Where the poverty line meets City Hall: Reflections on my first month as a VISTA


Life in Chicago feels like a TV show. Sometimes there’s drama, sometimes comedy, but it’s always slightly surreal.

I moved on August 1 and it was 90+ degrees with 80 percent humidity. I heard the cicadas buzz for the first time. I roasted in my furnitureless room. Soon after moving, I was robbed leaving the grocery store, leaving me ID-less, cash-less and in a bind: the bank wouldn’t give me a temporary card since I’d recently changed my address and had no ID. Besides losing more than $100 in cash and gift cards, and all the subsequent inconvenience, I also lost some pride: I considered myself a savvy traveler type, always careful to double-check that I had my belongings safe. It really can happen to anyone.

Besides that little hiccup and some homesickness, the transition has been good. My roommates are sweet, responsible and drama-free; my boss is amazing; and my job is great.

I’m working as the service communications coordinator at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office. The position is through AmeriCorps VISTA — a federally sponsored volunteer program that seeks to end poverty through building the capacity of local nonprofits & other organizations.

Our project is called One Good Deed Chicago. It’s a Cities of Service initiative that aims to increase volunteerism in the areas where Chicago needs it most. This year, the big push is for education and college readiness. I get a chance to work with amazing organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters, Chicago Cares and Spark.

Already, it’s been an incredibly educational experience. I run the website, social media and communications efforts. I’m learning how to use tools like social media to connect with potential volunteers, nonprofits and influencers. Soon, I’ll be case managing 10 of the selected partner organizations, so I’ll get to learn about nonprofit management from a really unique perspective. I already feel more knowledgeable than when I graduated, and I feel like before the year is over I’ll have changed and grown a lot.

However, being a VISTA has its challenges.
Since the program is designed to fight poverty, part of it is that VISTAs live in poverty: The living allowance is set at 110% of the poverty line. Given that, saving for the future is difficult, trips to the doctor are anxiety-ridden and something like buying a winter coat requires planning and sacrifice.

Lucky for me, I have a family who would help me in an emergency, a pretty affordable apartment, and the tech savvy and education to be able to navigate things like the Department of Health and Human Services, where last week I applied for food stamps.

It’s definitely a little surreal to be working in Chicago’s stately City Hall, side by side with well-dressed, (relatively) well-paid people, working my butt off, and getting paid… very little.

But that’s life as a VISTA: a Volunteer In Service To America.

More to come.

With love from the Windy City,
A

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