I Am an AmeriCorps VISTA

When I tell people that I’m VISTA, they get confused. Honestly, I don’t blame them. I’ve been an AmeriCorps VISTA for about four months now and I still have no idea what the hell what is it and what I’m supposed to be doing. Instead of repeating the VISTA history and its mission and blah blah blah of the organization (you can Google it all), I’ll tell you what I know and how I got to where I am.

I was laid off from my restaurant job in November. After that happened, I applied to every job I read on Craigslist. Nothing came up and soon, I had no money for rent or food. I got desperate and thought about leaving the state (Nevada has the worst unemployment rate in the entire country). However, I was encouraged to apply to the AmeriCorps from the director of the shelter I was volunteering at. Out of options, I filled out the application and was “hired” a week, later. I had to wait two months for my position to actually start (which was incredibly difficult since I didn’t have any money and was living in an unpleasant living situation) but after a weeklong orientation, I started at the homeless shelter I once volunteered at.

VISTA stands for Volunteers in Service to America. We “volunteer” our time to help eliminate poverty at the local level. You’re given a VAD, which is an acronym for a piece of paper that details your job description and are placed in a local non-profit that needs serious help but can’t afford to hire full-time, “real” employees. When you agree to become a VISTA, you commit to a year of service at your site. A lot of people don’t make it through the full year, though (I think about quitting all the time). My VAD is pretty simple: I’m to design the shelter website, create a monthly newsletter and request donations from community members and local businesses. I have a year to all this. I’m not cranky about this even though I’m half-way thorough my VAD’s task list. I’ve had several setbacks at the shelter. For the first month, I didn’t have a computer and internet at my office. So, I “worked” for two hours before going home for the day. Even now with things to do, my most of my day is spent gabbing with my officemate and trying to work on my lackluster writing career (a dream that I hope will blow up and be wildly successful one day). My office still doesn’t have a phone or a fax machine even though we were promised that on day one. The communication in my office can get and is often jumbled. A lot gets lost in the mix and half the time, no one knows what’s going on. I assumed with working at the homeless shelter that I would have a lot of interaction with homeless clients but I spend every day in front of my computer. I don’t know about the other VISTAs around town or around the country but I don’t feel like I’m making a difference. I’m not eliminating poverty. I’m playing around on Microsoft Publisher all day, trying to perfect font sizes to my boss’s specifications. I won’t lie- part of me expected to save my corner of the world when I signed up to be a VISTA. But I’m not saving anyone. I leave my office almost every day, feeling incredibly low and disappointed.

As a VISTA, we aren’t paid a salary. Instead, we receive bi-weekly stipends. The amount of these stipends depends on region of the country you live in (for some cities are more expensive to live in than others). These stipends don’t pay much. Because we work with poverty, the VISTA program encourages their volunteers to experience poverty and live below the poverty margin, thus the low amount of money we get every two weeks. I’ve done the math and I make $3.87 an hour during a 40-hour work week. VISTAs aren’t allowed to hold a second position even though many do find work that pays under-the-table. It’s hard living on so little especially with the unseemingly high price of rent and the rising cost of food (I don’t know how other VISTAs with car insurance payments or children to do it). Trying to save cash is tough, as well, especially when you’re me, who is looking to move out of Reno when my year of service is over. We VISTAs are a creative bunch, though. “Nights out” mostly consist of a cheap box of wine at one of our homes while bitching about being broke.

I don’t want to seem to be complaining. I do like my job, especially the other VISTAs I work with. They help fill the long hours with laughter and spontaneous dance parties. Even though I don’t feel like I’m making a difference at my site, my other VISTA friends around the city are doing good work eliminating poverty at the local level. Two of the perks of being a VISTA is receiving a $5,000 education stipend at the end of your year of service (which is great- I have four classes to finish in order to receive my bachelor’s degree and I have no money). The other good thing is that you get to be a first draft pick if you want to get into any government positions.  I hope one day to live abroad and work somewhere in Africa. An easy application process and hire into a decent paying government job would be a godsend.

As any great journalist, I researched the hell out the AmeriCorps and the VISTA program before applying. I read Anti-AmeriCorps sites (which surprisingly, there are a lot of) and I was feeling hesitant during my Pre-Service Orientation (of course, I cried right before I took the oath). I hope with those looking to join any branch of the AmeriCorps- or PeaceCorps for that matter- carefully consider their options. Remember that you’re going to be without money for a long while and that your VAD may not reflect everything you’re going to accomplish. Though I’m not 100% satisfied with my experience, I do hope things will get better. I may have joined the AmeriCorps looking for some sort of steady employment but I do have a great desire to help inspire change. I know that I probably won’t see any major improvements on my end but I do have a better insight to how our country treats its poor. No one, no matter what their background is, should be homeless and hungry. We need to take better care of each other as humanity, brothers and sisters, and I hope that work of the AmeriCorps will help motivate that.

Teeth or Eyes?

“The average American owes $47,500 in debt.” –the Atlantic magazine, June 2012

Last week, my tooth chipped. My mouth’s in pain, it hurts to chew and I keep on having these vivid hallucinations that all my teeth (and all my fillings) are falling out. About a month ago while out dancing with friends, my glasses fell on to the floor, leaving a massive scratch on the one of the lens. Dentistry and optometry. Both doctor visits are expensive. I need both but unfortunately, I can’t afford both at this time. So, what do I pick?

