Since I first committed to a year of service and zeroed in on my program in March, I’ve gotten a lot of questions from friends, family, and even strangers about the whole endeavor. Generally, there’s polite confusion followed by genuine interest, and then—depending on who the person is—either delight or disgust when he or she realizes that I’m spending a year of my life essentially working a 40-hour work week but not getting paid. Even at Villanova, a community that is so familiar with and supportive of students completing service, especially after they graduate, many questions arise about my motives, the ins and outs of the program, and the logistics of the whole thing. Here, I’ve compiled most of the questions I receive—both kind and invasive—and done my best to answer them as best I can. I was going to write this before I left for Portland but realized how presumptuous it would have been to answer questions about things like community, my job, and finances without having lived it all for a little bit. Hopefully these answers clear things up and just generally help more people what a year of service is and how important volunteers are to so many awesome organizations around the country and around the world.
First, the big one: What made you want to do a year of service? This is the big one, the one I still am answering, and those answers are always changing. I always like to emphasize to people that my decision to do a year of service wasn’t some saintly decision to forgo the ways of the world for a year, to shun money and technology and bits like that. A lot of the decision was heart, and a lot of it was head. Striving toward social justice and changing the world really is what I want to do with my life, and if I thought I could make a significant step toward doing that immediately after college via a more traditional job, then to be honest—I probably would have gone that route. However, so few people get a job in their desired industry right out of college, and normally work a random job to save up and make some money. That is such a valid and important step, but frankly, I’m impatient and I wanted to be working toward something I really believed in right away. A year of service is giving me that opportunity. I write about my specific position below, but it’s in the field of food justice, a topic about which I am wildly passionate, a passion that increases the more I learn about the topic. In college, I became impatient learning about all these issues and wanting to start working on the damn things in any way I could. If I had gotten a customer service or public relations job at some random corporation—which I likely could have, a lot of those companies like Villanova Liberal Arts graduates—I know that I would have been deeply anxious, antsy, and unhappy, and it would have been solely for the sake of making money. One of the reasons I wanted to do a year of service was to serve people and try to make some sort of difference (heart) while still gaining a year of work experience in the food justice field. It’s perfect.
How did you settle on JVC Northwest? This one is completely tied to why I decided to go forth with a year of service at all. I was simply drawn to JVCNW like Harry Styles will be to me the day fate finally brings us together. I knew I wanted JVCNW, and I must admit—I’m sure I’m not alone in this sentiment—that a lot of that had to do with its location. I have been obsessed with the Pacific Northwest since first visiting in 2004, and I always felt, truly felt, that I would end up there. There’s something about the air, the soil, the way the pine forests meet the coast, the way the cities feel open and full of light despite the persistent drizzle. It’s the green, I don’t know, it’s all of it. The more I read about JVC NW, the more obsessed with it I became, to the point where it was the only thing I wanted and my heart hurt at the thought of not being accepted, even though me and my friend knew we were both highly qualified. Reading through the positions available because my interview to get into the program, I easily saw 15 that I would be happy to hold.
The deal was sealed when I received my placement. As a back-up, just in case something went horribly awry with my Northwest application, I went through the same process with Jesuit Volunteer Corps (all the regions of the US used to be separate programs, and when they decided to merge over a decade ago, Northwest decided that its structure and ethos was unique enough that they would like to stay their own organization) and it just didn’t feel right. I didn’t click with my interview and felt uncomfortable the whole time; my placement interviews seemed cool, but I don’t know; it just never felt right. One day in March, JVC called me and congratulated me on my placement, working as a Refugee Services Coordinator in Chicago. When I hung up the phone, I panicked. I texted Rachel about how it felt wrong and how I wasn’t happy and I was just unsure of everything. I kid you not, five minutes later, JVC Northwest called me to tell me that they had placed me in my number 1 choice, with Ecumenical Ministries in Portland. Sometimes the universe steps in and sorts things out before you even have time to worry, I think. The next day, I emailed JVC and told them thanks but no thanks, that I was taking my talents elsewhere (joke. Anyone? No….? Ok oops).
