Thursday, August 26, 2010

Week One: Rainbows or Reality?

So I'm in Roanoke, and have officially begun my term as a VISTA. An unexpected turn of events has occurred, but I am trying to learn from the situation. I'll leave that at that.

I am exhausted. It has been one hell of a week, and there's still one more day left. I'm not even sure where to begin.

Poverty in this region is very real, and incredibly prevalent. I've been asking around (both to humans, such as my lovely office-cohabitator, and to nonhumans, such as Google) trying to determine what the major industries are here. From what I can gather, and please correct me if I'm wrong on any account, Roanoke was started here because there was coal. Following the discovery of coal in the valley, the railroad appeared to transport aforementioned coal from these good 'ol mountains to the lovely land of Norfolk. (The massive mountains of coal in Norfolk are definitely a sight to behold; one I saw many a time when I lived in that neck of the woods.) As of since, other things have popped up in this area, such as a sizable medical industry and a handful of banking. Also, one of the main areas of employment here is in, yes, nonprofits.

Nonprofits. We work with 'em, we are one, they're ubiquitous. At least, that's how it can feel. With so much poverty in the area, it's actually refreshing to consider there are so many people that want to counter it. My second day at work was spent, mostly, visiting the nonprofits that we support. I was absolutely blown away by the wonderful things these selfless people do on a daily basis. Every day I'm here, the more I realize I can help people. And I am well aware of the fact that sounds so cliche and ridiculous, but I am hoping that within this next year, I will have done something that somehow helps at least one person better their situation; I hope that I can help at least one person see the importance of sustainable programming.

Now, optimism aside, let's let my good friend, Northern Virginia Cynicism, have a say. I've been doing a fairly good job of telling him to shut up this week. He's annoying, he generally makes me a grumpy person, and he's honestly just detrimental to productivity.

But he can make a damn good argument some days.

Not all of the nonprofits are butterflies and sunshine and children frolicking with puppies and swinging on trees they planted on Arbor Day, much to my chagrin. But I need to suck it up, and realize that those are the organizations I am here to work with. The ones that run smoothly, that come with extra rainbows and puppies, those aren't the ones that need the sustainable programming. They've got that down. It's the nonprofits that struggle, the ones suffering because of power plays or disillusionment, that need the most assistance.

My coworkers are amazing people. Everyone who is there wants to fight poverty, and realizes that every task, regardless of how small, is just one small small battle in the war. My supervisor, I'm convinced, is the nicest person alive. And my office-cohabitant seems to be dealing with my antics fairly well. These include, but are not limited to, flamenco music, pop culture references that no one seems to get ("Hey, did you see that episode of The Office?" "MV, I don't watch The Office."), my newfound obsession with sitting at my desk barefoot, and constant fidgeting to get comfortable. Oh, yelling at my computer. But he yells at his, too, so it's more like a group effort to let technology know how much we hate it.

I would also like to let it be known to all that my spreadsheeting skills are fantastic, and I can make some seriously beautiful spreadsheets. If Jackson Pollock can be considered legitimate art (don't even get me started on that one... why is it only art if HE drunkenly splatters paint around and drops a cigarette butt in it?), then my spreadsheets must be at like Michelangelo level. Glorious, I tell you.

And so tomorrow ends my first full, legitimate week as an Americorps VISTA. I'm taking it one gorgeous, mountain-filled day at a time, and I'm loving it thus far.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

There are no words for PSO, and yet I bring you many...

Some Clarification
I am an Americorps VISTA. VISTA = Volunteers in Service to America. They're a branch of Americorps that focuses on capacity building and sustainability. We do not do direct service - we create and implement programs. I am attempting to be the "teaching" of the old adage "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime." (Quote cred goes to my Campus Minister repeating that nonstop for four years in college...)

Onto PSO! Brace yourself, it's lengthy
I fell asleep on the plane down. Not one of those dozing off in a plane sessions, I SLEPT. I had an entire row to myself, something I have not yet experienced in the many planes I have been on this year. A row to yourself on a flight, to me, is when karma works in your favor. It's like Unexpected Christmas. So, in celebration of Unexpected Christmas, I napped. And it was a fabulous thing.

I arrived in Atlanta quite apprehensive. I couldn't find the charter van people, I was worried I'd get stuck with some bitchy girl in my room, I didn't have the energy to meet this many new people, and was wondering what I had gotten myself into. The charter van people and I finally made contact and about nine of us made our way to aforementioned van that would take us to the hotel. One girl talked awkwardly, until she realized that no one was responding. So we then all proceeded to sit in silence. I figured this could not bode well for my week. Or year. Are these the people I'm working with? Oi. (Sidenote: Atlanta has a lovely skyline. I always enjoy a good skyline drive.)

