Americorps VISTA in Chester

25 May 2014

Over the past year, I have been serving as an Americorps VISTA. Think Peace Corps but within the United States. The federal government pays me a small stipend to volunteer full-time with a nonprofit organization for one entire year. Straight from the federal program website, the Corporation for National and Community Service describes AmeriCorps VISTA members, stating that they “…are passionate and committed to their mission to bring individuals and communities out of poverty.  Members make a year-long, full-time commitment to serve on a specific project at a nonprofit organization or public agency. They focus their efforts to build the organizational, administrative, and financial capacity of organizations that fight illiteracy, improve health services, foster economic development, and otherwise assist low-income communities.”

My VISTA placement is with a nonprofit organization called Earth Force, a national organization that works with communities to support young people in finding their voice while assuming leadership roles in solving local environmental problems.

Chester, PA is the specific community that I have been working with to establish opportunities for young people from all walks of life to actively make positive change to the environment at their schools, in their neighborhoods, and in partnership with their communities. Even though Chester is only about 5 miles away from Media, PA (& Sangha Space), the two are drastically different. The Chester community struggles with issues of poverty, food access, environmental justice, violence, and inequalities in education that many Media residents do not come face to face with every day.

When I accepted this VISTA assignment, I knew all of the information above. I knew it in the sense that I read the text; I read the mission statements, job descriptions, geographic statistics, and reports. But I didn’t know it like I know it now, having lived this work for the last 10 months. I couldn’t fathom the intricate complexity of the hulking challenges I had signed up to face. At times, I made tiny progress. Many times, weeks worth of work produced no identifiable outcome. Occasionally, I felt empowered by watching a student explain why their environment and school community were important to them. More often, I experienced a heart heavy with disappointment.

During a month when I was feeling that my role in the Chester community was almost downright useless, I decided to read The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer. As a yoga intern at Sangha, I have some choice about which books I imbibe from the studio library. I was drawn to the reading because of the subtitle, “Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life.” Lately I had been noticing through my yoga practice that I was hiding from something inside myself and that it was at least somewhat related to my work for Earth Force.

I am not a classroom teacher, but this book speaks to anyone who disseminates information and interacts with people through their job. In the introduction, Palmer states who this book is written for, saying:

“If you are a teacher who never has bad days, or has them but does not care, this book is not for you. This book is for teachers who have good days and bad, and whose bad days bring the suffering that comes only from something one loves. It is for teachers who refuse to harden their hearts because they love learners, learning, and the teaching life.”

If you experience struggles and successes and want to revisit what made you passionate about a job or cause or activity, this book is fascinating journey.

Many of the ideas, suggestions and explorations helped me to see my role with the Chester community, with Earth Force, and with Americorps VISTA more authentically.

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