Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Poverty Is All It's Cracked Up To Be

I spoke some in yesterday's post about a time in my life that was difficult on several different levels. I struggled on different planes and each one unique in it's problems, the way they affected me, and my reactions to each.

This particular period in my life lead me on a strange, but interesting and life changing journey. It took me down a path I'd never been before in terms of the kind of people I met, the kind of work I did, my living arrangements, and the way I made money. All of it truly came out of the blue and hit me square in the face when I wasn't looking.

My situation of an unfortunate 'avalanche', if you will, came about simply because my car crapped out. Out of the blue one afternoon on my way home from work with no prior warning, my car starting making awful noises, spewing stuff, sputtering on the freeway, and ultimately dying on the spot...never to operate again. My car engine literally blew up and that was all she wrote.

Aside from the sheer exasperation and frustration of this disaster, I had no idea what other feelings and emotions were in store for me as a result of this single action. It set off a chain reaction to every other aspect of my life, and life would never, EVER, be the same for me again.

When my car blew up, it was detrimental to my existence, period. I lived 40 minutes away from where I worked. I knew no one else to hitch a ride with that went that same direction. Taking the bus was not an option; mass transit in Charleston, SC is a joke and I lived in an out lying community of Charleston proper. The cost to fix my car was more than the car was worth and I simply could not afford it. Buying or even renting a car was out too. And then on top of it all, I lived in a rural area and it was too far to walk anywhere where true civilization existed.


As a result, I lost my job - which caused me to lose my income - which caused me to not be able to my pay rent and utilities - which caused me to lose my phone service - which caused me to lose my Internet service - which caused me to lose touch with every one and every thing. And it became very difficult to eat. I was isolated and VERY alone.

But just before I lost my phone and Internet services, I had been in touch off and on with someone I'd met a month prior at a gig I was singing at. During this brief period of time we'd known each other, we'd been talking online. Now mind you, I didn't make a practice of giving total strangers my phone number or my email address, but this particular meeting was different some how and something deep down inside me prompted me to divulge the information this particular night. We talked online a few times and as it turned out, this person ran the local Habitat For Humanity ReStore...a thrift store of sorts, dealing mainly in constructions material, etc..., with the sales from the store benefiting the local county chapter of Habitat For Humanity.

This person knew slightly of my dilemma. But just before I lost my Internet service, I'd informed him of how dire the situation had become and the fact that all my efforts to correct the situation had been futile. The very next day, he sent someone to pick me up to take me to a church he attended that had resources for helping people in need....such as I was.

These good people of this church provided me with a few days worth of food. And was this ever a hard thing for me to do. I'd never been in this boat before and suddenly I'd joined the ranks of the people I'd always just felt sorry for. But they gave me other resources too, to maybe help me find a place closer to town to live, and maybe a way to get around a little easier. Most of those things failed because I didn't "qualify" for certain funds or programs because I didn't have dependent children living with me, and I'd made "too much money" in my recent work history to qualify for anything else. All of that in and of itself became very frustrating.

In the mean time, this particular person whom I'd met, and who'd been working hard to find ways for me to function again, got my phone up and running again, and at least I had a way to communicate with the outside world...namely said person who'd "come to my rescue", so to speak. But the dominoes just kept falling and within a couple of weeks I was out on my fanny with no place live - and no way to get there.


This same person sent a truck and a driver to pick up me and my stuff and hauled it all to the ReStore where he worked. It ended up being a VERY strange arrangement for a while, but a safe one for the time being. I ended up sleeping on the "sofa's" of this thrift store at night for a few weeks. I was literally homeless just kind of hanging in the balance. No one knew about it but me and the person who ran the place. During the day, I volunteered in the store full time while looking for a paying job all the while.

The days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months volunteering in the ReStore...and continually looking for other ways to work, and live, and eat, and get around. But as fate would have it, it seemed my destiny was to stay right there until an opportunity came along to become the Development Coordinator for the county Habitat For Humanity.

In order for me to take this position, and I was gonna if at all possible!, I had to become an Americorps/VISTA volunteer. What the hell was Americorps? And what the hell was a VISTA? And VOLUNTEER?...AGAIN? No. NO. Unh-UNH. NO WAY!! I needed a PAYING job and I needed it YESTERDAY. But the wheels of fate were already in motion and I started the application process for the position. All the while, the people who ran the local HFH were just sure I was sent to them by God to fill this desperately needed position in their office.

I found out that Americorps/VISTA is a national volunteer program that focuses strictly on fighting poverty in the U.S. Americorps was founded in 1965 - a division of the Peace Corps. All kinds of charities in this country use Americorps volunteers to fill positions to get the work done they need done. People who sign on to become VISTA volunteers sign on to live at the same poverty level as the state they live in. Each state's poverty level is different, so the stipend (living allowance) the volunteers receive are based on those poverty levels. When I took the Americorps oath of office, I vowed to live at poverty level for my full service year.

I became a VISTA - VISTA standing for: Volunteers In Service To America. VISTA is a leadership position. VISTA was founded by Americorps in the early 1970's to combat poverty in this country. I needed to be a VISTA in order to take the position with Habitat. So my application was pushed through and accepted. Within a month I was going to PSO in Atlanta - Public Service Orientation - and would be starting the job as soon as I returned.

