo to crop dusters and cattle. It was an unprecedented project and I extended my term of service to see it through. At the end, we hosted an unveiling where about a hundred residents, parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, and cousins showed up to celebrate the mural's completion.
VF: How did you find living in Hugo, OK?
Christy: Hugo is a very small, rural town of about 6,000 where it seems like everyone knows everyone else's business. I lived in an old motel that had been converted into a cozy Section 8 housing complex surrounded by pecan groves. The Hugo Housing Authority actually donated my apartment to me during my term of service, which was wonderful. I loved my neighbors, who were very generous and looked out for me. In fact, getting to know them helped me adapt to being in Oklahoma, which was just so different from where I grew up in Columbia, MD.
Roughly a third of the people there live below the poverty line and the unemployment rate is pretty high. In town, there were several small businesses, a WalMart, a rodeo, some restaurants, and an onion factory that smelled funny when you drove past it. Unfortunately, there was also widespread meth use, homelessness, and crime at a rate you might expect in a more urban area.
Outside of town, there were farms and cattle ranches – flat landscapes peppered with haystacks, cows and horses. People waved when they passed you on the road. And just on the outskirts of town were the winter quarters of a few truck-drawn circuses. It wasn't unusual to drive past them and see a giraffe grazing or trapeze artists dangling from up high. I actually taught English to several children from South America who were circus clowns in the summertime.
I certainly had my share of adventures while I was in Oklahoma. I learned how to horseback ride, two step, and shoot a muzzle loader. I ate mountain oysters without knowing what they were – something I'll never do again. I made a pilgrimage to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, TX (which was 30 miles south of Hugo). I never managed to make peace with the tarantulas though I became quite adept at swerving around armadillos while driving down the highway at night.
VF: How do you feel your experience as a VISTA affected you personally and professionally?
Christy: Personally, it broadened my worldview. When I entered AmeriCorps, I really took to heart the notion of being a catalyst and not a leader. At the time, I also felt that if anything I did wasn't potentially sustainable, it wasn't worth doing. So for me, the greatest impact came from living in and becoming a part of the community. In some VISTA sites, it's easy to leave the community at the end of the day. I didn't have that option and I'm thankful for it. I gained an intimate understanding of where I was and who I was serving. That made all the difference in what was ultimately a shared experience.
Professionally, I went on to be a VISTA Leader at Greater Homewood Community Corporation (GHCC) in Baltimore, MD and then earned my Masters of Art and Community Art at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art). I'm now the Director of Development at GHCC, and continue to take part in community art projects here in Baltimore, one of which was voted Best Mural in the City Paper last year.
VF: What advice do you have for VISTAs working on Reservations or with Tribal populations?
Christy: It is important to understand history of wherever it is you're serving. While in Oklahoma, I had the opportunity to visit Choctaw headquarters, learn about the Nation and meet Chief Greg Pyle. I also learned some of the Choctaw language, as it was taught in the schools. Learning about Choctaw heritage gave me a frame of reference and deeper appreciation for their current context, especially in Hugo.
And if you meet with resistance, the most important thing to do is to have faith and be patient. There is always someone in the community who is seeking to make change happen. At the PSO I attended, these folks were referred to as "truth tellers." Seek them out and you can rise above the resistance. Ultimately, it's about building relationships because you really are a catalyst – your job is to facilitate change, which is something you simply cannot do alone.
VF: And knowing how to build relationships should be helpful to you in your current job as a fundraiser?
Christy: Definitely! Fundraising is all about building relationships. Without them, you will most certainly go broke.
VF: How did serving as a VISTA impact your career and your life?
Christy: My VISTA supervisor encouraged me to get my Masters so now I'm going to Kentucky State University for a degree in Public Administration.
As a VISTA Leader, I felt like a "human advocate" – an advocate for all. I help provide others with resources – not just the women I work with. My friends joke about it but they come to me for credit counseling and other advice!
It really is 24/7 – it doesn't leave you because you always wear that AmeriCorps service cap.
VF: Any final words of wisdom?
Christy: If you're considering joining AmeriCorps, look for something that suits you and feels right, but do not hesitate to venture into the unknown. It's inspiring to realize that following your heart is a fundamental step towards making the world a more beautiful, compassionate, and meaningful place. That may sound cliché, but it's a truth that nearly everyone recognizes, no matter where you are!