Pulling up next to an American Red Cross van, I turned up the volume of my car stereo that blared Alanis Morissette and gripped the steering wheel until my fingernails dug red imprints in my palms. When the light turned green, I slammed on the accelerator, switched lanes and took pleasure in cutting the volunteer vehicle off. The American Red Cross usually relieves people from disasters, but six months into a full-time volunteer position through Americorps*VISTA, they created mine.
My talent for volunteerism never existed. All of the volunteer work I did in the past ended with some disillusionment, a morose twitch in my heart. When I was a sophomore in high school, I volunteered for White Cane Day at Mesker Park Zoo in Evansville, Indiana. I thought I was helping actual blind children make their way through the unfamiliar twists and turns of the paths to get to the exhibits. I thought we’d help them pet the goat, the miniature horse. I’d describe the elephants swinging their tails to waft and whip their poop, or give details on the thick snakes’ body motionless under a bright beam of light.The reality of White Cane Day was the opposite of my initial assumptions. When I got to the entrance of the zoo, I was asked to blindfold two sixth grade boys that were very capable of seeing. They giggled and pushed and shoved each other while I read a pamphlet about the obstacles blind children face everyday.
“People with complete blindness have a difficult time self-navigating outside well-known environments. In fact, physical movement is one of the biggest challenges for blind children. Even walking down a crowded street might pose great difficulty for them,” They were clearly not paying attention to me. “Did you boys hear me?” I asked over their blindfolded kung fu fights and laughter.
“Yeah! Let’s go see the animals!” the buzz-headed boys screamed.
I tried to catch up with them as they ran through the paved paths. They peeked through their blindfolds and watched the lion glide from one end of the exhibit to the other. The boys didn’t even bother to peek through their blindfolds—they just took them off—at the monkey exhibit. My day was spent catching up to immature, blindfolded boys at the zoo, and when they started to run to the next exhibit, I read from the pamphlet and yelled, “Isn’t it hard to get around when you can’t see?”
I couldn’t blame the boys for reacting to White Cane Day the way they did, but I could blame the adults who thought this would be a beneficial blind awareness activity for adolescents who have an innate aversion to empathy. Instead of helping blind children through a difficult task of walking through a crowded place, I ran after kids with great eyesight and poor manners.
My next stint with feel-good volunteerism was with Habitat for Humanity. A group of students from my high school spent a frigid, early spring week constructing and painting a house for a “family-in-need”. We nailed 2x4s, painted walls, and secured water fixtures to create a warm and safe home. There was a wide-eyed family—a husband, a wife and two children—who gave hugs to anyone who was at the sight in gratitude for their new home. Two years later, that house caught fire due to a flawed meth lab concocted in its porcelain bathtub.
I also joined dozens of other students with the initiative to clean Pigeon Creek, a slow-moving body of water that was a portion of the failed Wabash Canal. Littered with broken bottles, beer cans, and McDonald’s cheeseburger wrappers, after six hours of muddy, sweaty labor, I felt a short-lived sense of accomplishment before I saw the same vision of trash a week later. Throughout my early experiences in volunteering, it seemed to me that all these efforts and programs were either too idealogical and doomed for failure or a good deed that would never last long enough to be recognized or appreciated.
