Upon completing a term of service with AmeriCorps, the volunteer earns a $5,500 education award that can be used towards student loans or intuition. As I didn’t personally have either expense, my awards have just kinda sat there all this time.
They do expire though.
So I decided to tap into them earlier this year with a couple writing classes through Portland Community College. My first class was Creative Non-fiction, and my goal was to bring it full circle by writing about my AmeriCorps experiences.
“Lindsey” is what came out of that workshop, about my friend Lindsey, who was on my first AmeriCorps team with me. We traveled the West Coast together and these are just a few of our memories…
(or: 26 notes on service, belonging, desert life, and how two East coasters met in California)
1. Annoyed: She was probably annoyed with me when I interrupted her the first time we met. But I’m also certain that Lindsey admired my confidence.
2. Base: Our relationship started over a scavenger hunt around McClellan Air Force Base in October of 2011. The retired United States Air Force base, located in the North Highlands neighborhood of Sacramento, California, is the regional campus for AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC): Pacific Region. This former military depot was the landing pad for my own California dream.
3. California: High school was never enjoyable for me. As I half-heartedly researched colleges, I also learned about long-term service programs since I already belonged to the high school’s own non-profit volunteer program, GIVE. The founder of GIVE, my Sociology teacher, introduced me to the wonderful world of AmeriCorps. How had I never heard of this? I learned that with NCCC, I could serve and travel with like-minded individuals with the potential of being assigned to camp out in California and build trails. The opportunity was a life changer. A young East Coaster’s Californian vision is usually movie-picturesque. My peers were attracted to luxurious Los Angeles and the glitz of Hollywood. I wasn’t distracted by California’s charm as much as I was attracted to the program’s encouragement of belonging to a community and getting dirty in the process.
4. Diversity: The mission of the AmeriCorps NCCC program is “To strengthen communities and develop leaders through team-based national and community service.” Diverse corps members of different backgrounds are selected to serve and are assigned to a campus. Corps members are split into teams of 11 including a Team Leader, and complete up to six projects.
I had once applied before graduating high school and was passed over. The desire to reapply stalked me for years.
5. End: During those years, I worked fulltime, went to college, and started and ended a solid long-term relationship. Then, I reapplied to AmeriCorps NCCC and moved to Austin, Texas to escape the looming winter months.
6. Fall: Late one night at the bar, shortly after SXSW wrapped up another dangerous and successful music & film festival, my Blackberry lit up. (Yes, I said Blackberry.) The email was from AmeriCorps NCCC and it read: “Congratulations, you’ve been selected to serve the Fall semester in the Pacific Region!” Celebratory shots were poured as the karaoke singers rejoiced around us. I told everyone that I was going to change the world.
7. Grandmother: As much fun (maybe too much) as Austin was that winter, my intuition urged me home for one last summer since everyone was saying once I hit the West Coast, I probably wouldn’t come back. The heat came and passed and three weeks before the program started, my Grandmother unexpectedly passed away, leaving my family devastated but for a moment, closer than even before. Meme was very proud of me and I knew she’d be thrilled to ride shotgun on my pending road trip.
8. Haight: At the funeral, my ex told me that I was going to change. For the better, I told him.
I drove south, stopping at my Aunt’s in New Jersey, an old neighbor’s, who had moved to Asheville, NC, and a fellow music-lover’s apartment in Hilton Head, SC. She wasn’t home that weekend so I had to be the one to administer eye drops to her bunny, Greta.
I drove West stopping for a long weekend in Austin, where I had time to process the past year while on an old roommate’s couch. Grief finally caught up with me there.
Onward to enjoy 12 hours in a Tucson hotel, and then finally two rainy San Francisco nights where I prepared for the upcoming year, on a mentor’s couch, in the Lower Haight district. My nerves reseeded but my allergies raged.
9. I: I was excited. I wanted to help people. I wanted to travel the West Coast. I thought I knew what to expect. Then I arrived at McClellan.
10. Jitters: The program started with a week of orientation before teams were assigned, followed by three weeks of training and orientation before deploying to our first adventure. Team assignments were immediately followed by the scavenger hunt around the Air Force Base, which the newly formed team completed with minimal outbursts. Still, I was jittery and on edge, suddenly blanketed by the permanence of the year. I would feel every single emotion except for sad throughout my service year. I would learn to leave the room when I felt anxious. I’d leave my hands under the warm, running water for a while. Anxiety reigned over the first six weeks but washing my hands help calm me down. Lindsey, a piece of home, was a grounding source.
11. Kind: It wasn’t until we were all sitting together that I noticed her, though. We had each chosen opposite heads of the table with our team around us. We faced each other. She was blonde and seemed to be the most reserved and kindhearted on the team, but had been overshadowed by the other developing personalities.
12. Lindsey: The team could have been cast for a reality show. All strangers, picked not only to live and serve together but to cook, eat, sleep, meet, greet, travel, workout, play and profess together. We were strangers when we met; A diverse bunch with a bit of baggage. Despite our differences, we were all together for a common reason: to change the world. We introduced ourselves clockwise around a pizza. Lindsey went second and her tone was matter-of-fact.
