At 6:30 AM on a Wednesday morning I’m travelling up through the mountains, just south of Prescott. And I’m having this euphoric moment because the air is crisp and cool and there’s just so much green everywhere and the views, oh the views over those hills. And there’s not a strip mall in sight or that sound of traffic that I wake to and work to and fall asleep to and man, this is just what I needed.
At 8 AM on that Wednesday morning, I’m signing volunteers in at a long table in the Yarnell Community Presbyterian Church and I just feel so useful and to see the way that all of these people, at 9 AM on a Wednesday morning, have crowded into this church, have mobilized for this cause—for this warm, wonderful town that so needed a break from having so much on its shoulders—and well this is just what I needed.
At 9:30 AM on a Wednesday morning I’m pulling on my work gloves outside the Yarnell library and seeing where the rains have been washing away the earth around the library foundation and at 10 AM on a Wednesday morning I’m throwing river rock into wheelbarrows and carting it around the library and then I’m cutting open sand bags to spread and then I’m shoveling gravel and my body is getting dirty and tired and this is definitely just what I needed.
At 2:45 PM on Wednesday afternoon I look at our brand new drainage system. I’m exhausted. I’m proud. I see the fruits of my labor right in front of my eyes. And I don’t even need to tell you that this is just what I needed.
At 3 PM on a Wednesday afternoon I’m riding out of the mountains and back to Tucson. The green turns to brown again as the hills turn to desert. And I realize that tomorrow morning my tired body will go back to its desk. And I’ll go back to reformatting data sheets and sending out emails and cataloging books
And I have to stop and think for a bit. I have to make sense of the contrast between the work I’ve just done in Yarnell and the work that I do every day at Make Way For Books. I have to think about what it means to be a VISTA.
I think back to when, about six weeks ago, fresh off the road from a 2,500 mile trip across the country from my native Maryland, I started at Make Way For Books in Tucson.
It was clear from the start how incredible an organization I had found. Make Way For Books’ mission is to give children the opportunity to fall in love with books and reading. In a city where one in four children is not reading at grade level by the end of third grade, it’s a mission that makes sense.
Start early. Start giving children access to books and to the early literacy skills they need to be ready and excited to learn to read before they ever set foot in a classroom. Studies show that children who are read to from an early age are far more likely to be successful readers later on. The love of reading that they build at two and three and four years old is going to benefit them for the rest of their lives.
When I arrived at Make Way For Books, I was handed the Blue Book House Project. Blue Book Houses are blue, house-shaped bookshelves that we place in waiting rooms of medical clinics and social service agencies around Tucson. We keep them stocked with new and gently-used books and we invite families to enjoy a book while awaiting services and then to take one home. The Blue Book House Project allows families to increase their home libraries and helps create a greater culture of literacy in Tucson.
Up to the point that I started there, no one at Make Way For Books had really had the time to dedicate to the Blue Book House project. My first ongoing task at Make Way For Books, my supervisor told me, is to “make it run like a well-oiled machine.”
That means finding sustainable sources of books—schools to do regular book drives, community members to give recurring donations. It means putting together a system to keep track of our book inventory. It means strengthening our volunteer system to keep our shelves stocked and maintained. It means developing a more structured agreement with our Blue Book House sites.
I’ve been working on all of this
enthusiastically. I believe in this
project. I know that putting a book in a
child’s hands is the first step toward building a love of reading.
But in my role I never see the book go into the child’s hands. And I certainly never see a child go to kindergarten, enthusiastically learn to read, excel in school, go on to do great things and love reading for the rest of his or her life. I can’t look at the fruits of my labor like I could at the Yarnell library. I can’t feel my body ache, pull of my gloves and know that my work is successfully complete. In fact, my contact with the Blue Book House shelves that I work to keep up and running is essentially limited to receiving emails that “the Blue Book House at the 22nd Street DES office needs more books.” That’s why Yarnell was so refreshing. And that’s why being a VISTA is hard.
And yet, I’ve found in the last couple weeks that there’s something about the little victories of being a VISTA that resonate in a way that I’d argue is equally powerful. These victories are things like hearing the excitement in a high school student’s voice as she discusses her plans to do a book drive, of hearing her come into my office for the first time, sit down and say that she already loves this organization, that she can just feel how wonderful it is.
These victories are things like talking to a mother at a community event and hearing her say to her son, “They’re the ones that give those books you love at the doctor’s! What do you say?” And he says thank you to me. And she says that he takes one home every visit.
Being a VISTA takes a great deal of patience and a great deal of perspective. It is, in a way, like living in Tucson. Tucson doesn’t have those green rolling hills of Yavapai County. In Tucson, summer is taking its sweet time in becoming fall. Change here is slow and it’s subtle. But I think that makes you appreciate the changes that much more.
And that’s what being a VISTA is—appreciating the slow and subtle changes.
Our day of service in Yarnell was important to me not just because it was an opportunity to be of service to an inspiringly strong and resilient town. It was also important to me because after I brushed off my hands at the end of the day and looked at the very tangible work I’d accomplished, it helped me put into perspective and appreciate the nature of the less tangible work that I’ll be doing this year.
And that dose of perspective was just what I needed.
This article was written by AmeriCorps VISTA member Alison Carter serving with Make Way for Books