A month after graduating from college, I convinced myself, and my parents, that taking a volunteer job with the American Red Cross would be different because it was something bigger than volunteering; it was a movement. It was a part of AmeriCorps, and the title also provided a full-time job, stipend, and an education award. I was going to be an AmeriCorps*VISTA (Volunteers In Service to America) member. VISTA is an anti-poverty program that was established by President Lyndon Johnson through his Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. VISTA was Johnson’s version of a domestic Peace Corps. Volunteers were assigned to underprivileged communities, and they enriched and stabilized educational programs and vocational training. VISTA volunteers committed to a full-year term to fight poverty and provide support and knowledge in the process. Volunteers not only took part in hands-on work, but they also sought grants from private sector companies, and they recruited volunteers within the area for sustainability when their term was finished.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton created the AmeriCorps program, a sector of the Corporation for National and Community Service. AmeriCorps seemed like it had the same mission as VISTA. It was a federal government program that supported volunteers in community service projects that helped communities in need. Clinton was sharp and recognized the similarities, so he put VISTA under the huge umbrella of AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps*VISTA not only had their own programs but they also supported already-formed programs such as Habitat for Humanity, The Boys and Girls Club, Hearts & Hands, and the American Red Cross. The difference between the two programs was that AmeriCorps*VISTA members had to be college graduates, they had to commit to a full-time position, and it had to be a full-year commitment. When AmeriCorps*VISTA members complete their terms of service, they are rewarded with a $5,000 Segal AmeriCorps Education Award to pay-off student loans or put towards graduate school.
The $5,000 Education Award drew me in before the concept of full-time volunteering. I planned on going back to school, and I thought some bleeding heart lag time, coupled with a free graduate school semester, was attractive on my resume, and it seemed agreeable to my parents. I finally found, applied, and accepted a position with The American Red Cross’ Youth Program in Indianapolis. The position supported the literacy initiative in the hopes that children would be able to read emergency exits and instructions in case of a disaster. The job seemed perfect to me because I loved kids, at least the ones that my cousins made, that I spent an hour at a time with. I loved reading, which was shown in my newly printed bachelor of arts degree I received in English and Creative Writing. At times, I thought about my past failed experiences, but I talked myself out of my natural skepticism.
My job was not only to promote literacy and educational youth programs through the American Red Cross, but I was fighting the War on Poverty. I would be on the front lines. I’d stand strong for underprivileged public schools in Indianapolis. I would press my theoretical bayonet right in the heart of illiteracy. I was envisioning progressive, visible change. This wasn’t elephants crapping in front of not-so-blindfolded children, I told myself. Americorps*VISTA would give me the chance to make a long-standing, positive impact on the children of Indianapolis.
I felt overwhelmed when I set foot in the Westin Hotel in Chicago suburbia for my AmeriCorps*VISTA orientation in August. The lobby was flooded with young, excited kids in linen shorts and hemp tank tops and TEVA sandals. The future volunteers, with the need to small talk with fellow good-looking do-gooders, darted back and forth across the lobby like bees. Yelps and laughs and serious discussions about poverty echoed off the cool, dark granite as I rolled my suitcase through the commotion. I was handed pamphlets about AmeriCorps*VISTA, testimonials about how the program changed volunteers’ lives, that they were so inspired by the program they committed the rest of their lives to service. The pamphlets were flooded with numbers of volunteers a year, numbers of American citizens living in poverty. Men and women, with AmeriCorps*VISTA polos on, barricaded the entrance. They smiled and ushered me, with gentle hand gestures, towards a booth to fill out travel expenses paperwork. I was introduced to Kelly, Jordan, and Joe in the long line.
“How excited are you to start your service?” lanky Joe asked me with glistening, optimistic eyes.
“I can’t wait!” My eyes stung. I was exhausted from driving all day, and with all the commotion, I felt obligated to blend in and permanently stamp a soft smile on my face. Three hundred of us spent three days in a hotel in an affluent western suburb of Chicago to be sworn in to the program, understand our mission at various charitable institutions, and, most important of all, find out how to survive on a $770 monthly stipend for rent and food.
AmeriCorps put us up in the Westin. Perhaps the veteran Americorps*VISTA organizers knew they’d have to woo a little more than others due to my natural cynicism, so I was lucky enough to have my own room. Over the course of three days, we devoured the all-you-can-eat buffet breakfasts, lunches, and dinners as we discussed poverty, hunger, and children who lived homeless with their parents. The energy was intoxicating. I felt important. People listened to me when I shared an idea about program sustainability, maintaining the progress of a community after we finish our year of service. I sipped herbal tea and had seconds of prime rib. We applauded one another. We had place cards with stickers and smiley faces. They got me. With each scheduled block of talks or presentations, the smile on my face became more and more genuine.
