Do Good, Try Your Best by Emily McMath
Excitement, learning, hesitation, perseverance, grief, burnout, growth, frustration, resolve. My AmeriCorps experience can and will be described in a multitude of ways. After two years, one might think the ability to talk about what you have experienced would be familiar, become habit, but honestly my description changes every time. I reviewed past blogs from my first year of service to see if my opinion changed, if my outlook of the world differed in any way. The remarkable thing is, at the core, it has not. I still believe my purpose and mission in AmeriCorps is the same; Do good, try my best.
The hardest thing about AmeriCorps service is constantly reminding yourself that it is not about you. On the surface, it makes one sound like a selfish person. Why do service if all you want is something out of it in return? However, if you dig deeper into that statement, you find it is not about being selfish or selfless; it is about pushing through your anxieties, your hardships, and accepting that your time, commitment, and desire to help others must completely take over or basic human instinct of survival in order to not become disheartened in service. Truthfully, it is easier said than done. My cohorts and I discussed at nauseam during our service that we are given too little to live on, the housing prices are too high, our colleagues expect too much from us, we are constantly working more than 40 hours a week, burnt out and exhausted with too little time to enjoy our own lives. It is all true. How are we supposed to go through our day to day agendas when we are constantly bombarded with the threat that we won’t have enough sleep, food, rent money, and energy day after day? Nevertheless, AmeriCorps demands that. It demands that you replace your anxieties with those of community’s. You replace the thought of “what if I can’t afford to eat tonight?” with “what if my community doesn’t have access to fresh food anymore?” Transitioning from “I’m going to be tight on rent this month” to “I hope there are enough beds at the shelter this winter.” Realizing your student loan repayment is a privilege next to a high school’s dwindling graduation rate.
AmeriCorps never promotes itself as an easy job equivalent or a walk in the park. My position requires me to interview candidates for the incoming cohort. We ask no less than three times, if the individual is ready to commit to a life of service, make the transition, and serve with a small living allowance. All say yes, some with hesitation and at the end only a few are ready for another year. I thought one year was enough for me. I came, I saw, I conquered. My first term of service, marked by the emergence of COVID, was more than enough than what I bargained for. I was sad to leave Montana but happy to be on my way to my next chapter in life. But then in happened. Like a small tug of a string or a gentle tide pulling me out to sea. I wanted more. I was six months post AmeriCorps writing an email begging Montana Campus Compact for a position for the next fall.
Armed with the mentality I was going to be the best that I could be, I came back to Montana. I met a wonderful, diverse, introspective, resilient, and motivated cohort. I was ready to support them in any way that I could. It was easy at first. I was problem solving left and right, forwards and back. I was making sure they were up to speed, settled in, and had everything they needed to be successful. Then it happened. It got hard. Like “can I handle balancing my emotions, their needs, my to-dos, their requests, my life, their lives, and attend 10 meetings a week” hard. Suddenly I did not have the answer to the questions asked. I could not drive half way across the state to be a shoulder to cry on. I could not help. As an AmeriCorps member, that is hard to reckon with. Because that is why you signed on, right? To help! Being unable to do the very thing you signed up for, the core of your position description is defeating. It makes you reevaluate your whole purpose. Then the work continues. You learn to reconcile with the fact that some questions do not have answers, and those that do have answers, might not have the answers you wanted to hear.
With the many challenges come the many celebrations. The ringing of the bell every time someone accepts a placement to an AmeriCorps site. Meeting the performance measures for the grant six months into the service term. Getting good feedback on a presentation or training you spent far too long planning. To know your service year has done its job, made the impacts, and is sustainable in the future is the best feeling. However, they are not guaranteed. I wish I could say every person’s AmeriCorps years are as successful as mine. I know some had more celebrations than I did too. But, if I have learned anything from the last two terms, it is that AmeriCorps is like life, in that it just is what it is. It is doing your best despite the inevitable fires you must put out along the way. It is a wonderful mixture of small moments and big moments, good and bad. You want to escape and remain all at once. You do your best and hope you have helped someone along the way.