By: Stephanie Yu, Executive Director of Volunteer West Virginia
Last month, I had the honor of watching more than 150 AmeriCorps members be sworn in for a year of service in West Virginia. The experience got me thinking about my own experience with service and how I felt a bit envious of these members, getting ready to embark on a year that will change them in more ways than they realize.
There was a time when I applied to be an AmeriCorps member, shortly after college. I was in New York working as a financial analyst for a big law firm. You know, securities fraud cases, tax fraud, exciting things like that. And I thought to myself, “it’s time to start doing more for other people.” I’ll apply to AmeriCorps. I had interviews and was accepted at a couple of sites. I went in to tell my boss my plans, and he stopped me and offered me more money to stay. Since I was thinking to myself “this isn’t about the money,” I declined. And then he offered me even more money, a big enough number to make me stop and think. And in my head I saw this pile of student loan debt on one hand with the promise of a big salary and bigger bonus on the other hand. And I thought to myself, “what’s one more year? I’m young, I have time.” So I agreed to stay and spent the next few months building spreadsheets and analyzing stock data, while trying to make a dent in my student loans, and of course, still going out in New York City occasionally, which takes a full-time job just to pay for dinner.
And then, one Tuesday morning, I got to the office as usual around 8:30 or so, prepared to work my usual 15-hour day. I was working in my office on the 36th floor of a Midtown office building when there was yelling down the hall. Not unusual in a law firm, but I got up to see what was going on. And there were crowds gathered in the conference room and offices on the south side of the building, and they were saying that a plane had just flow into the World Trade Center. And not that long after that, what looked like a fireball burst from the other tower. And the office was total, complete chaos. Announcements were frantically coming over the speakers to evacuate and people began to run for the elevators. What followed after that were some of the most surreal days of my life. When we got to the ground floor, people just poured out of the building, hugging, crying, having no idea where to go. In every hand was a cell phone, calling family, calling friends. And then the towers fell. And we felt it. And heard it. And before long and for the next week, we smelled the towers burning. And the next thing I knew, I was walking through the city, with no concrete plan as to where I was going. And trying to call my mother with every step.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to New York City, but I’m sure you have a picture of it in your heads. Now picture it almost silent. Picture it with no cars, no taxis, no buses, no noise. Picture it with dazed crowds of people walking up the centers of the avenues, no regard for sidewalks or lights. Picture thousands, millions of people looking at each other, wondering what to do next. All this on a clear, beautiful, sunny day.
I think, for a lot of people, September 11 served as a wake-up call, about the importance of family and friends, about the world we live in, about the many things that are out of our control. Some of our new AmeriCorps members may not remember much about that day, or the reaction. I don’t think that it was possible to be in this country and not have been moved by what happened. I certainly don’t think it was possible to have been in New York and not have lost someone, or many someones, and not have recognized the impact on the city. New York, for many months, was a different place, and maybe in some ways, still is. For me personally, it became a time to re-evaluate, to put aside concerns about earning potential or annual bonuses, and to think about the life I wanted to lead. Shortly after that, I put aside plans for business or law school, and began applying to graduate school in public policy and non-profit management.
But I think I will always have the sense that I missed something by not participating in AmeriCorps, by not giving that year of my life over to something bigger than my own concerns. So there is a part of me that will live vicariously through our members this year. It is a joy to sit back and watch them all discover what they can do, what they can contribute, and I look forward to getting to know them this year.
This is probably a good time to reflect a bit on the past year, now that the craziness of program start-up, swearing-in and budgets are over. While much of the last year has felt like a whirlwind, there have been a number of moments that have stood out. The swearing-in and the celebration of Mountain State Leaders service projects werefun and inspiring, but it’s really some of those personal conversations that have made me see the value of AmeriCorps service. The one-on-one conversations that I have had have taught me about the power of AmeriCorps service. One VetCorps member told me what his service means to him, a the LifeBridge member told me she was inspired to apply to (and got accepted to!) a master’s program in social work at WVU. Or the member who left service early in order to make the transition from welfare to work, and credited his time in the program with positioning him for that opportunity. Or the member who came to West Virginia from Chicago and found, to her surprise, that she loved it here.
Of course, this last year has been about more than just AmeriCorps. I am continually impressed by the Citizen Corps community, so many of whom are dedicated volunteers ready to help at any time of day or night. Our Business Volunteer Council continues to look for ways to inspire volunteerism in the corporate world. My first Faces of Leadership Conference brought home to me just how many people there are out there giving their time and talents to help others (including the tireless staff of Volunteer West Virginia). And of course in my travels throughout the state, I have met countless people with their sleeves rolled up, getting things done.
As I reflect on service – both in ways it’s affected me and also in ways it’s affected our state – I can’t help but look forward to another great year.
Stephanie Yu can be contacted at email@example.com.