In hindsight, I questioned the ethics of the program. Instead of an intensive day of reading and discussing at a modest establishment, we ate and drank and took our time on the taxpayer’s dollar. Did this orientation take up the most government funding AmeriCorps received? They coordinated dozens and dozens of orientations like this each year. I hoped that this wasn’t Lyndon Johnson’s vision of the War on Poverty. I wanted to think Bill Clinton’s establishment of the VISTA branch in AmeriCorps didn’t plan on paying for hotel rooms and buffet lines and soft drinks and tea and white linen table cloths and free totes and shirts and ties.
But I understand why these bureaucrats spend so much money on me. When these highly skilled organizers roll out the red carpet for naive twenty-somethings, they’re bound to bite and latch on to the charitable teat until their stomachs are full. Perhaps orientation wasn’t just an introduction to each of our missions. They had a calculated execution, a seduction that was so intoxicating I couldn’t help the need to want to fall in love with the concept of Americorps*VISTA itself.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve never followed through with commitments. I played the violin for six months. I played the cello for a year. I played on a traveling soccer team, but I promptly quit after a couple of months. I always had an overwhelming sense of laziness that blurred any ambitious clarity. I talked myself into thinking that doing something once was sufficient. After all, why bother exercising your mind with music or athleticism, when you could watch television, bronze your skin on the sun deck, or even Google search every person you know. Any hobby that made me strum a string or sweat, I convinced myself it wasn’t worth it. Probably the only reason I graduated college with decent grades was fear. My parents’ wrath would have pulled me out of my worn couch, which would have been replaced by a minimum wage and greasy elbows. After orientation, I was convinced that I could possibly, maybe stick with AmeriCorps*VISTA for the sake of work experience and $5,000. I’d finish my year of service at the American Red Cross with strength and respect and charm. When I swore in, when I repeated the words that I would not take another job, that I would finish my full year of service, that I would be committed to the fight against poverty, I hadn’t met my boss, Michael Moser.
When I first met Michael Moser, he seemed normal enough. He had a red American Red Cross embroidered polo tucked into his jeans with no belt. His handshake was gentle. He smiled with stained straight teeth, and his forehead creased in the middle from a scar.
“Katie! Wonderful to meet yah!” he chirped, his voice nasal, high-pitched and a bit too chipper for eight in the morning. He ushered me around the cubicle I’d be working in. He showed me the refrigerator I’d keep my cheap, bagged lunch in. He led me towards the garage, where the Bookmobile stood dormant.
“Now, you’ll usually stay in the office taking care of training volunteers and cold calling schools and applying for grants for our Educational Department, and I’ll be driving the Bookmobile to the schools,” he reassured me.
It all seemed straightforward enough. I’d promote literacy in a powerful, indirect way. I’d train the volunteers who would go to the sixteen most impoverished public primary schools in Indianapolis. I’d apply for grants that would help fund the purchases of the books. I’d cold call primary, middle, and high schools to see if they would be interested in disaster safety presentations Michael, or a trained volunteer, could give to students and clubs. Since VISTA was only for college graduates, they wanted my non-existing professional skills at work in the office.
A couple weeks into my term of service, it was clear that my official mission set by AmeriCorps*VISTA only existed on a thin sheet of paper. Michael started to not show up for work. He’d call my cell phone at six in the morning and say that he had a cold. He was hungover. He had errands to run. He had car trouble. He was supposed to be my boss, an actual employee of the American Red Cross. I began to realize that he might have been taking advantage of having a full-time volunteer at his disposal. An excuse to not show up for work. An excuse to come in to the office at noon, and he smelled like stale alcohol when he listed off errands for me to do for him while he held his head at his desk.