When I’m old and look back on my life, I’m going to dub my twenties as my “trying to save my ass years.” I’ve gotten myself into plenty of trouble, with a lot of my problems being financial ones. I owe this amount for a hospital bill, this amount for an old phone bill I never paid, this amount to a friend who help pay my rent last year. All this is adding up. I don’t know about you but this is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night. I lie in bed with a throbbing headache, watching dollar signs dart across my eyes. I severely stress about never paying anything off and not paying anyone back. I may not have any credit cards but I know that my debt is expanding with growing interest rates. I’m not saving my ass at all.

It’s hard to pin down the exact statics for the amount of debt the average twenty-something has (I spent an hour researching on Google. No prevail). I know what debt I have: about $11,000 without adding in student loans and the money I owe friends and family. I only make a couple hundred of dollars every two weeks with my position at the homeless shelter. According to the AmeriCorps guidelines, I can’t hold another job position (even though I’m trying to bypass this step and find under-the-table paid work). After being rejected, my food stamps application has been approved. Having SNAP benefits will help my minimal paycheck and food purchase, but I’m afraid that isn’t enough. What about my eyes and teeth? There are such things as low-cost dental and vision care but my boss warned me about the cheap dentist who rather pull chipped teeth instead of fill them. Does it really have to come to this?

It’s not only my healthcare but some little things in my life. I want to be able to go out and buy a pair of jeans that don’t have a hole in the crotch. I haven’t bought myself a new bra in almost two years (I’ve lost weight and hold the backs up and together with safety pins). I wish I could buy all my friends nice birthday gifts. My boyfriend and I once talked about traveling together, possibly going to New York City in the fall for Thanksgiving. Oh yeah- I wouldn’t be able to afford that either.

We all know this word but do we really know what it means (?): budget. I groan when I hear that word and associate it with all the negativity in the world. But budgeting is a good thing. One needs to know when to stand back and observe. That I have been doing. I signed up for a Mint.com account, which notifies me of my spending habits. I went to credit counseling and learned what exactly I owe to whom. I’m in the process of calling those who I owe money to and explaining to them that I’m living under the poverty margin and can only give them this low amount of monthly payment (surprisingly, my bill collectors  are understandable and reduced some of my balance). I’m noticing what I exactly money on and am trying to earn more by selling my plasma twice a week. It sure doesn’t feel like but I am slowly making progress.

As for things like affordable healthcare, I hope one day soon it is actually made affordable for everyone. I spoke with some of my clients at the shelter; a young family forced into living out on the streets after their young daughter became ill and needed a life saving surgery. The little girl is now cured but her family lost their home and depleted their savings trying to afford the medical bills. Everyone gets sick, some more severely than others. No one should lose their homes, their lives because they got sick.

On another note, my heart and deepest sympathies go out to those hurt and lost loved ones during Monday’s Boston Marathon. I send you all my deepest condolences. Justice will be found.

It’s Just Emotion Taking Me Over

Any emotion, if it is sincere, is involuntary.” ~Mark Twain

A little something about me: I freak out about everything. And I mean, everything. This past weekend, I had one episode after another. After a nap, my body went into well-rested overdrive and I felt like I need to accomplish all the tasks on my to-do list and save the world. As much as my poor boyfriend wanted to snuggle on the couch and watch an episode of “Mad Men” with me, I just couldn’t do it. My brain was spinning out of control and my feet needed to move or they would fall off. So as he rested from a long day, I danced while cleaning his entire kitchen. One of my molars chipped badly (damn you, Easter candy) and I thought all my teeth were falling out of my mouth. So, I spent a good 45 minutes Saturday night brushing all the corners of my mouth until my gums and tongue bled. I am so behind with work right now that I’m already freaking about all the sleep I will miss over the next few days and am imagining myself as a zombie when I finally get to bed Friday night.

After talking about my emotional cleaning frenzy and thanking me for the cleanup, my boyfriend sat me down and told me to calm down, that he loved me but thought I was too emotional for my own good. I promised him that this would be something I would fix but honestly, I have no idea how to “calm” myself. I have always been this way. I can cry at the drop of a hat but on the opposite spectrum, I can find the littlest, happiest joy in just about anything (like holding a wiggly earthworm). It’s the emotional roller coaster that, and I won’t lie, I enjoy riding. I think about other people who enjoy the similar voyage, going up and down and up and down.

As I explained to the boyfriend this morning, I told him that he was right- I needed to act more like a grown-up. Grown-up (at least the “grown-ups” I know) can control their emotions. Adults don’t have tantrums like a four year old. Adults may get sappy-eyed while watching “the Notebook” but they don’t get freak out about teeth and being extremely bored. It’s all about being mature, stable and in control- qualities that I need to practice but can totally achieve. I’m starting with mediation and breathing exercises- let’s see if these works…

Until I reach my future relax state, don’t tickle me. Then, I’ll throw a fit and probably jab my elbow into your nose.