Just what draws a person to the rockin’ life of an AmeriCorps VISTA, anyway? I suppose there are as many reasons as there are VISTAs, since each person brings their own unique perspective to the experience. Right now it’s recruitment season in VISTA Land---next year’s crop of service-minded hopefuls are going through their interviews and beginning to wonder what it really would be like living for a year in someplace as far away as Montana.

Last year at this time I was languishing in Retail World and plotting a daring escape that involved---well, I wasn’t quite sure what it involved, but I was pretty sure it DIDN’T involve more retail! I actually enjoy retail after a fashion. I had an early start when I set up a store as a kindergartener and tried selling my siblings cool rocks, spotted leaves, and pieces of soft moss. Not surprisingly, sales weren’t brisk, but demonstrating a precocious aptitude for business, I instinctively understood the great maxim of commerce---Give Your Customers What They Want. Obviously my customer base would want things they already owned, so I pillaged their toy boxes to stock my store. Not surprisingly, they weren’t thrilled with this innovative business strategy, and even less thrilled with my mother’s harassed advice to “play nicely with your sister.” Ah, the perks of being a youngest child….

But I digress.

So there I was last year, trapped in Retail World, in a job that held some enjoyment, but kept me too busy to pursue my primary goal of returning to school to finish my degree in Social Work. A year of VISTA service offered an opportunity to switch gears, gain field-relevant work experience, and earn that all-important Segal Ed Award to help with tuition. Not to mention the satisfaction of working to improve food access for Montana’s kids! After weighing my options, I decided to apply to an open Montana No Kid Hungry position available right in the same town where I was already working.

But the decision to become a VISTA can’t be made lightly. It’s a commitment to one year of service, 8 hrs. a day, 40 hrs. per week, all to receive a small stipend that sets you juuust at the poverty line. Knowing the next year would be financially challenging, I immediately began planning the best way to survive. Since saving is not one of my---ahem---strongest character traits, I figured it would be better to invest my money in stockpiled household items rather than keeping cash around in a spendable form. Just between you and me, I am now the go-to person for all your toilet paper and cereal needs in the event of a zombie apocalypse! Pet supplies were also on the hoarding list, since I didn’t go into the adventures of VISTA-hood alone---a mob of furry friends were dragged along with me. I bought seeds for the next year’s garden when they went on sale and made sure I had good tires on my car.

All these preparations didn’t entirely remove the pressures of reducing my income by two-thirds, but they certainly helped ease the pain. It was nice that I had advance warning about my looming cash-flow shortage and was able to make preparations. But how often does life send us notice about impending financial doom? I made a conscious choice to enter short-term poverty, knowing I could choose to step out of it at any time. An unexpected job loss, the death of a spouse, a depressed economy, all of these things and more can suddenly catapult a family into poverty, with no warning, no time to prepare, and no easy escape. (And how many of us really follow all those good tips about having a full 6 months of wages in reserve? I know I haven’t reached that exalted stage of fiscal responsibility!)

Poverty isn’t easy, and I’m barely experiencing a mere echo of what millions of Americans struggle with on a daily basis. I’m grateful for the support system that’s helped me through the rough spots and am determined to become a life-long member of the vast army of neighbors that come alongside the struggling and help lift them up---and out---of poverty. VISTA service is only the beginning!

Tina Kahrs
Montana No Kid Hungry-PRC AmeriCorps VISTA
Plentywood, MT