That left me to drive the Bookmobile, a rundown bookstore the size of a UPS delivery truck with a huge A/C unit I’ve seen on RVs on the top. Had I been trained to drive it? No. When I sat on the bench seat I felt very small. My feet dangled off the floor. I didn’t know how tall it was, how wide it was, how long it was. I trusted side mirrors and a camera that flashed on when I flipped a turn signal or put the transmission in reverse. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought the Bookmobile would be a great way to encourage children to read. But they didn’t care. The kids cared about talking to their friends. They cared about what kind of shoes they were wearing. They cared about what sport they were going to play in gym. They didn’t want to read a new book.
The attitudes of the schools didn’t help either. The faculty saw me showing up as more of an inconvenience than a good deed. Who cares if we were going to give a new, free book to each student, they had standardized tests to worry about. It seemed to me that schools became a battleground of uncertainty. With the implementation of The No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 by President George W. Bush, teachers have been in a constant, stressful hot seat. If a school doesn’t provide test scores that are deemed Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), there are steps that go from improving the school, to turning it upside down.
If a school fails to have AYP for three years, the school is chastised. Teachers are forced to work overtime with no extra compensation, forced to offer free tutoring to children who probably don’t want to be at school as it is. If a school receives a fourth year of failed AYP, the school’s entire staff and faculty is fired and they work from the ground up with a new curriculum. If the school fails to get AYP again, the school is shut down, or turned into a charter school, or is turned over to a private company to run.
Teachers are overwhelmed with too many students, whose learning levels are vast and wide. Then, the teachers have me to fit into their busy, tense schedule. The big, federal government ideas for reform of education leaves the smaller, more crucial entities desperate—students, teachers, and parents. The schools are forced to run like a a business trying to make its quarterly numbers, and no one wants to disturb the work. I was miserable. I didn’t feel good and warm and fuzzy. I was resentful and jealous of my boss’ laziness, and I kept wishing that feel-good public service came more easily.
I had seen pictures of smiling volunteers, laughing together, high off of their selflessness, on pamphlets for the American Red Cross. I envied their innocence to the politics involved in public service. The heart and good intentions are in schools, blood drives, and charitable home development, but all of it is muddled by the quacks in charge. I was told to not make the numbers of the children we served at schools with the Bookmobile or Disaster Education classes common knowledge at the office because a different sector of the American Red Cross would steal them and use the numbers in their Excel sheets. They would use our numbers as their volume of work to entice private investor funding. They pushed work onto weak co-workers, they stole efficiency numbers, and some only showed up for work when they felt like it. The workers at the American Red Cross, and the teachers at the schools I visited, saw public service as a stressful job, and the only way to keep themselves afloat solely rested on numbers.
There were eighty thousand people placed in volunteer jobs with AmeriCorps during my term of service in 2012, and I wondered if, like me, anyone yearned to be in a position where they only had to volunteer, and not get stuck in the politics, the tainted business that exists in charitable institutions. I’d blindly drive across town to give books to noisy, snot-stuck-to-their-polos kids. I’d get yelled at by teachers when I disrupted their class. I’d drive to McDonald’s for the Red Cross secretary to get her a cheeseburger and fries so she could take her diabetes medication. I got kicked out of the National Youth Catholic Conference when my boss and I told the children that by the rules of the charity we were donating cards to, they couldn’t write ‘God’ or ‘Merry Christmas’ on holiday cards for US troops overseas. I’d get sassed by Boy Scouts, by Girl Scouts, by co-workers. I wanted to quit like I quit in the past. When I woke up for work, I wanted to sit on the couch. I wanted to forget the $5,000 that would be in my hands for graduate school. I wanted to accept the faces of disappointment from my parents, siblings, and boyfriend that flashed in my mind when I wanted to send a cowardly email of resignation. I wanted to watch television and feel helpless in a more conventional manner.
