I expected to spend some time helping the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) team do taxes, but instead, Michael Kunath, the group’s leader, invited me to come play basketball.
“We’re required to do 45 minutes of group exercise three times a week,” he explained.
I’d have rather taken a crack at the tax code.
I’ve never been particularly good at basketball. I can’t shoot, and I move on the court like a wounded moose.
While I’ve made strides with my overall physical fitness (largely due to my diet and regular attendance at CrossFit WV), most of the group was just out of high school or in their early 20s and in their physical prime.
I routinely get my butt handed to me by grandmas at CrossFit. The teenagers were going to eat me alive.
“This is going to end badly,” I thought and then agreed to meet up anyway.
It was an opportunity to meet the entire team and maybe get to know them away from the office. On the day we’d been first introduced, two had been busy doing taxes while two others had been out sick.
There was a nasty cold going around, and living like a traveling carnie — pulling up stakes and moving on every few weeks — will take its toll on you. The road will grind you down.
From what I could tell, River 6 Team seemed like as good an introduction into the AmeriCorps world as I could find. They weren’t just friendly but articulate, and remarkably candid about their experiences — warts and all.
Nobody broke out a guitar. Nobody invited me to sing along to “Kumbaya,” but by now the group was eight months into a 10-month tour. They were still excited to be on this adventure, but they were tired.
Several of them were counting the days down until May, when they’d graduate from the program and go home, but they still had to get all of the 1,700 group hours of community service they’d signed on for.
These tasks were assigned to them from their regional campus in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The head office got the jobs from a network of agencies who filed requests, asking for help with anything from tearing moldy walls out of contaminated houses and fighting fires to helping to preserve the habitat of endangered animals.
On their own, they also had to come up with another 90 hours of independent service projects — volunteer work that fell outside of their regular or irregular work week.
Jiaya Wilson, the team’s media liaison, said it wasn’t as simple as just going out and doing good deeds.
“There’s paperwork,” she said. “Everything has to be approved, and that can take a few days.”
The struggle to get it done
The group wanted to work. They’d mostly enjoyed being of use. It was exciting, but the job also came with a fair amount of boredom, monotony and frayed nerves.
Like some other government jobs, there could be a certain amount of “hurry up and wait.” In Charleston, helping people fill out taxes, the group often had to wait for clients to walk through the door at the United Way.
For people with limited means, just getting transportation to the United Way offices in Charleston might take some effort to arrange.
But going out into the community didn’t always produce a lot of results, either.
At Orchard Manor, a low-income housing project in Charleston, we sat in the public computer room of the community center and never saw the first client.
The program was still relatively new, in its second year. Michael told me the previous AmeriCorps team assigned the job had only filed about 20 tax returns. His team’s goal was 50.
“And we have 76 already,” he said.
Maybe the next group would help 100 or 125 people, but I could see the volunteers were a little bored, and the boredom made them more aware of the lives they’d left behind for AmeriCorps.
What seemed remarkable was how well the group still got along after eight months of being thrown together.
Dakota Graham bragged about how the team hadn’t lost anyone. No one had transferred out or been traded to another team.
Kat Bailey explained, “You have that. You get conflicts. People don’t get along or they have a family issue or health and can’t complete their term.”
Not everyone who joins the program can handle the demands. A lot of groups will shed team members. They miss their homes, their families, their boyfriends and girlfriends.
“We miss our dogs,” Kat said.
The games people play
We met at the downtown YMCA, the former YWCA, just a couple of blocks from the offices of the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Before we even stretched, Kayla MacIsaac put us through a Privilege Walk exercise.
Each member of an NCCC team has specified duties related to their overall mission and to the health of the group. One person oversees the group’s nutrition. Another person plans their fitness activities. A pair of team members take care of the vehicle and there’s someone who focuses on life after AmeriCorps.
Kayla’s job dealt with education and empathy, so she had us line up at one end of the room and take steps forward or backward based on our personal backgrounds.
For example, if we’d grown up with two parents in the same household, we took a step forward. If our parents had college educations, we took a step forward. If we were gay, a woman, black or the child of divorced parents, we took a step or two back.
The point of the exercise was just to illustrate inequality in society and that not everyone has the same advantages. It didn’t mean that people didn’t overcome their circumstances — only that some started at more of a disadvantage than others.
The goal was to increase awareness, not make anyone feel guilty. Guilt was just a bonus.
As the white, heterosexual son of two high school teachers who owned the house I grew up in, I expected to finish at the very front of the pack.
While I can huff about how I was raised by single mother who raised three kids on the poor salary of a math teacher, how I’m from an economically depressed part of the country with a drug problem or even how my hairline has receded into the sea, I am completely aware that I am a card-carrying member of a more privileged group.
White men run the country. They have always run the country, even when the president wasn’t white. And while I personally may not run much more than a lawnmower, I have benefited from being part of that group.
After a brief discussion of observations about the exercise, we went downstairs to the gym and ran a drill using timed, pre-recorded tones. The object was to get from one side of the room to the other before the tone sounded. Then we turned around and did it again. The time between the tones became shorter and shorter.
Once you either failed to make it across the room in time or just ran out of gas, you were considered out, though nobody said anything if you kept running.
I did OK. I didn’t make it through the entire drill, but like the Privilege Walk, I finished somewhere in the middle. Then we played the most chaotic basketball game I’d ever played sober.
There were no real rules. Dribbling was fine. Not dribbling was fine. Grabbing the ball and sprinting toward the basket was fine. Nobody was keeping score. As long as nobody drew blood, fouls were fine.
We divided up into teams, but because there were 12 of us, so we rotated the spare two players in and out to replace whoever wanted to take a break.
When the replaced players came back in, they generally took over for one of the players on the opposing team.
Fifteen minutes into the game, nobody remembered who was on which side. You passed the ball at your own peril, and if they shot the ball into the correct basket, hooray.
Nobody took the game seriously. Everyone could play, including a 7-year-old boy named Luka, who’d been lingering on the side of the court watching the mob of us run back and forth.
Finally, his mother did what he’d been too shy to do. She asked if he could play.
The River 6 Team didn’t just let the boy on the court. They handed him the ball.