A Volunteer in Service to America

By Kat McCaffery, Development Specialist, American Indian Family Center

On August 13, 2017, I moved to Saint Paul. I had never been to the Twin Cities and didn’t know a single person there. All I knew was that one of the women who worked at my service site offered a room in the house she was renting with her husband and daughter. It was an adorable house in a nice neighborhood where I could actually afford the rent. I got lucky.

The next day, I started as a VISTA at the American Indian Family Center in East Saint Paul. I was given a tour of the building, provided standard reading material for new employees, and was told some vague ideas of what staff wanted help with developing. I had an office job with regular hours. I thought, “I could get used to this.”

My first month was an adjustment to office life. I’d had an office job before, so I knew a little of what to expect. Every office is a little different. Race, age, culture, and even the physical space impact the office environment. Part of becoming an effective staff member is learning how to navigate power dynamics with the expectations and responsibilities of the assigned position.

I also knew that not having experience with the Native community would be a challenge, and one I would have to learn about quickly if I was going to be successful. Everything I knew about Indigenous peoples was from the perspective of the dominant culture. This meant information was either appropriated, watered down to filter out shame, or just plain false.

Adjusting to being a VISTA was a challenge too—VISTA’s only receive a living stipend of $878 a month after taxes. Living in a city, paying rent and other bills, and buying groceries on a stipend leaves little room for the regular life of a person in their 20’s. The philosophy of the VISTA program is to live in a similar situation as the people you serve; it’s a philosophy that VISTA’s embrace and use as an opportunity to enrich the experience of service. Simply put, we know what we’re signing up for.

There were a few bumps in the road as I was getting started, but things eventually started to become easier the more I became familiar with my coworkers and my fellow VISTA’s. I had a support network of newly found friends I could rely on for advice on development projects, navigating culture, and volunteering a year of my life to a nonprofit.

On September 29, my father died. In a single night, I lost my health insurance, car insurance, and the economic security I relied on in case of emergencies. Most of all, I lost my number one supporter—my number one fan.

I suddenly found myself thrown into crisis. True to my nature, I started formulating a plan to support myself for the next 10 months. I had some money in my bank account, a car, student loans, bills, rent, and only $878 of income each month. There was no way I could do it on my own and not go entirely broke.

So, I resolved to do the one thing I found most difficult: I asked for help. I applied for SNAP so I wouldn’t starve. I found a navigator that signed me up for MNSure so I would have health insurance. I sat down with my AmeriCorps Coordinator to talk about how my year was going to change, how little I knew about life, and that I did not, in fact, realize what I signed up for.

Since then, I’ve learned to live on $52 of groceries a month, cried in my car after the pharmacist first told me there wasn’t a copay for my medication, learned to advocate for my emotional wellbeing, and have consistently been shown the heart of humanity.

Through living in crisis, through learning the truth of American history too shameful to be taught in schools, through marching for the justice and dignity of those forgotten, I have learned what it means to be in service to America.

It is the unspoken love strangers have toward each other. It is the grace of receiving as much as I am giving. It is the patience of understanding how much I have learned, how much I have yet to learn, and that there are certain things I will never be able to know.