Over the years, I’ve written a few stories about the Peace Corps. I’ve always been fascinated by the experiences of the volunteers.
I don’t travel much. A banner year for me is when I get to Johnson City, Tennessee, or Dillwyn, Virginia, to see one of my sisters; or if I manage a trip to Columbus, Ohio, where I’ll spend $10 to feed four lettuce leaves to a giraffe at the zoo.
I did all three in 2018. I have no idea how I’ll top that.
Along with helping communities around the globe, the Peace Corps promises travel to exotic locations, often off the beaten path of your typical tourist destinations. Peace Corps volunteers spend time with everyday people in often poor and somewhat desperate places to help them deal with problems they can’t get a handle on by themselves.
The stories the volunteers bring back (the ones I’ve heard so far, at least) often sound like they’re part of a Hollywood script — but again, I don’t get much farther than Ohio most years.
If not for all my responsibilities, including regular payments to various banks, I might look into joining the Peace Corps — go out and try to save the world, maybe bring back a T-shirt.
The ‘local’ Peace Corps
AmeriCorps, as I’ve understood it, is the local version of the Peace Corps. I’d never heard of them until I moved to Charleston 15 years ago. Since then, the word AmeriCorps has turned up routinely, though I’ve scarcely paid any attention to it.
Because I work in media, I remember former Sen. Jay Rockefeller and former Charleston Gazette reporter and former West Virginia Public Broadcasting director Scott Finn served in the VISTA program, which later became a part of AmeriCorps.
Scott used to mention his service in passing, but I never asked about it. I didn’t care that much, and — if I’m honest — my feelings about AmeriCorps have been a little hostile. Outsiders coming to my part of the world to routinely help the poor and disenfranchised makes me feel uncomfortable and a little ashamed.
It makes me wonder about how the rest of my country sees me and where I live. It makes me think about what I’m ignoring.
Everybody wants to save the world. Nobody wants to be the one needing to be saved.
AmeriCorps has a strong presence in West Virginia. There are enough of them working locally that the Friends of Old-Time Music and Dance give AmeriCorps volunteers free admission to its dances and concerts.
There are enough of them living and working here that their cast-off uniforms turn up on the clothing racks at Goodwill sometimes. I’ve considered picking up an AmeriCorps tee more than once, if for no other reason than to see if it would get me into a concert for free.
I can never find one in my size.
A little over a month ago, AmeriCorps Vista Volunteer Erin McGrath contacted me about AmeriCorps Week, which takes place March 10 through 16 and celebrates all things AmeriCorps.
Erin said they could find a way for me to jump in and participate, if I wanted.
I told her I was interested and asked if maybe we could find a way to do something with AmeriCorps that might include the special week, but also give me a larger perspective of the program.
She said, sure, hold on, and eventually sent back a schedule that would have required me to give up my day job, my side job and hire someone to feed my cat and walk my dogs.
I said, “Whoa.”
After a little explanation about how much time I could reasonably commit, she arranged a meeting with the local AmeriCorps administrators at the United Way, the people who oversee the different local programs AmeriCorps volunteers work through.
It was a serious meeting. They brought coffee and donuts.
As we sat there, the group of administrators went around the table explaining the individual programs they oversaw that serve everyone from seniors to at-risk youth. All of it was worth more than a casual glance, and each program seemed like a month to itself.
“What do you think?” someone asked.
“Like I’d be swallowed up whole if I tried to do everything,” I said.
Too big for one bite
They laughed and we agreed to narrow my field of study, at least for now. I’d try to get an overview of AmeriCorps in West Virginia, but I’d also attach myself to a visiting group from the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), a division of AmeriCorps.
The NCCC was founded in 1993 and is loosely based on the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC was a work relief program that your grandfather or great grandfather might have signed up for.
It put the young, unemployed men to work during the Great Depression, doing unskilled manual labor jobs related to conservation and developing natural resources. They cleared underbrush, cleaned up state parks and dug a lot of ditches.
The CCC wrapped up right after the U.S. mobilized to join World War II and young, unemployed men had less trouble finding something to do.
The NCCC focuses more on getting youth to help with service-related projects and develop their leadership skills.
At any given time, there are dozens of small teams pitching in around the country. In Florida right now, a team is helping with home repairs for low-income homeowners. In Texas, a group is helping with rebuilding efforts following damage caused by Hurricane Harvey . In California, an NCCC team is doing habitat restoration following the recent wildfires.
Meeting River 6 Team
In Charleston, River 6 Team was assigned to help low-income residents file their taxes.
The team acknowledged that it wasn’t the most glamorous or labor-intensive of the assignments they’d been given. It was a far cry from fighting fires, rebuilding houses or even trying to help save endangered birds.
Team leader Mike Kunath said, “We’re kind of used to the physical labor aspect of things and we like getting our hands dirty.”
But the 25-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina, said the job was the job, and they were here to help.
Officially, I was a hanger-on with a limited skill set, aspiring to temporary mascot status.
The members of the team had all been certified to help navigate someone through filing their taxes, while I have trouble with basic math.
Aside from the lack of training, I was also too old to join the team. The NCCC only accepts 18- to 24-year-olds. I’m not even 24 on Facebook anymore.
As volunteers, AmeriCorps teams live as a makeshift family for 10 months. Sometimes, where they sleep is pretty comfortable — like they’re on a budget vacation and staying in the big house of a relative. They might get their own room or only have to share a room with one or two people.
Other times, they’re crammed together on cots in a church basement they’re sharing with other teams.
Kat Bailey, 18, from San Antonio, Texas, told me, “That wasn’t so bad. We had an organ to wake us up on Sunday mornings.”
The church organist took his/her job seriously and would sometimes practice late into the night.
River 6 Team was a fascinating bunch. The youngest in the group were just out of high school, while the oldest, Mike, who turned 25 a short while ago, was in between college and grad school. Most of them were from the eastern half of the U.S., and none of them said they’d ever been to West Virginia that they remembered.
All of them had their reasons for volunteering.
“It’s a good gap-year plan,” Mike said. “If you need time out of school or you need a year to figure out what you want to do next.”
Mike had finished his undergraduate degree and was planning on getting his MBA, but he wanted a breather.
There was also money for college or money to pay back student loans, though it wasn’t a fortune.
Some of them were in it for the service, the opportunity to help and to pick up new skills. Generally, everyone liked the opportunity to explore the country, though it was the farthest thing from a vacation.
Kat said, “We like to find things that we don’t have where we’re from.”
Kat is one of the more adventurous in the group. She asked me about places to eat and told me that she’d already been to the Mothman Museum in Point Pleasant. She even got a T-shirt.
Their time off varies. Some jobs require longer hours, which means less time spent looking around. Days off get spent sleeping or trying to find some time alone.
I said I felt bad that they’d come to West Virginia at the end of winter, when everything is all muddy, gray and bleak. Really, scenery is something West Virginia has. I could bring brochures if they didn’t believe me.
Mike laughed and said, “We’re always seeing places when they’re at their worst.”
But even at their worst, everything was all still new to them — new sights, new sounds and new foods to try.
Until recently, Jaiya Wilson, 20, from New Orleans had never eaten a Philly cheesesteak. Arguably, she still hadn’t. She’d bought a sandwich in Charleston from Steak Escape.
A few of them had ventured out and tried some of the local places, but none of them had eaten a Tudor’s biscuit.
“That’s the place with the green roof,” Jaiya said. “So, that’s a thing?”