public service lessons

Apologies for the delay in posts – I’ve gone underground to complete my last semester of graduate school. *cue the Hallelujah! chorus.*

During a chat with a co-worker recently, she mentioned that she planned to volunteer with a nonprofit organization working to improve the quality of housing on Native American reservations.   She is a strong advocate, so I wasn’t surprised to learn of her support, but I was taken aback when she mentioned that she actually wanted to build the housing.  I greatly admire this woman, but she often refers to her love of finery and fancy notions and is always impeccably pulled together in both manner and dress, so the idea of her perched on a rooftop in the blazing heat of the South Dakota summer was difficult to fathom.

But then I remembered:  isn’t that what people thought of me when I told them I was signing up for an AmeriCorps term of service with Habitat for Humanity?

I certainly adore my creature comforts, so at the time it was a bold move.  I was cohabitating in downtown Kansas City, Missouri (before it became cool & subsequently expensive) with The Roommate  and our income was severely anemic.   I had recently returned to college and was working soul-sucking fairly profitable temporary gigs and there I was, asking him to allow our finances to dwindle down to practically nothing, as my base pay would be somewhere around $3 per hour.  The conversation went something like this:

The Roommate: You want to do WHAT?

Aspiring Public Servant:  Join AmeriCorps.  I know it doesn’t pay diddly, but think of what I’m getting–medical and dental insurance, money for my education that we’re going into debt for, job skills, networking, plus I get to help people.   I’m trying to switch careers, ya know.

The Roommate: Yeah, but we’re broke!

Aspiring Public Servant: Short term pain, long term gain.

The Roommate: I don’t know, man.  What the heck is AmeriCorps anyway?

Aspiring Public Servant:  It’s like the domestic Peace Corps.  This is a good thing, I swear.

The Roommate: *sigh* You’re lucky you’re cute.

I couldn’t afford to move, so I searched for local opportunities.  I applied and selected Kaw Valley Habitat for Humanity in Kansas City, Kansas (now Heartland Habitat) as my service organization.  There were several positions available and after much consideration, I settled on Assistant Volunteer Manager.  I was studying nonprofit leadership and preparing for American Humanics certification (my service counts toward the 300-hour internship? Sweet!) , so I desperately wanted the experience of nonprofit administration.  Plus I was guaranteed at least one day a week building on-site, and as a DIY-er at heart, I was thrilled about that.

My year-long term of service was one of the most amazing and challenging things I’ve ever done!

So What Did I Learn?

  • If you’re completing a term of federal public service, you qualify for tons of assistance from food to cut-rate home phone service.  You don’t have to live on Top Ramen and hot dogs and “borrow” your friends’ phones!
  • Select an organization that you are interested in, but that offers assistance with housing and/or transportation.  Luckily, I didn’t need these options, but access to free housing and a mini-van were invaluable to my fellow AmeriCorps members who were far away from home.  The affiliate also  provided us with free work boots, toolbelts and utility knives.  I may not have known what I was doing at first, but I certainly looked the part!
  • I gained such an intense admiration for Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County (AKA “The Dot”) that I plan to make my home there.
  • It is possible to schedule over 20,000 volunteers in a year and not lose your mind.
  • When people use the phrase “hell on earth” they must mean Southern Georgia (where our training occurred) and Central Texas (site of our build-a-thon) in the summer.
  • Construction skills are super-handy when you’re looking to buy or build a house.   Start throwing around terms like “flashing” and “hand-blown insulation” and they’ll know you mean business.
  • Never turn down free training! You’ll appreciate it when you have to pay out-of-pocket for professional development.
  • Carpenter pencils are recommended for a reason.   Being on a 20-foot roof, dropping your regular round #2 and watching it roll helplessly down to the ground truly sucks.
  • The experience of living with less is something that has stuck with me.  I certainly don’t consume as much or in the same way as I used to.
  • I am much more capable of weathering financial storms than before.  When The Roommate was briefly unemployed and the Great Recession was bearing upon us, we reflexively went back to our term-of-service economic habits.
  • I  mastered the fine arts of budgeting, coupons and thrift store shopping.
  • Public service will change your life.

AmeriCorps Week is May 8 – 15, 2010.  It’s a great opportunity to learn about service & support those who are serving in your area.  AmeriCorps Alums is also in the running for a Pepsi Refresh grant.  Check it out and cast your daily vote to help build 25 healthy communities through AmeriCorps Alums leadership!

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8 thoughts on “public service lessons

  1. I did AmeriCorps, too and it was an intense but amazing experience. I’m glad to know about the Alum site. Thanks for posting this!

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  2. Tom, thanks for reading and the invitation! Now that my school work is winding down, I definitely will have more time for volunteering.

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  3. Andriann,

    Great post! I’m very glad to hear that your year of service with AmeriCorps and Kaw Valley (Heartland) Habitat for Humanity was rewarding.

    I’d like to invite you back to Heartland Habitat for Humanity and learn about all the great things we’re doing.

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