My life is not just a checklist.

Before VISTA my jobs and life were all about checklists.

Name badge-check.

Apron-check.

Smile-check.

But what if the smile wasn’t a job requirement or a checkbox, but it was a benefit?  It was an outcome that was caused by the work I was doing? What if the smile on my face reflected the joy and passion that was in my heart? What if the passion and joy not only benefitted me but also began to reach those around me, to empower others, to educate, to change my tiny corner of the world?

In the world of volunteerism and mentoring, we often tell ourselves that in order to engage the community, we must show them how volunteering benefits them as well as those they are serving. When I signed up to be a VISTA, I could see a lot of benefits. It looks good on a resume, I get a great scholarship, and I can move closer to family. However, these benefits are far outweighed by those I couldn’t see when I signed on for the job.

I don’t think I will ever forget my interview for my VISTA position. I was sitting in the middle of a dusty kitchen floor, in a camp uniform from the 1920’s, answering questions about things I already loved: Kids, books, and people. The cell connection was terrible and I was SO nervous. I don’t think I will ever forget hearing my now supervisor say, “this sounds like a great fit” towards the end of the call. In my head, I wholeheartedly agreed and hung up hopeful. Two hours later, I received the call and accepted the job.

A month after accepting, I packed up my Subaru Forrester and made the journey east from Orcas Island, Washington to Virginia Beach to start my year of service. I can honestly say I had no absolute idea what I was getting myself into. I expected hard work and challenges, and it sounded like books and kids would be the main focus, which I was excited about. I expected a lot out of myself and hoped that in some small way, for the next year of my life, I could make a difference. There was a lot I didn’t understand and there is still so very much that I don’t know, but I committed myself to learning and growth. I took an initial leap, and that made all the difference.

On September 12, 2017, I walked into my office in city hall and was immediately greeted by kind smiles, introductions, a tour, and a bag full of things I might need to help me get started. I connected the voices I had heard on the phone to the change-makers that I was meeting. It felt nice to be welcomed so warmly, and so the benefit smiles began. As I watched videos and learned about my program’s mission and what I would be doing, the smiles only grew larger and larger. However, the obligatory smile was not the only thing that changed. I started waking up and thinking, “this is real life?! This is really MY job.”  As I led trainings and watched videos and learned and grew, I became more and more invested not only in my VISTA position but also in my organization’s mission. The conversations I had with people who had seen my program at work were inspiring, they were encouraging, and they brought me to life. I would leave “work” completely overwhelmed by statistics, information, joy, and inspiration.

As the year continued, I found myself growing, changing, and falling more and more in love with the idea of working in a volunteerism and service field. My supervisor had mentioned early on (my second day on the job) that if I wanted, I could stick around for VISTA year 3. The more I thought about it, the more this seemed like a spectacular idea. When my VISTA leaders came for my site visit, I decided it was time to announce my decision to stick around for VISTA year 3. There was no turning back now. There wasn’t a question in my mind that this was where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing. Just a few short weeks later, I thought the opportunity might be gone.

When the 2018 national budget was announced my heart sank. Emails circulated and we were told that CNCS and AmeriCorps might get cut. I was devastated, not because I might lose my job, but because the beauty of VISTA and Virginia Beach Reads might be lost. My heart hurt when I thought of doing anything else. I was overwhelmed and deeply saddened to think that something that had helped me find myself might no longer exist, but the ache I felt the most was the thought of hundreds of children who, while already facing adversity and struggle, might miss out on yet another opportunity. A unique opportunity that isn’t like the rest. Because you see, the most beautiful part of the VB Reads VISTA experience is getting to give a child the gift of love and friendship. Many of the relationships that had formed in front of my eyes were proof that hope helps, that mentorship is empowering, and that VISTA and volunteerism changes the lives, not just of first graders, but of entire families, communities, and schools.

As the months passed and hope was restored, I saw that I was not alone. I learned how many people really stand with and for national and community service. I saw people who had not been previously engaged in service write their congressmen letters and make phone calls pledging their support. I attended conferences where a VISTA polo was a badge of honor and we spotted each other across the room. I heard Neil Bush pledge his and his family’s support for the AmeriCorps network through tears. Oddly enough, this took place only three hours from the dusty floor where I interviewed. It was yet another confirmation that I was right where I was, and am, supposed to be. As a VISTA, not every day is amazing; poverty is hard, and compassion fatigue is real, but there is ALWAYS something amazing in every day.

For the reasons above, I could not be more excited to serve for another year. Not much brings me more joy than a volunteer excitedly proclaiming the news that their child leveled up, or when a mentor lights up telling me about meeting the child’s entire extended family unexpectedly in the local McDonalds. To work behind the scenes and change little lives is the best way I have ever spent my time and the cool thing is? The best is yet to come!