13. Marblehead: “Hi, I’m Lindsey. I went to college at Fitchburg State, in Massachusetts, but I’m from…“ “Oh my god,” I said, “That’s where I’m from! Leominster, Massachusetts! Right next to Fitchburg!” Since I don’t believe in coincidences, it was the very first example of We Are All Right Where We Belong, a team motivator I later adopted in the desert and preached all year. Excited, yet slightly annoyed, Lindsey laughed and stated she was actually from Marblehead, Massachusetts.
14. North Shore: Marblehead is a coastal town on the North Shore. East of the Salem witches, and known for fishing, whaling, and yachting; The number of boats in the harbor is a constant reminder of the season. In a small, sheltered community full of traditions and celebrations, Lindsey knew all her neighbors and felt comfort from the salty air. For me, the coast was a vacation spot where I could visit the magic of the weathered islands, cranberry bogs, and sassy seagulls. Though seagulls also commonly congregated in the Taco Bell parking lot in my own landlocked hometown, they were never quite the same without the crashing waves.
15. Owl: The team that Lindsey and I were on was the seventh team under the Green Unit, thus making us, Green 7. During one of our first Unit-building exercises, we were instructed to choose our spirit animals. Upon gathering with the socialite dolphins, I quickly realized I was to be with the observing owls. Lindsey was one of only three loyal lambs that day.
16. Project: Our second campus scavenger hunt determined the location of our first six-week project: Agua Caliente, a county park in California’s Anza Borrego Desert, containing three geothermal hot spring fed pools - two outdoor and an indoor heated spa. We were assigned to prevent erosion in preparation of flash floods. We dug out over a ton of dirt from around the water tanks and used it to build trails. We also planted cactus plants and palm trees, removed invasive species, painted, sorted lumber, shoveled rocks and built horse corrals. We also adopted our team tribal call, much similar to the Warrior Princess Xena’s.
17. Quail: Hot days and cold nights, the dramatic Anza Borrego is surrounded by the Vallecito Mountains to the South and the Santa Rosa Mountains to the North. We were among desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions, roadrunners, and my morning alarm clock: the quail.
18. Rain: Arriving during a rare desert rain shower, we set up camp under a vibrant rainbow. Our living arrangement was a cluster of six tents. I had never camped. Now I was in the desert for forty-two days. And it was raining.
19. Sandwich: Agua Caliente became a place of introspection for both Lindsey and I to figure out our purpose on the team and our goals in the program. It wasn’t until we snuck away during work hours, that we first bonded over our neverending appetites. Our plan was to make 11 surprise PB&J’s for the team. We each ate one in the clubhouse and brought seconds for the walk back, brainstorming our assets and team contributions. I was learning how to actively listen and constructively share. Lindsey was finding her strength.
20. Turn: Nearby Camp Vallecito was said to be haunted. They also, however, had cell service, which was nearly nonexistent at Agua Caliente. Weeks into the project, the team planned an overnight with just our sleeping bags and cell phones in the sand. Around the fire, we all shared songs from iPods with personal meaning. Lindsey shared an Edward Sharpe song and I shared the Byrds, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” For everything there is a season. A time. A purpose.
21. eUlogy: The lyrics are from Ecclesiastes 3, which the first 16 lines of were read by my cousin at my grandmother’s funeral just months before.
22. Van: Our 15-passenger van was named Pigeon because of the cooing the sliding door made. Julian, California, known for their pies, was only 33 miles away from Agua Caliente, but was an hour long haul for Pigeon. Still, we packed her with pies on Thanksgiving after serving food at the community dinner. I was partial to the Mountain Berry Crumble… for breakfast. Thanksgiving night, around another rectangular folding table, I read aloud the eulogy that I wrote and spoke at my grandmother’s funeral. Since she was a part of every day conversations, the team would dedicate our first service project portfolio to her.
23. Whirl: Julian was once a week for laundry and groceries. Lindsey and I took on laundry duty. The laundromat was a reprieve from the team’s tornado of energy. The whirling spin cycle was more appealing than foraging at Safeway to feed a Pigeon full of 20 year olds for the next seven strenuous desert days. Lindsey and I got to know each other over the team’s dirty uniforms.
24. Xtina: During the wash, we’d spend some time making personal calls then shared stories during the day. We once enjoyed a secret Margarita happy hour then DJ’d and sang the whole car ride home: Whitney, Christina, Gotye, the last two tracks on the self titled Third Eye Blind album. Lindsey was finding her voice.
25 Yawn: I knew I was finally getting comfortable with my surroundings when I started sleeping barefoot. However, dreams of vacuuming the inside my tent lasted my entire desert tenure. I’d wake to magenta sunrises and howling coyotes yipping across the nearby sands. They sounded smaller than our East Coast packs, but they sounded close.
The entrances to my tent and Lindsey’s tent faced each other, with the other team-tents to the sides, similar to how we sat across the table from each other the day we met. Each morning, emerged from our tents yawning but somehow managing to giggle at 5am.
26 Zaster: Lindsey ended up earning the nickname of “Lindzaster” after weeks of early mornings and tense evenings, mountain hikes, dehydration and building an irrigation system. “Disaster” seemed so inappropriate, thus humorous, for the quiet girl I had interrupted across the table half-way across the state. But this was a changed Lindsey. A Lindsey of a different color. One who could now command your attention in a team meeting, plan service projects and contribute the level-headed ideas. Zaster was learning to lead. We had signed up to help others, but we soon realized the personal benefits were even greater. We were changing the world and our little lamb was now a lioness.