In May of 1994, I graduated from Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York with a degree in English, Literature concentration. I had originally been planning to get a degree that would allow me to be a secondary English teacher, but after three hated education courses, I dropped the minor and told myself I’d go to graduate school eventually to be a professor. In the interim, my suitemate, Kim, and I talked about getting an apartment together in Syracuse. She had gotten a full-time job at Barnes & Noble as their marketing rep for the store on Erie Boulevard. It wasn’t a highly paying position, but if the two of us were splitting costs, we’d get by. I thought for sure I’d be able to get a full-time job working at a hotel or as a secretary, but the employers seemed to either feel that I was overqualified or underqualified for the positions for which I was applying.
In the interim, I moved home to Elmira and went back to work as a waitress, which I honestly enjoyed a great deal… other than the fact that I was back home when it seemed like all of my fellow graduates were going on to professional careers. I might have made do and stayed home right into the fall, but something happened that summer that made me eager to leave. I had applied to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps after participating in an “alternative” spring break with Campus Ministry that April. I had gone with a large group of women and one lone man to Hartford, Connecticut where we (all but for the male) stayed in a domestic violence shelter, worked at a local parish, and experienced poverty in a way we had never really been exposed to previously. It wasn’t what the poor experienced, but it certainly raised my awareness, having been raised as a member of America’s middle class.
I’m not entirely sure what drew me to apply to JVC: South, rather than the Northeast, which would still have been relatively far from home and my experiences growing up in a town of some 36,000 at that time. But, I did and was finally called by the site in Mobile, Alabama. Cindy Nelms, an RN and the Executive Director of Mobile AIDS Support Services (MASS), gave me a phone interview for the job of AIDS Case Manager. I was in the running for that position as I had worked two summers as a kind of intern at the local Department of Social Services in the Child Support Enforcement Unit. In all honesty, my two summers there were primarily spent filing. LOTS of filing, in fact. However, I learned a great deal about Social Services through both my experiences and hearing about my friend, Sandi’s, in the Child Protective Services Unit. Her experiences were far different as she transcribed voice recordings of case notes and was given nightmares as a result. Regardless, soon thereafter I was given a call by the two men who were volunteers working with MASS that year in their own version of a phone interview. One of the things that seemed to win them over, and honestly endeared me to them, too, was the fact that I had named my car Erma – which was the same name that they had given their car through MASS.
I might have… ok, I would likely have chickened out of moving a 24 hour drive away from home, but had a particularly nasty experience which might have been bearable except that a fellow waiter at the restaurant felt it necessary to tell everyone about it after he lied to get information about it. He’d not been involved, but for whatever reason, felt he had to know what had happened and, by the end of the day, my very good friend Suzie took me aside and gently broke the news that everyone we worked with now knew. The experience had been bad enough and I was still working through it, but the looks that I was getting and the knowledge that everyone around me knew and were judging me (or at least, that’s what I assumed at the time) was unbearable. So, in August, I flew to Houston, Texas to join up with a group of kids who had all signed up to spend a year volunteering together in major cities of the Southeast.
My house in Mobile was actually the largest with nine of us living together. There was Tara from Boston, Brian and Alyce from Massachusetts, Colleen from Chicago, Tessa from Seattle, Madeline from LaJolla, Mary Beth from Rockville, Maryland, Dale from Jacksonville, Florida, and me from Elmira, New York (yay upstate NY). Mary Beth, known as MB, was actually a second year JV. She had spent the first year in the Northeast as a special education teacher. The rest of us, except Dale, had just graduated in May. Dale, for some still unknown reason, had been approved to participate in the program, even though he was essentially an old man to the rest of us at 37 years old and had had a traumatic brain injury. He said that his goal was to ultimately be a Jesuit priest, though the rest of us knew that this wasn’t really possible. Dale had been affected by his bicycling accident on a highway, back when we didn’t wear helmets, and had a significant leaning disability, along with erratic mood swings. It was hard enough living in poverty with eight strangers, but throwing an older man with seriously different expectations of the year to come made for a sometimes seriously challenging experience. Nonetheless, I can say now that the year was an amazing experience and I learned more then than any other time in my life thus far.
One of the most moving experiences was spent with MB. She was a case manager for a Catholic social services organization. I’m not sure if I’m remembering this correctly, but I think that her boss’s name was Sister Barbara. She was a force to be reckoned with. MB loved her boss, and understandably so – Sr. Barbara would bring us boxes of food from the pantry (we each got $65 a month for food, which we had to put together to buy food for the house, and a whopping $75 a month for “personal expenses”), she was the person to whom we went when we had trouble in the house, like seeing a rat in the yard coming from these out of use small rooms in the backyard – one of which holding a toilet that was still connected to the sewers, and she was a sort of surrogate mother to the house when we needed her.
MB and I signed up to participate in a homeless count that Sr. Barbara was organizing with the homelessness service groups in the city of Mobile. It was late fall or the beginning of winter, because I remember MB and I wearing turtlenecks and sweatshirts (as you can imagine, winters in Mobile were far different from those in upstate New York) and we were out at night with a big group of concerned volunteers to count the men and women we could see and also find their impromptu “homes” throughout the poorer areas of the city. The count had been highly publicized so that we weren’t surprising the homeless with our presence and flashlights that night. We needed to do a count in order to help verify that homeless services were, in fact, truly needed in The Azalea City. Mobile is a port city – home to railroads and ships, as well as being in a warm region of the country. As such, we had quite a large population of homeless living there.
That night, MB and I were divided off with some others from the large group of “counters” and given an area to cover. We roamed the streets, entering empty buildings, exploring basements that were exposed to the exterior, carefully navigating empty lots, and found bedding, empty cans of human and animal food, and even tamped down sections of grass in the lots which were obviously “rooms” for sleeping, living, and the like. Although I had met some men who were homeless, both in my work as an AIDS Case Manager with MASS, and, again, through Sr. Barbara – she had set up a kind of panel where we got to ask some men questions about how they’d become homeless and where they were from originally, etc. – the experiences that night were truly saddening. You can’t idealize homelessness when you see a bed made from a ratty old blanket beneath a condemned building where the foundation is crumbling and open to the elements. And I could not, from then on, look at a vacant, grass-filled, lot and ignore the fact that a person or people might be residing there. My “poverty” was almost an experiment as I was signed up for it for a year. I was living with others and had no risk of homelessness or loss of power or starvation. I could always leave and go home to the security of my family if I chose.
However, had it not been for that experiment of living in poverty, community, social justice, and spirituality with 8 strangers from around the country, I would be a completely different person than who I am today. There are some who suggest that I should have skipped the year as a JV, but honestly, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of doing as an adult. I learned that I could make a difference in the lives of others, that I could have a meaningful career, that I had skills that I could use to help the community, and certainly learned some skills in how to live with others and communicate with one another.
JVC has a saying. It’s said that, by experiencing a year in poverty and service to others, that we are “ruined for life.” Outsiders might not understand the concept, but it’s like the idea of being unable to unring a bell – once you have seen or experienced something, you cannot “unsee” or experience that. You are, whether you like it or not, aware of poverty, of suffering, of homeless people living in untenable situations and yet still soldiering on. There have certainly been times, when I have struggled most with my bipolarity, that I have reflected on my year in Mobile and it has given me some perspective. Also, it has given me a way to connect with other people on a truly unique level – volunteers at the local college, now that I am a Volunteer Coordinator, and a wonderful young woman with whom I work at The Arc of Chemung, who spent two years in VISTA in Washington, DC.
Count me in as one woman who is gladly “ruined for life” and who hopes to “ruin” others in their volunteering alongside her now.