What inspires someone to choose service as a career?

Each week at VM, we have a Support Team Meeting, 90 minutes where staff and Peer Leaders come together to share news, update each other on projects, plan for future trainings and events, and – equally important as all of this business – get to know each other and strengthen our team.  Each meeting is facilitated by a different team member and each brings her own flare to the meeting.

At last week’s meeting, Patrice asked each of us to share a service story: a crazy thing that happened to us during an AmeriCorps service year, a memory of our first experience volunteering, the reason we became involved in service, or any variation on that theme.

Now, I’ve been involved in the service field for quite some time and started volunteering with my family when I was in elementary school, so you’d think this would be an easy assignment for me.  I have lots of stories, but what did I want to share?  I thought about when I was a VISTA and had to cancel my big event because of a hurricane.  I thought about all of the adventures I experienced as an NCCC member.  I thought about volunteering with my Dad at the nursing home where he worked when I was a kid.  I though and I thought, then I asked myself a question: When did I realize I wanted to stay in service professionally?  So, after some reflection, that’s the story I told.

I’ve shared before that I was a member of AmeriCorps*NCCC right after college.  In some ways, my real love of service began then.  But I hadn’t decided on service as a career quite yet.  After my NCCC term, I went to work for a nonprofit, a nonprofit that I loved then and love to this day.  It wasn’t a great fit, though and I left after just a year, despite my intentions to stay there a lifetime.  After that, I spent about two years wandering around.  In New York, I worked in television and tried out teaching; I moved to New Orleans and sold kitchenware at a shop in the French Quarter; I moved to Philadelphia and learned to drive a forklift while working at PetSmart.  I was in my twenties and the economy was good, so I enjoyed knowing that I could pack my car and get a job wherever I landed.  (I wish today’s twenty-somethings had the same sense of security, but that’s another story altogether.)

After two years of this, I realized I wanted to get back in the nonprofit sector.  I wanted to get back to where I had started, youth development.  So I applied around and – shock! No one was interested in the girl who couldn’t stay in one place for more than a few months!

Remembering back to my NCCC experience, I decided to look into AmeriCorps*VISTA positions.  I though this could be a good way to re-enter the nonprofit field and get some newer, more relevant experience.  So I did my research and applied to about four different positions around the country.  I interviewed with three, was offered two, and accepted one in Florida.

My VISTA position was with the Florida Community Higher Education School Partnership, a statewide service-learning program that was part of the Florida Alliance for Student Service.  To be honest, I didn’t fully understand the position when I accepted it, but I really connected with my supervisor, and thought I’d be working to support an after-school program, which was right up my youth development alley.  Moving to Florida in January didn’t hurt, either.

What I found is that I was supporting an after-school program, as well as over a dozen more service-learning programs and initiatives throughout the state.  I can’t say I was in love with every aspect of being a VISTA member, but there was a lot I did love about it.  The piece I loved the most was witnessing the real power of service learning – for students in elementary schools all the way up through college.  Service learning made the classroom come alive!  It connected students to their communities!  It helped develop leaders!  I was sold.

I was sold on the idea of service learning and on the idea of a career in service. What I learned is that enabling others to serve was my thing.  Years later, I’m lucky to say that it’s still my thing.  I’ve worked with a small handful of service programs since being a VISTA, but they’ve all had that in common; they all allowed me to help others serve.

It’s Halloween and later today people will dress up as scary things.  I love this holiday, but with my service story on my brain, I find myself thinking about a different kind of scary.  First, selfishly, it’s scary to think that maybe I wouldn’t have found my way into this career.  Without NCCC, without wandering around, without my VISTA experience, maybe I wouldn’t have realized that enabling others to serve is the one thing that really fires me up.  Scarier, still, is thinking about a world without service.  A world without service learning in our schools and community-based organizations.  A world without opportunities for individuals of all ages to serve.  That’s a scary thought –and one I hope I’ll never have to see.

Not all stories have a happy ending.  Not all characters find their way.  As long as there’s service, though, we have hope for plenty of good stories.

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