My time with River Six Team was scattered and kind of hit-or-miss.
As much as I hoped to at least see some of what the National Civilian Community Corps volunteers did during my month of studying AmeriCorps, I only saw them actually helping residents fill out their taxes twice, both times at the offices of the United Way in Charleston.
They’d been in a room off to the side.
“If you’d just been here this morning,” team leader Michael Kunath told me when I stopped by once. “We were slammed.”
I didn’t doubt it.
In physics, there’s something called “the observer effect.” It’s the theory that the act of observing a phenomenon or situation changes that phenomenon.
I’ve seen it in action.
Two years ago, I spent a month with the Kanawha-Charleston Human Association. As part of my time with them, I’d rode along with humane officer Jerry Anderson in his truck.
Talking with Jessie Shafer about it, I’d imagined an action-packed day of chasing dogs and rescuing kittens.
Instead, Jerry and I drove around for hours, going from one end of the county to the other and back again, listening to ’80s pop music on the radio.
We only saw two dogs. One was legally chained up, though probably aggravating the neighbors. The other dog got a free meal from Jerry but otherwise eluded us beneath the bed of a parked truck trailer.
Jerry told me it was the easiest shift he’d ever had.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” he asked me.
Hanging with the Corps
When there wasn’t much to do, the AmeriCorps volunteers and I talked about their families, their vague plans for the future and some of their misadventures.
In Marion, South Carolina, Bryce Sullivan and Thea Zydek said they’d been shot at.
“We were just walking,” Bryce said. “We’d all been together so much for so long, Thea and I just went for a walk.”
The two were openly a couple, but with the near-constant presence of eight other people, getting time alone together could be complicated.
The pair had gone out for some air, which probably wasn’t a great idea.
“The neighborhood wasn’t good,” Michael said. “It was very poor and kind of seedy. It was down from a college and, apparently, students got jumped sometimes.”
Bryce and Thea were targets.
Bryce said that as they were walking, a car pulled up in front of them. A man with a gun got out and then shot at them.
“We ran as fast as we could,” he said.
Some of the team members thought the whole thing must have been a prank — that the gunfire had been fireworks or caps, but not bullets.
Dakota Graham, the team’s designated spoiler and devil’s advocate, said, “I don’t see how they could have missed.”
The police were called, and the home office pulled the different NCCC teams from the neighborhood and redeployed them somewhere else or sent them on to their next project.
The group talked a lot about food, though I tended to show up around lunchtime. I got the feeling they worried about going hungry. I don’t think they really did — it was just a threat that hung over their heads because of limited resources.
One evening, I tagged along as they scrounged through the Walmart at Southridge looking for groceries to feed the 10 of them for the week.
As members of the NCCC program, they were each budgeted $4.25 for food per day.
“That’s a lot of beans and rice,” I said when they told me.
Michael, the team leader, nodded, saying he hadn’t thought of it that way.
“Yeah, we do eat a lot of beans and rice,” he said.
The amount seemed like a pittance, but they pooled their resources for groceries and Michael said they did alright. They bought some items in quantity. The group went through a lot of peanut butter, white bread and ramen noodles but regarded other groceries as occasional indulgences.
They didn’t buy a lot of orange juice.
To save money, they took many meals together. Everyone got a turn planning and preparing meals.
They had hamburgers, pizza and stews.
“Dakota likes to make meatballs,” Michael said.
Walmart was a favorite grocery store because they’re practically everywhere. They’re laid out roughly the same way, and they’re cheap.
“Greater Value brand is our friend,” Jiaya Wilson said.
The group also liked the free, in-store samples and welcomed whatever free meals happened to come their way.
The group seemed very enthusiastic about the sack of Tudor’s Biscuits I brought by one morning, though I don’t know for sure if they actually ate them.
The staff at the United Way in Charleston plied them with doughnuts, brownies and cookies during the group’s stay and took them out to dinner at least once.
Individually, the NCCC members supplement their food allowance with their own money. Dakota said it was a necessity. The choice parts from the pantry tend to disappear first. In between grocery store runs on the weekends, good things to eat can get a little scarce.
“I never want to run out,” he said.
Food was sometimes a friction point.
During the Christmas break, Dakota had gone back to the NCCC campus in Vicksburg, Mississippi, rather than go home.
It was cheaper than hopping a bus, and NCCC campus was practically a ghost town. He looked forward to the break from the road and time away from his team, but he wasn’t entirely alone. Other teams had people who stayed behind, too.
“I bought a big box of Klondike bars while I was at Vicksburg. It should have been more than enough to last me,” he said. “I got one. Everybody helped themselves to the box.”
He was still bitter about it.
Michael said being part of the team teaches people to budget and, so far, the team hadn’t really had much trouble with keeping fed.
“We save money here and there, which lets us go out for dinner and lunch a couple of times a week,” he said. “That gives everybody some variety and it’s good for morale.”
Missions within missions
As part of their mission, River Six Team held recruitment events for NCCC while they were in Charleston. One group visited South Charleston High School. The other was sent to the West Virginia Junior College at 1000 Virginia Street E., directly across the street from the Gazette-Mail offices.
One of my former editors used to call it “the smoker’s college” because of the crowds of students smoking out on the sidewalk at lunch.
I’m not judging. Ten years ago, I was crossing that street to bum a light when I didn’t want to admit that I still smoked.
On my lunch break, I walked over to see how the AmeriCorps team was doing.
It was a little quiet.
Kat Bailey, Diedrich Voigt and David “Shaggy” Thomas had been sequestered at a table in the junior college’s lunch room, deep inside the building but away from a lot of foot traffic. They had a table near the door, but few students gave them more than a glance as they passed on their way to find a place to eat a sandwich.
One student lingered by the table and the group began talking to him about the program. He’d been a volunteer firefighter somewhere and sounded interested in maybe joining to fight forest fires — but he was 24, on the edge of the NCCC’s age limit.
“You could apply as a leader,” Shaggy offered. “You can be older than 24 and do that.”
Shaggy, who’d done multiple tours with the NCCC, told me he’d applied to be a team leader a couple of times but had been rejected.
He’d applied again, but a forestry program back home in North Carolina looked more promising.
A woman in her 50s asked about the program. After she was told it was for men and women in their late teens and early 20s, she cackled and began to leave.
Kat began to tell her about the Senior Corps, another arm of AmeriCorps.
Unlike the NCCC, the Senior Corps didn’t usually travel around in teams, didn’t get paid and tended to be based in their home communities. Sometimes, they would join in disaster relief efforts.
“We worked with them in Florida,” Kat said.
The older student wasn’t interested. She went toward the door, already reaching into her purse for cigarettes and a lighter.