Monday, January 10, 2011

AmeriCorps NCCC: A Retrospective

My last post was on...October 20? Yikes. A lot has happened in that time.

I'm not sure where to begin - the Acres USA conference, which I attended in December in my hometown of Indianapolis? I saw speakers, attended workshops, bought books, met farmers. My progress in farm research, perhaps - I've applied to six internships in the last week, from Washington state to Virginia, and I'm researching dozens more. Maybe a book review; I'm continuing to voraciously read, and have several new purchases/gifts I'm drooling over, including Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes; Food Politics and What to Eat by Marion Nestle; Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, a collection of essays by Wendell Berry... the list goes on. Or maybe I could discuss my many culinary adventures over the holiday season. Or maybe talk about volunteering at the Indy Winter Farmer's Market. Or one of a dozen more ideas ricocheting off the inside of my skull.

These are all things I hope to get to eventually. But what I think I should devote this post to is the culmination of my most recent adventure, AmeriCorps NCCC.

I've mentioned the program before - AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, a team-based, fully residential leadership program for young people ages 18 to 24. I served at the Atlantic Region, based out of Perry Point, Maryland. I was a Corps Member in 2009 (a member of the infamous team known as "Kill Squad"), and the Community Relations Support Team Leader in 2010. In NCCC, you travel around your region with a team of about ten, doing community service projects lasting six to eight weeks. In return, you get room and board, a modest living stipend, uniforms, health benefits, and an education award of that you can use to pay off loans or help pay for college or grad school.

It staggers me, thinking about who I was when I joined in February of '09, and who I was when I left a couple of short months ago. When I joined, I was a fairly recent college graduate, 22 years old, with degrees in Theatre and Drama and Germanic Studies under my belt. I was pale from holing myself up behind stacks of scholarly journals during the Indiana winters, researching and creating color-coded outlines as I sweated over research papers. And although I loved the student life, I knew that after graduation was my best chance to get out and do a few years of service work, before getting saddled with too much debt from grad school.

I remember sitting in the airport on my flight to Baltimore, thinking about this new chance to be reinvented. I wanted to cast myself in a mold befitting a worldly do-gooder: I would no longer be the listless student, tracking down annotations, corralling post-it notes and organizing my books by spine-height. In my mind's eye, I saw myself pulling victims from F5 tornado debris, administering CPR to grateful half-drowned people, and bonding with like-minded individuals from across the country as we took on the beasts of poverty in our left hands and inequality with our right. My idealism burned with the fury of the thousands of wildfires I knew I would soon be fighting.

It didn't take long for certain realities to give my naïveté a good drubbing. While most of the people in NCCC were there because they wanted to help people, I don't know that I would call all of us "like-minded". It definitely didn't take me long to understand that "diversity" is a complicated word, and it means a hell of a lot more than color, creed, socio-economic status or where you went to school. Forget about so-called "cultural differences"... my team argued about whether to get skim milk or 2%.

The shock of being thrust into this entirely new scenario, so different from anything I had dreamed up, quickly shattered all my pretensions of wanting to be "reinvented". It was all I could do to hold on to the person I thought I was. And as if it wasn't enough to be in a new place, surrounded by new people, doing things I had never done before, they went and gave us all uniforms so we all looked the same - little grey-shirted clones running around, getting things done for America. This was definitely not what I had imagined. As the months rushed by, I let go of my fantasies, and focused on the all-consuming task in front of me - helping the communities where we were assigned. Which is what I'd signed up for, after all.

Although we all go through periods of wanting to transform into new, better versions of our former selves, I credit NCCC with showing me the truth about myself that exists deep down where nothing can uproot it. It was with some surprise that, my very last weekend, my fellow Team Leaders told me over and over how they admired me, how great that I wasn't afraid to be myself, that they'd never met anyone who was so proud to be the person they were. I thought, ".......Really?" But as I thought about it, I realized they were right. It had kind of snuck up on  me, but I had grown into myself in a way I hadn't thought was even possible.

I learned a lot in AmeriCorps NCCC. I learned how to swing a hammer. I learned how to mud and sand and spackle. I learned how to shop for food on $4.50 a day. I learned how to live with seven other people in a tiny apartment where we shared one bathroom. I learned how to send a kid to time-out. I learned how to do "controlled interior demolition" on flooded homes. I learned how to write a killer press release.

I also learned a lot of things that are harder to explain on a resume, like when to talk and when to listen. To not sweat the small stuff. That people sometimes act like dicks just because they're uncomfortable, or sad, or scared, or lonely. That it's okay if you don't always know where the road is taking you. That sometimes it's best to just close your eyes, feel the sun on your face, and go with the flow.

More than being just a learning experience, I've come consider AmeriCorps NCCC a living experience. It's an experience in starting each day anew, in accepting change with an open mind and an open heart. I think I can say with confidence that, more than anything else, I learned how to do just that.

One last thing, before I sign off here. As I think back on the last two years, the days that stick out to me aren't always the easy ones. They're sometimes the days where I thought I couldn't keep up. There were days when we dragged ourselves back to the house with mud and crap in our hair, under our shirts, even in our underwear. There were days when I cried, because of something someone on my team said, because I was homesick, because I hated the job I had to do, because I thought I would never get everything done I needed to. There was the day my grandmother died, less than three weeks before graduation, when I still had to complete the yearbook, round up everyone's final paperwork, finish the end of year slideshow, write speeches, and help finalize details for the awards banquet and graduation ceremony.

But what sticks out to me about those days was not how terrible I felt, or how unfair it all seemed. Ultimately it worked out, because the team came together, because my friends and co-workers helped me out, because someone gave me a hand or let me talk about what was going on. These days stick out to me not because they were bad, but because I got through them, and they made me stronger.

I'm sure it sounds like a huge cliché... probably because it is. But the funny thing about clichés is that they tend to have a lot of truth behind them. And I speak only the truth when I say that everything AmeriCorps handed me that I thought was too hard to handle ended up making me a stronger person in the end.


  1. Gretchen,
    I really liked reading this. It reminded me about how much I grew during my year. It's crazy to me it's already been 2 years since we got to Perry Point. I don't know how long I'll be in Asheville, but you should definitely come visit. Springtime here is awesome.


    I'm also really glad we worked on the quilt. How was this past year's quilt?

  2. Thank you for allowing us to benefit from your experiences. Well done.

  3. Stumbled upon this little gem and wanted to give a shout out. Great work :)