My name is Jeffrey Helton, and I’m an AmeriCorps VISTA working with Grow Appalachia. When I attended Berea College, where I’m now stationed, I studied English and Philosophy, the latter of which equipped me with a love of skepticism and of dissecting arguments to examine their assumptions and implications—their roots and fruits, so to speak. (Evidently, I also learned a love of wordplay and run-on sentences. Sentence fragments, too.)

Parentheticals aside, above most else, I strive to be a realist, which usually means that I’m seen as a cynic.

Heading to my Public Service Orientation for AmeriCorps, I carried that cynicism with me. I feared that I’d bump into two basic sorts of people. The first sort, a group that really gives me the heebie-jeebies, consists of people who serve solely to pad their résumés and to network in the most shallow of senses. Genuine networking, in my book, emerges from conversation and laughter, shared values and histories. Networking—as some vague, inhuman exchange—should never be anyone’s north star.

The second sort, which scares me a bit less, features folks with smiles that are all sunshine. They’re the idealists who think exclusively in fluffwords, which I suppose are like buzzwords but with even less bite. They aim to fight Poverty with Love, which ain’t a Bad Goal, but they have no concrete method of attack and no avenues for feedback and transformation.

Somehow, the PSO calmed most of my cynicism. Against the odds and my forecast, the event’s organizers wrangled together a group of genuine, passionate VISTAs. We spent an early session sharing our personal experiences with poverty, discovering our shared history while also learning about the unique texture of everyone’s perspective. In our discussions on ameliorating poverty, most everyone was receptive towards AmeriCorps’ data-oriented, empirical approach—an approach which I find to be the greatest vehicle for change. To my surprise, I was happily exiting my shell, talking with new people…


Okay, okay. So I already knew those guys, but I met other wonderful people, too. I won’t pretend that the experience was perfect and that no one reinforced my cynicism, but nothing is perfect. And though we VISTAs have much in common, it seems unfair to use the metaphor “common ground.” There’s little common about the ground that we stand upon. We are all from unique circumstances, and there’s potential here for something extraordinary—like little sprouts erupting from dead earth.

And maybe that’s optimism, but it’s real, too.