The AmeriCorps Dream
What the hell was I going to do to keep it together? In the fourteen months immediately following graduation, I tore through five countries, a bank account with a balance of three dollars and eighty-one cents, three heartbreaks (two received, one doled out), and several lost friendships. I spent the winter in the ringer of the medical-psychiatric-pharmaceutical-business complex and was spat out in the early spring. I worked nice, small-potatoes jobs in retail, hawking spices and books. My patience was wearing thin, and my ambitions, once lofty, had disappeared somewhere between my umpteenth overdraft notice and my daily recitations of “we have five kinds of cinnamon!” A system, a structure, was what I needed next.
I’d always had a strong desire to serve others, though now it was tempered with a healthy, liberal-arts-induced dose of skepticism about the impulse of the privileged to help the so-called “needy.” So I looked for the most organized way to indulge my desire, which led me to AmeriCorps. One week after I applied, I had an interview with an organization serving homeless and at-risk youth. Two weeks later, I had a job. Three weeks later, I was living in a new city, dressing out of a suitcase, and sharing a bed with an old friend while I searched for a bed of my own. Everything was new and most things would have been frightening, but I had a semblance of purpose and definition.
AmeriCorps is a service program, but it tries to offer a range of different experiences for its members, and so the idea of service it promotes can come across as hokey and vaguely cultish. When you join AmeriCorps, you “swear in” with a “pledge” to “get things done for America!” You may or may not attend a conference where you are encouraged to wear the same green shirt for four days “so that you look more inspiring in group photographs,” and your supervisor may or may not, with an ironic tinge to her voice, refer to the place where rules and regulations are formed as “The Corporation.”
In my program, which is similar to most AmeriCorps programs, members must complete 1,700 hours of service over the course of ten and a half months. We live off of a stipend of $1,050 a month. We get food and transportation assistance, but not housing assistance. If we successfully complete our terms, we receive $5,000 that we can put towards education—past loans, or future learning. We live hand-to-mouth for nearly a year, and while doing so, hold down a job that a non-profit would otherwise have to pay a full-time staff for. When I started AmeriCorps, I had only two vague ideas about what I would be doing: that I would be “volunteer coordinating,” something I had no experience with, and that I would be doing some direct service work with homeless youth.
“Some” is an understatement. I work in a drop-in center, which means that people come to us for a variety of reasons. As a result, there is no such thing as a typical day in my workplace.
One day, I help one other person conjure up lunch for thirty people from pork patties and twenty pounds of carrots. And when we serve the meal, there are no seconds, because sixty people show up for lunch instead of thirty. And some people can’t eat pork and don’t like carrots, so they don’t eat.
One day, I’m making art with two young men who talk to me about Kid Cudi and their drug addictions.
One day, I’m sitting on the floor with my back against the wall, listening while a young man talks about having a friend die in his bed.
One day, I step out from the back room to find one of my coworkers on the phone with the police. Another has her arms wide, keeping the kids inside the building away from the front door. Two young men are outside, both of whom have been to the clinic before. One shoves through the door with blood pouring down his face, stumbles to the forks, grabs two, and declares, “I’m going to stab that motherfucker.”
None of us are soldiers, police — anyone who we are taught in the movies can “keep you safe.” But we are trained de-escalators. And we know our young people. We talk both of them down, break stares, speak in low, calm voices. Even in this case, which sounds like a potential bloodbath, everyone walks away safe.
Despite all this, there are some routines that happen every day. At eight thirty each morning, breakfast begins. Twelve thirty, lunch. Six o’clock, dinner. I stack the same dishes in lemon soap each day, unlock the same bathrooms, knocking twice and entering hip-first in case there is someone inside. I often reiterate the same rules for the same young people—asking this one to stop wielding a pool cue like a sword, asking that one to stop saying bitch because while swearing is encouraged, oppressive language isn’t tolerated here.
And occasionally, there are good surprises. One day, a young man who has spent almost all of his time here pretending to be invisible bursts through the door smiling.
“My baby’s a girl!” he beams, and he goes around to each staff member to tell them the news. He heads outside to smoke and I smile to myself, marveling not just at the news, but at his willingness to open his heart here, to share this with us.
AmeriCorps provided some of the structure I needed after graduation. But the real reward, for me, was the gratification of helping others to fulfill their needs. As it turns out, I love navigating chaos, as long as it is (mostly) confined to a work week, and not rampaging through my own life. I love talking to people and hearing their stories. I like being a passive supportive presence and actively meeting basic needs. I like to be constantly reminded that young people are bright and resilient regardless of their bad luck. It is these moments, the days when the doors are burst open for the sharing of good news, when I am sure I would not want to be doing anything else.
College life doesn’t last forever. Get prepared for what comes next. Stories from the front lines here.
image – George Armstrong