My outlook changed one morning when Michael called me and said he had an upset stomach. I printed out directions to a primary school on the south side of Indianapolis for the Bookmobile that morning. I piled into the truck with a good Christian volunteer, Janie, and a quiet man who was forced to volunteer by his company’s requirement of community service in order to get a yearly bonus. It was like any outing to a school. Janie talked about some book she read about a doctor forcing himself into Haiti after the earthquake, and how amazing and full his heart was. While my back was tense and my hands tightly gripped the steering wheel, I responded with generic uh huhs, and that’s amazing. I pulled into Indianapolis Public School #14’s front parking lot. I was buzzed into the front office doors.
“Welcome, what’s your business here today ma’am?”
“I’m here with the Bookmobile. Where would you like us to park?”
“Oh, y’all coming today? Why don’t you park behind the school by the back entrance and Mrs. Foster will be out with some kids in a bit.”
Janie and I spent thirty minutes of waiting with small talk.
“Do you have any trips planned this summer?” Janie asked with her wrinkled blue eyes energized and tight lips smeared pink.
“Yeah. I’m going to visit my parents in Tucson. It will be really hot. I can’t wait,” I said in the most lively tone I could muster, “How about you?”
“Oh yes! I’m going on a service trip to Guatemala with my church group. It’ll be such a great experience.”
The first group of loud and fidgety kids finally came to the Bookmobile door with Mrs. Foster. She was slow and unaccommodating while she stared at her wristwatch.
“How many kids are in your class?”
“Uh, thirty-six,” Mrs. Foster said with a sigh.
“How many are here today?”
“I don’t remember, let me count. Twenty-six. Why?”
“We use it to gauge how many books we need each season we go to schools. And we also give these numbers to the Lilly Corporation who gives us a grant to purchase the books. Thank you for your cooperation with that,” I said, repeating what I was told to say when questions arose.
“Uh, huh. No problem. Can I just leave them with you? Tell ’em to come back to home room, and if they take longer than a minute to decide on a book, I’ll be back here, very unhappy. You hear me, kids?” Mrs. Foster stomped back to the school, and I quickly got the group on and off the Bookmobile. She came back to yell, to get them moving so they could get back to their standardized test preparation.
In between waves of students, Janie cried for the disheveled, dirty kids. Some kids looked like they barely got three hours of sleep the night before. Some said Fuck you to each other when they got the book they wanted. Some looked like they wore the same khakis and polos for weeks. And many had a hard time reading the titles of the books. She prayed for the kids who were yelled at by their impatient teachers, she desperately wanted her kind voice and sweet prayers to change their day, but the look on her face sometimes, especially that day, made me think that she felt defeated and the man sat silent.
“Doesn’t it just make you so sad?” Janie asked as she dabbed her mascara-clad eyes with a Kleenex.
I nodded, and the silent man remained silent as he watched his watch.
“By how slow this is going, I should rack up the rest of my required community service hours,” he said after the long, awkward silence.
Next, a first grade group came on the bus. A boy walked up to the silent man to ask him a question.
“Where are the basketball books? I want a Kobe Bryant book!” he squealed.
The silent man pointed to a row of books with one hand and the other held his face up. After the first grade group left, he asked me when we were going to be done.
“Soon, the next class is the last of them,” I said.
The kids stopped pouring out of the school’s plated glass doors, so we closed ours and headed back to the office. I noticed a street I had driven on before in my own car: Keystone Avenue. It went straight up to Indianapolis, I thought. It was a straightforward route. I sped down the open road, mastering the art of lining up the mirror to the dotted traffic line. As I approached a tunnel under a raised railroad, I darted my eyes left and right to search for a “No Trucks” sign, but I only saw a clearance measurement. Would 10’8″ be enough? Seemed about right to me.
It didn’t look like it would fit. I didn’t have the time to think or stop the heavy truck from colliding into the tunnel. I took a deep breath and did what I was told to if a deer was in front of me. Don’t swerve. Don’t speed up. Don’t slam on the breaks. I took a deep breath, and I eased on the brakes. Bam, a crash, and a Ssssss—the sound of escaping steam—echoed through the tunnel and rattled my head. When I pressed on the accelerator to get out of the trap, sparks flicked at the ground and windows.
