A vital detour
AmeriCorps deployment to Sacramento provided lessons in poverty, humanity
After graduating college, it felt like I had two career moves—pursue an unpaid internship or attend graduate school prematurely without a taste of the work world. I found a different path.
For two years, I dedicated my life to social service in Sacramento through AmeriCorps VISTA, a national work program that recruits new college graduates or people with at least three years of work experience. VISTAs toil in the nonprofit sector, in the form of volunteer recruitment, grant writing, fundraising or program development. For our work, we are paid what would be considered a poverty wage and earn a $5,775 Segal Educational Award after a year of service. I earned $980 a month and was encouraged to seek out food stamps. The idea is to embed us in poverty conditions at the same time we’re plunging into the lives of those combating the daily injustices of poverty.
I’m still tallying the lessons.
While many serve as VISTAs on their home turf, I traveled 2,563 miles from my hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., to Sacramento. At the onset, my career objectives were unclear, but AmeriCorps was a surefire way to escape a barista job that was leaving me overly caffeinated and frappucino-ed out.
As a VISTA, I settled into the 40-hour workweek—spilling coffee on thrift store-sourced office wear while taking in the great expanse of human diversity, experience, love and sorrow along the way.
My first assignment was with Sacramento Steps Forward—often branded the city’s solution to homelessness. SSF distributes federal funding to other nonprofits focused on homeless services, relief and affordable housing. I interviewed guests of the Winter Sanctuary, the seasonal emergency relief shelter that SSF operates, and quickly grasped the misery of homelessness and the volatility of shelter life.
Later, I transferred to Wellspring Women’s Center, an oasis of hope in the city’s rapidly changing Oak Park neighborhood. Wellspring embraced me, as it does everyone who walks through its doors. It became my family—the kind of magical one you dream up as a child, untainted by hereditary scars or expectations. At Wellspring, I became intimate with the issues of homelessness, mental illness and motherhood. I interviewed nearly 90 guests, staff and volunteers who were brave enough to let me document their life stories on my blog, “Tales from the Heart of Wellspring Women’s Center,” which shed light on the center’s mission of healing through a prescription of love, acceptance and support. I marveled at the resilience of many coping daily with unbelievable adversity.
More recently, I served an assignment with United Way’s summer lunch program for children often faced with food insecurity while school is out. I served lunch at Mutual Housing at River Garden, a low-income housing complex in North Natomas that offered a new dimension of my adopted home and its immigrant experience, with Russian, Afghani, Hispanic, Iranian and Indian families forging an American dream. Aromas of saffron, curry, cilantro and fried chicken graced the housing complex, which featured a community garden and harvest of fresh vegetables.
In hindsight, volunteer service provided a genuine world education that you can’t find in a classroom; ample writing fodder for my post-AmeriCorps endeavor, pursuing a master’s degree in nonfiction writing at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, far-flung from my home away from home; and an invaluable lesson from the heart of Sacramento.