When I checked into the hotel, I was elated to discover that my PSO roommate was quite possibly the cutest, sweetest girl alive. Excitement ensued, and I begin to reconsider my previous assumptions regarding VISTAs.

PSO Roomie came with me as I went to sign in. They gave us a super sexy blue plastic-y messenger bag and I got a t-shirt about three sizes to big. Well, one size to big, but I swim in it. Story of my life, and free tshirts. Along with these wonderful new additions to my wardrobe, I was given the most intimidating binder of my life. It was packed full of all the information we'd be learning in the next three days, and I was immediately overwhelmed. Somewhere in Brazil, a chunk of rainforest is missing because it is in my PSO binder.

After dinner, we had "Large group" orientation. They put all 200+ of us in a big 'ol ballroom, welcomed us, and showed us a video. What happens to these videos after they're used? Do people have libraries of training videos? And what about YouTube? Why not just use that? Irrelevant, I realize, but it still bugs me.

PSO Roomie and I sat with a large group of people I perceived to be awkward. Again, no one spoke, and I was beginning to wonder if maybe the S in VISTA stood for "silent" and not "service." These "awkward" people later became good pals, people I would chat with until late hours of the night. Assuming. Don't do it.

After our initial welcoming, PSO Roomie and I went to the hotel bar for a drink. We chatted with some other VISTAs until we were kicked out when they closed. A low-profile first night, but excellent for meeting new people.

Break Out Rooms
In the mornings they shipped us to our "Break Out Rooms." Let's discuss the poor name choice here. Are they going to put us in super humid rooms in chairs made of Crisco? I like to theorize that all the AmeriCorps people went to a happy hour one night, and some drunk employee thought that this name would be hilarious. One can dream.

Break Out Rooms were done by location - one was placed in a group with others from your state, and you proceeded to stay in that group for the next two days. The Virginia volunteers are such inspiring people. It was in the Break Out Rooms that we were given mind-blowing statistics and humbling realities. Also, we were given playdough.

Break Out Rooms were also where we discussed culture. The United States has such an incredibly homogeneous culture, and when relocating for a VISTA position, it's likely that you'll encounter some semblance of culture shock. As someone who is still weary about her knowledge of the culture where she is moving, I truly appreciated this. They gave us pointers, statistics, etc, and I fully intend to use them all if I can.

The VAD was covered here as well. Many jokes were made about what a VAD could possibly be. This included, but was not limited to, "I had to get a V-A-D at the doctor's. The results were bad. I have VAD." VAD is your VISTA Assignment Description. It's your job description, essentially. I was lucky enough to have a straight-forward one but others were not as fortunate. We spent a fair amount of time clarifying what we're supposed to do, what we're not allowed to do, and so forth.

Eating in large group, cafeteria-style, settings is something I haven't done since my sophomore year in college, and once or twice in Spain when I was feeling cheap and my friend shared her dinner with me. "Half a tortilla and six pounds of rice? Yes PLEASE!" I always forget that it is unlike any other way of eating I know. Something fantastic about them, though, are dessert tables. How I've missed them. What a great concept. Also, the potatoes one night would later appear a few nights later in a chicken pot pie.

And while we're at it, Cream of Carrot Soup. What ARE you? Last night's steamed carrots with some cream, thrown in a blender? You're better with salt. Better, not great. However, you are better than your bastard cousin, Cream of Mushroom. He's just rejected gravy, though, let's be honest.

PSO mornings are painful. Early seems to come earlier than it does elsewhere.
One morning, I had red eyes. Like, RED eyes. I looked like I had been up all night doing some intense drugs in a room full of eight cats with dandruff and colonies of dust bunnies who poked my eyes with ragweed while I was asleep. Unpleasant. Thank goodness for my ghetto glasses.

The creamer leaves what looks like an oil spill on top of your coffee, and you never get to breakfast early enough to get the good fruit and are left to sneer at some honeydew. But you drink the coffee and it's fine. And you learn where the yogurt cups are, and essentially make do.

The People
New people. That was a rule of mine; I had to force myself to meet new people. At lunch, I had to sit with people I didn't know and made myself to talk to them instead of clinging to the six or so people I had met the first day. This worked out better some days than others, but I learned many things about myself, others, and various regions of this country. Actually, that could be said about the entire experience, and hopefully I have just skimmed the surface of it.