“Shit!” I yelled at the steering wheel.
“Oh bless you, child. We’re all fine. You got us out safe,” Janie assured me and pressed her long, thin hand on my shoulder.
The big air conditioner unit was knocked off by the concrete bridge. Scratches grazed and streaked across the top of the truck. The silent man sat in the truck. Janie and I dragged the wreckage—steel, copper and plastic—to the door of the Bookmobile and placed it by the silent man’s feet. when we drove back to the office in silence, my fingers gripped the wheel with tension and fear.
I called Michael to tell him the news, and he didn’t care that much. He told me not to worry about it, that insurance would cover it all. He asked me if I could drive again tomorrow. And that’s when I finally realized my role in the charity charade.
“No. I’m not comfortable driving it anymore. And I’m not trained. I didn’t even know how tall it was,” I spouted into the phone, and I patiently waited for his response.
“Alright, that’s fine. Just wanted to give yah that back in the saddle support,” he lied with disappointment.
“Thanks. But I’m not driving anymore. Plus, I was notified by the CEO here that I’m not insured to drive it since I’m not an employee. I’m a volunteer,” I said.
In that moment, I became less of a twenty-something idiot. I had been a fool to believe that my job was going to be easy, naive to think that I was going to feel good everyday, that any charity is free of lazy workers, of misappropriating funds. Any service makes mistakes, hiring the wrong people or providing for frustrated, angry people. Habitat for Humanity runs the risk of giving a house to a family that does not have the best intentions. Public school teachers strive to provide education to their children, no matter how hostile or futile their work environment. The American Red Cross runs the risk of providing free books to ungrateful kids that just might go home and read. I came close to resigning that day, but I made myself see past my number of $5,000 and the number of days Michael missed work. For the last few months of my service, I tried to have faith in the numbers that mattered: the one employee that makes the American Red Cross better, the student who learned how to read analytically, the kid who went back home and lost himself in the biography of Kobe Bryant.
I realized that my expectations of volunteerism were no longer relevant. Underneath any good deed, charitable business, or some new, grand idea for government-run institutions, there will always be an ugly side to everything, even charity. The American Red Cross wasn’t an escape from the real world. This was a job in a world that was unappreciative, conniving, but provided shelter, blood, and books. Even if I wasn’t ready for the real world—the shitty side of service—it found me. And I’m sure it found and tested the eighty thousand other kids who sought work experience, or volunteerism, or an education scholarship. Eighty thousand of us had to tolerate our annoyances, grievances, or the unpaid sixty-hour work week, and focus on a number that mattered—whether it was the number of smiles we received on a good day, or the number of days left in our term of service on a bad day.
People complain about the surge in money the AmeriCorps receives each year from the government. They say things like, The funds are misappropriated. Those hippies need to find a real job. It’s a waste of time and resources. House Republicans called for the elimination of AmeriCorps last year, but President Obama’s 2013 budget proposed 1.06 billion dollars towards the program, an increase of 13.8 million dollars from last year. When I saw those figures halfway through my service, I agreed with those Republicans.
I had thought AmeriCorps was a waste of time, a form of torture on American soil. Eighty thousand men and women were thrown into small, underprivileged communities. Whether they were there for the $5,000 scholarship, the resume building work experience, or the self-gratifying feeling of volunteering—no matter their intentions—they did something. I acknowledged that not all good deeds reeked of shit, just a realistic amount. I had to focus on small, microscopic victories of charity and not my personal sense of defeat at the end of each day. And if it costs the government $12,575 for a volunteer to realize the good and bad side of politics, volunteerism, and adulthood that sends a real punch in the ass, I’d say those aren’t the worst numbers I’ve seen.
Katie O’Neill is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing, with a concentration in nonfiction, at Butler University. She has a short story published in 34thParallel.