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.