By: Rebecca Elias, Americorp VISTA for Step Up Savannah
South Bronx. Mott Haven. 1990s. At the time, this area was considered one of the worst places to live in NYC. At the time, I did not know that. Sometimes when I think about my childhood, I only have good memories; running through fire hydrants, playing tag, or jumping rope with my sister and our friends. Now I think of the hot metal slides, the scars on my knees from playing on gravel and asphalt and stern warning from my mom to not let other kids play with my toys. There’s danger, but I only have an abstract concept of it. This is my home and I love it here.
Growing up, I didn’t consider myself different from any of the other kids in my neighborhood. We all went to the same parks and the same school (and we all hated school.) School made me feel stupid. I didn’t understand things as quickly as the other students so I spent most of my time socializing, but it seemed like my older sister was made for school. The better she did, the worse I felt and by the time I graduated high school, I was completely done with school.
I wasn’t the only one. Going to college was an anomaly in my neighborhood. I moved in with a friend and started working full-time at a clothing store. My sister came home during vacation and immediately put a stop to my lifestyle. She decided that I was going to college. I was conflicted. I wasn’t exactly happy folding clothes all day, but I definitely did not get along with school. My sister shrugged and simply said, “You’re smart. You just learn differently than other people.”
She was right. I made it through community college then transferred to Buffalo State College. Buffalo State changed me. I saw that where I grew up has a major impact on how I did in school and the things I did not have access to. The schools I went to were too overcrowded for teachers to adjust their teaching methods for each and every student. I didn’t have access to tutors or after school activities. My sister only had access to certain programs because she was introduced to them via her best friend (and she grew up in a “better” neighborhood).
I realized I could use how I grew up to positively help families like mine to reach their full potentials while also reaching mine. After graduating college, I felt compelled to show anyone living in the same environment that I grew up in that it is possible to break the cycle of poverty. I have a desire to help lower- income families and neighborhoods grow and improve. I am only one person and I cannot save the world, but I am confident that my commitment to community service will a make an impression on at least one person in any community. This is why I decided to join AmeriCorps. I want to make changes in different low income neighborhoods throughout the country. I served one year as an AmeriCorps member in Fresno, California and even small changes like a homework help center or family movie night made a difference in that community. Now I’m using my skills to help create opportunity in Savannah. I know from experience that all it takes is a small change to make a big impact in someone’s life and that’s what AmeriCorps VISTA allows me to do every day.
When my sister and I talk about our childhood now, we still mention the games and the fire hydrants but there’s a small hint of regret. Our mom did the best she could under the circumstances but sometimes we wish we were able to take dance classes or learn an instrument. The parks are better now; gravel and metal are replaced with soft padding and colorful plastic and the graffiti is mostly gone but the opportunities are still not there. One day (if someone doesn’t beat me to it) with all the experience and knowledge I gained from AmeriCorps, I’m going to go back and help enrich my childhood community.