My pull toward the Northwest, my obsession with the placement positions, the general demeanor of every staff member with whom I interacted during the application process, and the program alums I knew and loved made Northwest an easy decision.
Is it kind of like the Peace Corps in the United States? If that helps you understand it better, then sure! However, Jesuit Volunteers live in communities rather than alone (horrifying) and have a really strong support system both in their cities and throughout the entire region, which I’ve heard the Peace Corps decided does not have. If you’re interested in a “domestic version” of the Peace Corps, check out Americorps; it’s a great program, just less structured than JVC.
What are you doing, exactly? Well, that is the big question, isn’t it? My official title is Food Justice Coordinator, but after just a few days I’ve come to realize that such a title encompasses many different things. [Unsure of what “food justice” is? I don’t blame you, it’s a huge topic. Look for a Food Justice 101 post coming soon.] The first few days were definitely a little slow, and the position is going to take some getting used to, but I’m finding patience and trust that I would NEVER and I mean NEVER have had a few years ago. I know I’m in the right place, I’m just not sure what exactly I’m meant to be doing yet. For example, my job description said that I would be signing clients up for SNAP benefits 30% of the time and coordinating a buyers club another 30% of the time. I found out last week that both of these programs don’t exist at the agency anyone because of lack of funds…so 60% of what was to be my work is no longer there, which is weird and makes me a little anxious, to be honest.
HOWEVER (optimism, hey!), there is a lot of work to be done in Rockwood, a low-income neighborhood of Gresham, Portland’s neighbor to the east. Katrina, my predecessor, kicked major ass in building up a community garden there last year and I’ll work to continue and build on her work by organizing workshops, work days, and classes at the garden, for the gardeners. Additionally, EMO is part of a Healthy Retail Initiative that is working to get produce and other healthy foods into the corner stores where most people in Rockwood get a large portion of their food. Once a week, I’ll be a food pantry in NE Portland, which will be a welcome break from the office.
In the office, it looks like I’ll be doing a lot of communications and outreach sort of work, which is exciting and something to which I’m increasingly being drawn. I’ve already started to write press releases and media alerts and will get to play a big role in newsletter writing. I’ll also be seeking donations for local businesses, which is way out of my comfort zone but something I need to get good at if I plan on working in any sort of social justice capacity.
The position is reflective of the very nature of non-profit work: it’s all based on where the funds are. I could have nothing to do and then a huge grant could come in that would become my project for the year. Hopefully I’ll have the patience and consistency to work through the confusion until my tasks and projects are well-established.
How did you choose your position? I’ve always loved food, but after becoming a vegetarian four years ago (what?!), I began to really delve into the ethics, cultural significance, and politics of food. Have you ever found that when you browse news or curated-type websites, you’re always drawn to specific topics? I am continually drawn to food articles: recipes, pictures, literally WHATEVER. A class this past fall on food justice and an internship at a local farm-based non-profit outside of Philadelphia really solidified that food justice and outdoor education-type ish are my passions are what I want to do (for now, that is! My mind is always distracted by all the new things to learn). JVC Northwest is incredibly in the wide array of positions available: you can work with everyone from developmentally disabled adults to domestic violence survivors to those undergoing addiction treatment and more. However, I was specifically drawn to the food justice and outdoor education positions. I saw that this one involved both policy work and time building a community garden, and I knew it was the one for me. I ranked it first and somehow was lucky enough to be placed at my first choice.
So you don’t get paid? Nope. However, Ecumenical Ministries doesn’t get my services completely free of charge—they have to contribute financially some amount (I don’t know how much) so that JVC Northwest can afford to have us in the program. Additionally, we get money from Americorps that is matched by JVC Northwest. It’s all very complicated but the short answer is that my “payment” is in being able to live on whatever funds I receive. Even shorter answer: No, I don’t get paid.
