Jeffrey Helton, Berea VISTA, here with a more unusual blog post. In my experience, folks are often unclear on the structure of AmeriCorps and get confused about who, exactly, I work for. This confusion is fair. I am, after all, a man of many “hats.” Sometimes, I’m wearing my Grow Appalachia “hat,” and that’s the version of me that most of you are familiar with. Other times, I’m wearing my AmeriCorps “hat.” (Many times, you can find me wearing both, which leaves my head feeling awfully crowded.) This week, my blog post revolves around the last time I put on that second hat.
Okay. Here we go.
Driving has always been a source of much dread for me. Truthfully, I have trouble seeing how it isn’t terrifying for everyone. It’s a recent phenomenon, really, and we shouldn’t be used to it. If you and your Toyota could time-travel back to the 1700s, folks would question why you had so eagerly crawled into the belly of such a great mechanical monster. (That or they’d rush for the horizon, their coiffed hair growing a few feet taller from pure fright.)
The first time I drove a car, I ended up rear-ending the Subaru of an unsuspecting (and very forgiving) elderly couple at a red light. I immediately drew the conclusion that if “STOP” was an issue for me, then “GO” would really be problematic. Since then, I’ve been a hyper-aware driver, always adjusting the placement of my hands on the steering wheel and triple-checking my rearview mirror, even at stop lights. I fear navigating cities, imagining that perhaps the rules of the road have shifted since the last time I’ve driven. That’s a slight exaggeration. My real fear is that I’ve never actually known the rules of the road and have thus far succeeded largely by bluffing.
Well, last Friday, I had to take a trip down to Louisville to celebrate the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps. Theoretically, that sounds like it should be a grand time–as well a welcome change in routine. Of course, of the four VISTAs traveling together, I was the only one allowed to drive the college vehicle. Fortunately for me, my Grow Appalachia position had already lessened my fears of driving considerably. (Prior to working here, I had never driven for more than 30 minutes at a time, but a couple of months ago, I had to drive out to Means, KY, for a grant writing project, and the whole thing was a worthwhile experience all around.)
I’d also never driven with more than a couple of people with me at a time before, but my three Louisville-bound passengers were super vigilant and ready to serve as my co-navigators. Ultimately, the interstate portion of our trip was a breeze, and even driving through Louisville went fairly well. At the very least, all catastrophes were limited to the inside of my head.
The actual events of the AmeriCorps anniversary put everything else into perspective. After a surprisingly short march, I stood in front of the KFC Yum! Center with over 400 other AmeriCorps volunteers. (I even recognized a few Berea graduates that I hadn’t seen in a long while, which was disorienting but refreshing.) Like me, everyone there was involving themselves with new and often uncomfortable worlds. Like me, everyone had to learn new skills to serve. The lesson: To transform others, we’ve had to transform ourselves.
One of my favorite moments of the morning was the chance to “connect” with some of our country’s presidents and see how bipartisan AmeriCorps is. We were welcomed by a clip of George W. Bush and his wife Laura. Afterwards, we were treated to a livestream of President Clinton speaking of his pride in beginning AmeriCorps twenty years ago. (One of the attendees of the Louisville celebration was actually there for Clinton’s original deployment of volunteers, which was awesome.) President Obama also addressed us, and I thought it was particularly funny to watch him hug and joke with Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. I met Wendy once, and she was very kind and interested in Grow Appalachia’s work. Seeing her interact with the POTUS served to remind me that my service is part of a immense, concentrated effort that can really get stuff done.
Obama at one point mentioned that a large percentage of AmeriCorps volunteers end up in nonprofit work. I’ve always been kind of uncertain about my future, but I’m definitely gravitating towards grant writing, thanks to my work with Grow Appalachia. Grant writing is a skill that’s relevant in almost any part of the nonprofit sector, so perhaps this is where I belong.
I’m obviously still a little uncertain of my direction, but who isn’t? Nevertheless, after the AmeriCorps event, I felt a little more confident in my ability to get good things done. I felt more sure of my ability to grab the steering wheel of my life, so to speak.
Of course, before I could all that, I had to do escape the Louisville, make a few wrong turns, get through a traffic jam, and break a Zaxby’s chair–which has nothing to do with driving, but it happened. Or maybe the chair was already broken. Let’s roll with that.
Anyway, I survived.