What I Learned from Being a VISTA- A.K.A.”Figure It Out!”

My “goodby and good luck” party. I’m at the far right.

When I was twenty-four years old, I joined VISTA.  I was a child of the 60s and enthusiastically gulped JFK’s Ask-not-what-your-country-can-do-for-you-ask-what-you-can-do-for-your-country-Kool-Aid.  Initially, I wanted to join the Peace Corps, but after talking to the recruiter, settled on Volunteers In Service To America- VISTA.

In 1978, VISTAs worked for $340 a month plus food stamps.  From this budget, volunteers were expected to pay for their own housing, transportation, medication and personal items.  It was not high living, but I had grown up pinching pennies so I was confident that I would be able to manage.

Once I signed up, I eagerly awaited my first “project”- a description of an assignment at a specific location that I could either accept or decline.  I had requested an assignment in the Pacific Northwest and was particularly interested in Alaska, since I had never seen that part of the country.  To my surprise, the first project sent to me was in East Harlem, New York City- not exactly the Pacific Northwest.

I declined that project and the next, but finally was offered a position in Boise, Idaho.  I accepted and several months later, flew across the country for a week of pre-service orientation in Seattle, Washington, followed by a train ride to Boise. 

My fellow VISTAs and me at Pre-service Orientation. Not sure what I was thinking with that hair…

I arrived at midnight and was picked up at the station by a fellow VISTA named Ann, who was supposed to provide housing for me for the next week or two, while I found suitable housing.  She led me to a guest room, where I fell into an uneasy sleep, excited about what the next day would hold.

In the morning, Ann hesitantly told me that her husband had decided he did not want me to stay with them and I needed to leave immediately.  I was crushed.  He hadn’t even met me.  I was three thousand miles from home with nothing but a suitcase and a guitar, and I didn’t know a soul. I had less than a hundred dollars in my wallet.  There were no computers, and no cell phones.  I had no car, and no way to get home.  I was stranded. I felt lost.  And abandoned. And very alone.

I did what any calm, confident young woman would do in the same circumstances.  I locked myself in the guest room and cried.  I wished I had never signed up for VISTA.  I wished I was still living at 30 Green Street.  I wanted to be where I jockeyed with my siblings for time in the bathroom. I wanted to hear my father’s smoker’s cough announce his arrival home at the end of a work day.  I wanted to trip over our dog, Greta, who had a habit of lying in front of the porch entry.  I wanted to smell coffee brewing in the kitchen.  I wanted my own pillow.  But mostly, I wanted my mother.  I wanted to search her soft gray eyes for answers.  I wanted to feel her strong arms around my shoulders, and hear her reassuring laugh.

But my mother was not there with me.  The reality of this brought a fresh stream of tears. They rolled down my cheeks and spattered on my jeans.  They turned my eyes red and my face splotchy, and brought sobs so deep that I had to muffle them in a pillow so Ann would not hear.

Finally, the sobs subsided.  I sat on the bed and wondered what my mother would say and in the emptiness of Ann’s guest room, I could almost hear her voice.

“C’mon Boo, dry your eyes.  Figure it out.”

And that’s what I did.  I dried my eyes.  I picked up my suitcase and guitar, left Ann’s house and wandered through Boise’s residential areas until I came across a big white house with a sign in the window that said “Room for rent.”

I straightened my shoulders, took a deep breath, and  knocked on the door, and a half hour later was settled in a small room with pink walls and a tiny three-quarter en-suite bath which was to be my home for the next several months.

It is now 2012. In the years since those first days as a VISTA, there have been many storms, and many times I have felt uncertain.  Often I have wished I were back in the old house on 30 Green Street.  I have longed to hear my father’s cough.  I’ve wished to step over Greta lying on the front porch, and I have ached to  look into my mother’s soft gray eyes, or feel her strong arms around my shoulders.  But in those times when my steps are unsure, when I feel abandoned and alone, I remember that I was once that skinny twenty-four-year-old who was three thousand miles from home and heard her mother’s voice say,

“C’mon Boo, dry your eyes.  Figure it out.”

And I do.

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