Be comfortable with your story.
Those were my words of wisdom to a new friend that had I met a few weeks ago while at training to be an AmeriCorps VISTA member. Barely 21 years old and bright-eyed, he sat across from me at dinner struggling to cope with other’s perception of him. They said that he was “just a kid” and that he would never last out in the “real world” where he was supposed to be working to help others. He insisted there was more to him– that he had a story– but as I explained to him, you can’t expect people to see what you keep to yourself.
I grew up in a once-booming immigrant coal mining town in Western Pennsylvania just north of Pittsburgh. It falls squarely in the Northern part of Appalachia, though a college professor once told me we weren’t the least bit the same as our southern brethren. Nonetheless, my family was usually poor, living paycheck to paycheck, with some times being harder than others. Economic opportunity in our tiny town of a few thousand was almost nonexistent, and between that, a general lack of available resources, and its proximity to a major city, my home town was, and continues to be, a hub for drug trafficking and abuse. It was a place where many of the people who were born there got stuck.
I was in junior high school when drug abuse found it’s way into my own household. My dad became a “functioning” addict– the kind where most outsiders wouldn’t even know– and for years, my mom, brother, and I did everything we could to hide it from friends and family. Pride is a funny thing. It can protect but it also can be very isolating.
I worked to support myself and to help support our household throughout high school dishwashing and waitressing at a local diner. My parents filed for bankruptcy a few times. Luckily, I was a natural nerd who worked pretty hard and found school a welcome distraction. I managed to graduate near the top of my class. Given my family’s circumstances, I had no idea how I’d ever afford college, but in 2001, a small school in Kentucky that I had never even heard of recruited me and offered me a full scholarship. It was Berea College. I became the first person in my family to go to college, and as of today, the only one.
My college experience was unique and amazing and gave me sincere, positive hope for my future (if you haven’t heard of Berea, you should definitely check them out). It was there that I was able to see something beyond the cycle of poverty, substance abuse, and lack of opportunity in my hometown. At the same time, through a service learning curriculum, work study, and internships with local nonprofits, I developed a passion for serving my community. Berea College helped me be more comfortable with my story, and I began to realize the value of that in my own life and in the lives of others.
I moved to Cincinnati in 2008 with my husband and our two kids. After several jobs where I was able to work with communities through the arts, I was excited to try something new and jumped at the opportunity to join the Community Matters team as an AmeriCorps VISTA. My official role will be to create and connect the organization with a variety of resources that will help our neighbors strengthen their own financial circumstances, but let it be known that I am here because of more than that. I am here because, over time, I learned to become more comfortable with my story, because I know there is value in yours (and in my friend’s from training), and because I believe that together we can strengthen our stories.
By: Patty Lee, AmeriCorps VISTA