Social Activities! I love being around people, but I can get so lazy when it comes to actually going somewhere and doing something. So I was thrilled when PSO Roomie and I ended up actually going to a baseball game. Braves vs. Nationals. We got there the 3rd inning, Nationals had scored two runs in the second inning, Braves scored twice in the 3rd, then nothing until bottom of the 9th and Braves won by one. Disappointment as a Nationals fan. My apologies if you hate sports (brother, that's you). Good times, though, thanks to the good company!

There later was an impromptu gathering in our room... I learned about bears. Forging for mushrooms. Fishing. The use of the word "y'all." Fascinating discussion. Late night. Very little sleep.

Getting to know so many people who have similar mindsets and goals really was such an incredible opportunity. How often will I be with over 200 people who are willing to volunteer a year of their lives to help eradicate poverty in the backyard of the United States? At some point, I realized that even the most cocky Americorps volunteer still has a similar goal for the next year as I do, and can't be that bad of a person.

Swearing in. I used the same oath that the president uses before he takes office! This is only exciting for me, and potentially other political science folks. I keep using words like "exciting" and "amazing" and they fall flat to what I'm tying to describe. This, for me, was a moment I will cherish more than my graduation day. Instead of marking an end, it marks the beginning of my attempt to bring some sort of change to the state of poverty in the Roanoke valley.

To those of you from PSO who have creeped facebook enough to find my blog, thank you for being such good listeners, so supportive and honestly, thank you for your inspiration. You are all truly beautiful people.

(And as a Lessons Learned from PSO, conditioner is not lotion and should not be used as such. And in that vein, hotels should not put them in the same shaped bottles.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Backwards Booking

Americorps ships all us volunteers to a Pre-Service Orientation (PSO) in Atlanta a week before our service start-date. They are so gracious as to fly us down, put us up in a fancy hotel, feed us, and then fly us back to our respective homes before giving us a living stipend for one year.

About one month ago, I filled out the necessary forms online and sat back, awaiting the day they would email me my flight confirmation. This day never really came. PSO starts next Tuesday. So this morning, I called my supervisor. She did some magic tricks, and within a few hours, I had an itinerary in my inbox. How magical!

Except, Americorps booked my flight Atlanta to DC for Tuesday, and DC to Atlanta on Friday.

They booked me backwards.

I have called and emailed the necessary people. I still find it incredible that they were able to book me away from the city where the PSO is to take place. It's impressive.

That being said, this week brings the move to Roanoke, PSO next week and I finally can get into gear and begin my job in two weeks. It's all beginning to come together.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Cupholders, and the cars they're attatched to

When I was eleven years old, my goal in life was to have cupholders in a car. Our 1986 Taurus station wagon did not have cupholders, and I thought that was the obvious pinnacle of car ownership. For what else could you possibly want a car? Moving around? Psh, that's nonsense. Unless you need to move your cups.
So, I can now proudly announce to you, internet, that I can now move my cups.

I am a car owner!
His name is Mr. Merlot Mobile, and he is a 2002 Toyota Corolla. A burgundy Corolla, thus the name, which was inspired by my lovely sister. He has low mileage, was an incredibly reasonable price, all his maintenance checks out, and most importantly, he has cupholders. Actually, Mr. Merlot has the ability to hold four cups at once, because he's just that good at multitasking. Hopefully Mr. Merlot and I will spend many happy years together, toting around cups and other similar joyous activities.

I cannot fully express my gratitude to my father who sat with me every single horrendous step of this process. From looking at awful cars, to giving me pointers on insurance, to even coming with me to the DMV this morning to register the damn thing, my dad has been there every step. So if you are lucky enough to know my Dad, please congratulate him for being incredibly patient and helping his daughter buy a car.

This means that my next step is fast approaching.
In a week, I move to Roanoke. As in, drive down with Mr. Merlot full of crap, parents in tow with a UHaul, and move everything in. Then I come home for a few days, peace out to my conference in Atlanta, and then in about two weeks, I start full-time as an Americorps volunteer! Brace yourself Roanoke, Mr. Merlot and I are on our way.

Note: I have given up on a fake name for my town. Had you googled stats for southern VA cities, you could have figured it out easily enough. That, or you know me and where I'm going anyways.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Car Hunting

A quick update from the Car-Hunting-World.

It's ugly here. The things I have seen frighten and worry me. Cars held together with coat hangers, my father test driving a manual car after he hasn't touched one in over six years, dysfunctional windshield wipers in a rainstorm, a severe lack of functioning AC, and angry wives and girlfriends of mysterious car posters on Craigslist.

I'll be back soon enough with more details about the hunt, but right now I just fear that I am in way over my head. Also, I would like to give my champion of a father some major props for coming with me to look (and test drive) every single one of these masterpieces. It takes some serious courage to drive some of these cars.