Throughout all the training we endured, lectures on leadership, diversity, team management and professionalism, there was little conversation around reward. Education award and other work related benefits, sure, but not the emotional reward we would all would receive throughout the round. Having traveled, taught and volunteered before and knowing the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment after serving a community, that was a main factor in my applying to Americorps NCCC in the first place. After weeks of training, meeting and getting to know corps members and then traveling 16+ hours to Texas, my thoughts of service and reward had fallen by the wayside. I knew the reason I was there, the work I was supposed to be doing, but I couldn't imagine how it would be received by the community. In short, it was amazing.
The teams first week in Texas was spent working alongside two separate groups of volunteers, one from Indiana and another from Michigan. Both of which have done this type of work before, volunteering across the country, lending some of their time and skills towards a mission, whether it be hurricane relief or community development, they felt the need to serve. The main difference between them and us was age with which comes experience, both in work and life. These volunteers were patient with us, catching us up to speed on what projects needed to be done, sharing their work space with us and sometimes teaching us how to do things. All the while they were eager to know more about our lives, curious as to why we chose to serve, and equally as surprised and impressed when we told them how old we are. Multiple times throughout that first week of service I heard words of gratitude and hope, acknowledgement that the younger generations aren't misled, greedy or self righteous as the media makes them out to be.
Also during that first week of service came a visit from Bart Tucker, the director of Fuller Center. The staff in Texas had recently underwent changes and so Bart was coming to town to see how these had been implemented and check on operations, we just happened to be there. He was only in town for a day, but there was no shortage of gratitude directed towards the team and myself. We attended dinner at Clearlake Presbyterian church that evening and both Bart and Peter (our site supervisors) spent time in front of all the volunteers to acknowledge the Americorps NCCC team, every members commitment to service, and thank us for our help in Texas working with them towards their mission of rebuilding communities after Hurricane Harvey. With our first week being hectic, thrown into a new setting with sometimes little to no direction, this appreciation came at a great time and helped boost team morale, and this was only the beginning.
Another obvious source of appreciation came from the homeowners whose homes we were helping rebuild and make stronger. We didn't get the chance to meet them all, but those we did greeted us with big smiles and appreciation. Having the chance to connect a face to a home added meaning to the work we were doing, no longer was the paint I applied just another coat of paint, it was the surface of a room where a teenage girl will soon hang pictures of her friends. The kitchen cabinets I assembled would soon hold food to feed the family, which made forcing those screws in just a bit more tolerable.
The best kind of appreciation though came when it was least expected, catching us off guard. A few weeks into our stay in Dickinson we attended a local Christmas Market, "A Southern Fried Christmas" as a way to immerse ourselves into the community, another requirement from the Americorps "higher ups". While walking between booths, browsing and sometimes purchasing holiday treats we would share our story while learning about others. We met a man from Somalia who happened to move to Texas three days prior to the Hurricane, and another woman form Memphis whom one of my CMs was able to relate to. There was a steady flow of appreciation from each individual we met with, but the best surprise came as we were leaving. As we began to walk away we heard a faint "Thank you for your service" and upon turning around saw that it came from an older gentleman donning a "Vietnam war veteran" baseball cap. We stopped to thank him for acknowledging us, having recognized the "A" logo on our T-shirts, and fell into conversation with him. He expressed his gratitude towards us serving in his community and was thankful to see youth out in the world doing goo work, but one line really stuck with all of us, "When I see youth like you out in the community it reminds me that my service wasn't wasted". Those words, coming from a man that has most definitely seen and experienced some horrific things in his time, hit hard and meant a lot, although I probably felt a bit more as he reminded me of my own Grandfather.
After the first few weeks, these words of appreciation slowed down, we were seeing the same faces day in and day out, and while they still appreciated our presence it wasn't necessary to announce it daily. About halfway throug our stay in Texas, our volunteer coordinator Makayla told us that someone had sponsored us to attend a free Zumba session, which we later found out was CrossFit, but that's besides the point. We arrived Thursday evening, tired from a long days work and full of Church dinner, not exactly enthused for the workout. The staff at Iron Keel though was amazing, wanting to work with us on each of our ability levels, and got us through the hour long workout successfully. We felt better having completed the work we thought we couldn't, endorphins, but my real high came in talking with the staff. They had never actually gotten the full story of who we were and where we came from, and when I shared our story with them I could see their eyes light up. The staff there were once again impressed by our dedication to service, thanked us from helping their community and told us they would be happy to do whatever they could to help support us in our work. We wound up making the workouts a weekly occurrence, visiting the staff at Iron Keel every Thursday, both working our tails off but also picking our moods up.
The final, and possibly most important place that we gained appreciation for our work was through our teammates. Every week we held a team meeting, both a requirement from staff but also necessary in organizing weekly tasks, events, cooking assignments and work schedules. As part of the meeting we read notes from our "Appreciation jar" a place to drop a line of gratitude for one of our teammates, either some way they helped us throughout the week, or acknowledgment for work done unasked. I was surprised and thankful at how receptive the team was to this idea, and there wasn't a week that we didn't have notes to read, often having a full jar. Some were jokes, reminders of mishaps, challenges, or frustrations from the week which we could look back on and laugh at, but most were heartfelt and meaningful. The work days were long, living quarters were tight and conditions not always at their best, but the weekly gratitude we felt throughout the community made a 100 and ten percent difference.
A Year of Service
My life, being anything but predictable, has taken another turn. Rather than moving to Jeju, South Korea - my original plan for Fall '18, I'm going to test drive Denver, CO and its surroundings, an area people just keep telling me "I'd love".