It is an interesting time to be a part of AmeriCorps, possibly made more interesting by the economic situation we are living in. It makes for an assortment of volunteers. I used to be a teacher, I taught history in the inner city of Chicago. Before that I was a manager on the laboratory side of a photography chain. When I had the time, I’d travel, on the cheap, because a part of me thought I was experiencing new worlds and seeing things from a different perspective. What I didn’t realize was that it would be AmeriCorps that actually showed me a new world. I’ll be honest, I fell on hard times, like so many others, I joined AmeriCorps because I thought it would look good on a resume and I was too old and too tired to work for three months at a temp job and fight to make ends meet. I thought AmeriCorps would open doors for me, and that will be determined in the future.
Despite the time that I spent traveling and the time that I spent teaching students in poverty in Chicago, I was only experiencing a small slice of the world. AmeriCorps relocated me and I fell into a world that I had never expected. Survival in the city, when you have no money is one thing; it is something that I experienced myself, first hand, and through my students before that. AmeriCorps put me in the suburbs. It put me in an area of affluence where the average studio apartment runs for around 800 dollars a month and there is no public transportation.
AmeriCorps put me in an area where there is still poverty, but that poverty is juxtaposed with BMWs, enormous suburban homes, and miles between your apartment and a grocery store.
Just like in the city there are free clinics and services here, but unlike in the city, they aren’t a bus ride away. You have to own a car to access them. There is literally no other option to get from your home to the free clinic if you don’t own a car. I’m in an area that is dealing with a different type of poverty. A type of poverty that I didn’t expect because I didn’t know to look there, a type of poverty that I didn’t know existed.
In a city, it’s a little easier to live on your own with a minimum wage paycheck. There are areas where the rent is lower. There is subsidized housing. There are buses and subways. Out here, living on your own is impossible. The people that I see that are living in poverty are often in their thirties and forties and were forced to move back in with their parents, families, and friends. There is no other way to survive out here, where the rent is high and a car is the only means of transportation. It adds another level to what people are experiencing out here with nothing. In many ways it’s harder than it is in a city.
It is a different world, to be in poverty in the far and affluent suburbs, and one that I was neither expecting nor even knew existed. It is interesting living out here, on an AmeriCorps stipend because it places you firmly in the shoes of the impoverished. There is a hundred dollars left after you pay rent every month and like them you go through cycles where you live without electricity or gas for a month while you use one credit card to pay off the other so that there is enough gas in the car to go to and from work. Like college, you acquire a fair amount of debt, but this is debt for survival, not education. It’s a debt that you’ll only be able to pay off if you break the cycle.
Had it not been for AmeriCorps I wouldn’t have even been aware of this type of poverty. I’d have only associated it with the city, where the cost of a car is negated by the CTA, where rent is cheaper but food is more expensive. If it wasn’t for AmeriCorps, many of these people wouldn’t have access to the help they need to make it through the day.
It is organizations like AmeriCorps that haven’t over looked the needs of those in poverty that are shadowed by those in rural or urban America. There are others out here helping as well, but it is good to know that AmeriCorps is willing to look at the places that are often overlooked by the news. In AmeriCorps you are volunteering your time to a cause that has taken the time to seek out as many people in need as possible. AmeriCorps looks at the cracks and finds those in need in unlikely places.
AmeriCorps is a valued commodity in times like these, where work is hard to find. It helps you, the volunteer, to break the cycle of minimum-wage temp jobs and while it is helping you, you are helping others in need. At least in my case, you are helping the people in need that you didn’t even know existed. People don’t associate poverty in areas where houses sell for millions of dollars and a cramped studio costs as much as a month’s pay. Before AmeriCorps I would have never thought to look for poverty in areas like this and I am glad to be working for an organization that pays enough attention to people to search out those in need everywhere.
How has the national service impacted me? It opened my eyes to a world that I didn’t know existed and it put me into a position to help the people that are struggling in a community that has few resources they can access. It has taken me out of my little bubble of urban America to show me that poverty exists everywhere, even where I least expected it, and it has given me the opportunity to help.
A former high school history teacher, Samuel G. Urbaniak joined IPHA AmeriCorps in September of 2013. He is completing his AmeriCorps service in a county health department. He joined AmeriCorps as a means to help others while trying to find a permanent position to break his own cycle of poverty.