How do you get to work? For now, I’ve been taking the bus which is both a pleasant and endlessly frustrating experience. I’m so antsy for a bike, not just to commute to work every day (at least until the weather turns south; I’ll have to dig deep to find the nerve to commute in rainy Portland winters, but I think I can do it), but to ride around town. As a general rule, I love moving but hate walking; hurts my back and knees and legs and feet and OH you flat feet, how you torture me endlessly. I want/NEED a bike to get all around town: to the library, to the grocery store, to whatever new coffee shop or festival or market or gluten-free bakery I’m planning on stalking that weekend. I’m hoping to stop into one of the city’s 10 million bike shops this week and start the conversation. I want dat bike and I want it ASAP.
But yes; for now, I take the bus but have built walking into that so I get about 30 minutes of walking in every day, plus what is normally additionally time around town. City life, man. It’s crazy.
What’s your house like? And you live with other people? My house is a big, quirky relic of the 1970s, made even weirder by its former identity as a house of nuns. Yes, nuns lived here. This is only the house’s second year as a JV house, so there’s still a lot of nesting to do, but overall it is slightly rundown and shag-carpeted and oddly charming. We have a backyard that resembled a jungle until a few days ago, and a few of us are trying to tame it into a garden and a more welcoming, cozy space (if you know anyone in the Portland area trying to get rid of a picnic table, hmu). We have a carport. It is a split level. It needs a coat of paint. It is lovely.
As for question #2: YES! I live with seven other people. The neighbors are probably confused by our presence and I’m sure think of us as “that house,” but there are 8 of all, all JVs, one guy amongst seven girls (God bless Ryan). We are lucky enough to each have our own room. They are all lovely people and I’m lucky to have them. Yes, it’s kind of a hippie community deal. DEAL WITH IT.
We live in a residential neighborhood that is quiet and leafy while still having easy access to cool, commercial streets and it’s just the perfect balance. I love coming home to the neighborhood every day and am absolutely loving this space.
How do you pay for food? So JVC Northwest budgets the funds we get and decide how much goes into the community account and how much goes into my personal account (two separate checking accounts—are you confused yet?). A large part of that monthly sum goes toward food that we buy every week in one big chunk (always fun hauling that stuff home). So far we’ve been able to eat healthfully and surprisingly ethically, and for that I am very grateful.
How about other stuff? Other money in that community account goes to other community costs: utilities, house supplies, stuff like that. Technically it’s all one big account and the office just budgets to suggest how much to spend on each different thing, a best practice sort of deal. But it’s ultimately up to our discretion: For example, we’ll probably run under on average utilities this month, but instead of spending more money on food or something like that, we’re going to save up for when those utilities are higher (aka winter). Our personal stipend is where we each individually pull from to buy whatever or do whatever we want (including alcohol if we so choose: community funds can’t go toward that).
So you get $100 a month to be a young adult in Portland? But….THE FOOD. THE COFFEE. THE GOING-OUT OPTIONS. Yeahhhhh. Here’s the kicker and the one I definitely haven’t figured out quite yet. Portland isn’t crazy expensive, but it’s certainly not cheap either, and being here for just a few weeks has already been a practice in self-control. There’s just so many wonderful ways to spend money around every corner: Food, coffee shops, more food, concerts, more food, beer, etc. It hasn’t been long enough for me to state an official policy I’ve developed on how I spend my stipend; all I can say is that it will be a continual learning process. Also, it’s incredible how quickly my mindset changed when you simply don’t have the money to spend. I’m still seeking ways to get out and about in Portland without spending too much (or anything), and it’s taking patience. In short, yes, it’s really damn hard not to get a pastry and coffee in a coffee shop every day after work. I’m working on it all, but I hope I’ll surprise myself.
What’s the deal with simple living and how are you “allowed” to use technology? The office leaves it very much up to each community—and even more so, each individual—to decide what simplicity and technology use is going to look like to them during this year.
I was going to write about what it means that JVC Northwest is a Catholic program, the way spirituality seems to play out differently here in the Pacific Northwest, and my intro into the wild and crazy world of the Jesuits (still love you, Augustinians, forever ever), but now I’m thinking that could be a whole separate conversation. There’s a lot to say.
I’m still figuring out this whole year of service business, and the fact that I’ve only been in Portland for two weeks is both shocking and reassuring. The adventure is just beginning, I think.