PSO was sooooo great. It was four fabulous days of learning and fellow-shipping with others. It was great preparation for what I was going to be doing in my new job. But the greatest part about it all was the actual work itself. My job as a Development Coordinator was primarily grant writing. I was the one to raise the funds to build the houses. I was the the one to develop the method by which the money was raised. It was a very hard job in some respects, but very rewarding work when seeing the end result of what those funds did.

In my time at Habitat in South Carolina, I saw some deplorable living conditions. I saw families that were living without water and electricity...which means no heat in winter or air conditioning in summer...and the sweltering summer temps in SC reach 115-120 degrees with the humidity heat index. I saw families living with gaping holes in roofs and floors of the houses they lived in. Walls falling down. Exposed insulation. Houses crawling with bugs and mice and rats. It was incredible some of the things I saw. Most of those people don't live in those conditions by choice.

Most of these people have fallen through the cracks of our country's system...in every form the system exists. But some of these people DO choose to live that way in order to draw benefits from local and federal government agencies so as to not have to work. They find ways around various stipulations and draw benefits they truly don't deserve...and those are the people who push hardest to have a Habitat home built for them. But Habitat has a hard application process that involves months of interviewing, screening, back ground checking, credit checking, reference checking, and the list goes on for prospective families. From the time an application is filled out to the time a house is actually built, the time frame is usually two years. Because the screening process is so intense, the odds are VERY good that the family who gets a Habitat home is truly deserving.

There's a stigma attached to Habitat for Humanity that's absolutely false: Habitat homes are NOT built just for Afro-Americans, and those who have a Habitat home DO NOT get them for free. Actually, 67% percent of homes built are for whites (that number fluctuates from year to year)....because there are just as many poverty stricken white people in this country as there are minorities. ALL those who have a Habitat home built for them must pay for their houses.

While the house is being built, the applicant must put in 500 hours of 'sweat equity' for the down payment. 60% of that sweat equity has to be put in before the build is started. That can be in any form, such as putting in hours at a Habitat office doing office work if needed, or cleaning, or running errands, etc... it can also be in the form of putting in hours in a ReStore in whatever capacity the store needs extra bodies...and they ALWAYS do. They can even participate in the building of their own homes. It takes a LOT of work and a LOT of time to rack up those 500 hours.

Once the 500 hours have been put in, then a mortgage is drawn up on the house, usually financed through the Habitat chapter that's doing the build. The payment on a Habitat home is substantially less than what anyone else would pay for a house elsewhere. What would normally be a $800-$1000 per month payment on a brand new home of these particular sizes and qualities, a new Habitat home owner pays around $250 per month on a 15 year fixed mortgage. It's a pretty sweet deal when you see what they're getting. But they certainly don't get it for free...and they don't get it easy.

I was fortunate in my service year with Americorps and Habitat in South Carolina to see some of these houses to completion. I followed the chosen families from start to finish in their process. I witnessed these houses being dedicated and the families take their first steps into their brand new homes. I witnessed a lot of happiness...and a lot of pain and tears. I saw what the fruits of my labors accomplished. I learned that there is sooooooo much more good in life than bad, including my life.

My sweetie and I each completed our service years with Americorps as VISTA's. Yes, he was a VISTA also and that's how we came together...and worked together, and struggled together, and cried together, and laughed together. He was the director of the Habitat ReStore I volunteered in for so long. He was the one I met at the gig that night and he thought I was Stevie Nicks to 'enth degree'. He was the one that hauled me and my junk to the ReStore when I had no place else to go. He was the one to see in me the potential to do good for others in the capacity in which I have done. He is the one I've chosen to spend the rest of my life with.

I lived that service year at poverty level. It was tough, but not like what I witnessed when researching some of the Habitat applicants. I didn't live in deplorable conditions, or suffer in the way so many of those people do. In my 'poverty', I found immense riches in the forms of a new family in Habitat and Americorps, and in the satisfaction in the work I was doing, and...I found a new me in all of that.

My life became a pretty sweet deal when my car blew up. But there was no way to see that at the time. That's what's been so great about all this. I discovered it's about the journey. It's never about the 'stuff' you have. It's never about the next thing you're trying to buy. It's never about how much more money you can make. It's never about any destination, in any capacity. It's about the journey. The journey is the destination, and the prize. In the ride, there is curiosity, and discovery , and joy and pain, and tears and laughter. In the ride there's growth and the gaining of personal strength and integrity. In the ride there's healing in brokenness. In the ride there is peace.

My sweetie and I are seriously considering doing another service year with Americorps. We really and truly can't see our lives without it right now. We can't see ourselves not doing this kind of work in this capacity. President Obama signed in an act (Serve America Act) a few months ago expanding the number of Americorps volunteers creating endless opportunities for volunteer work that is sooooo desperately needed in this country. You can read more about it at www.americorps.gov/ . It's a ride I'll take as many times as I can as an Americorps/VISTA. I love what I do. I love what it accomplishes. I love the sustainability my work achieves.

It's worth throwing a job in corporate bull to the wind to do what is truly God's work: taking care of those who can't take care of themselves by giving them a hand up. It's worth every poverty driven stipend penny, because yes, I do make a difference. And poverty is all it's cracked up to be...and then some.

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