Unpacking VISTA’s Relationship to Poverty

Statistics provided by Van Nielsen, Grant Writer
Written by Rachel Petek, AmeriCorps VISTA at Jefferson Memorial Forest

For the record, I’ve been fascinated and perplexed by AmeriCorps VISTA ever since I started. We’re here today because we all drank the VISTA Kool Aid (even though it was grape, which should be outlawed). It’s kind of how most of us ended up one day in college, blinking our eyes and wondering how we got there. While college may not have been a choice, we are VISTAs because we entered entirely of our own volition. No one could make us do this work; we chose it. We wanted to live out one of JFK’s final visions by being “Volunteers in Service to America.” The goal here is not to slander that vision, but to critique how it has taken shape in the 21st century, and how it relates to the collective experiences of AmeriCorps VISTAs in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as my own.

Glitch in the Pitch

Since we decided to dedicate a year of our lives to this cause, whatever the reason, I’d like to take a moment to examine the status-quo and hold VISTA up to the light, just a little bit, on both a state and national level. Here’s how VISTA pitches the program to prospective members: “As a VISTA member you will serve in a project identified and managed by the community while earning a modest living allowance that reflects the income level of the community where you’re serving.” Vague language aside, the theory here is that with what we’re given, we will be able to better relate to the people we’ll serve, which is a problematic assumption. As another VISTA pointed out, it doesn’t logically make sense to put roughly 8,000 people into poverty each year in order to fight poverty.[1]

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How Louisville’s VISTAs Stack Up to State and National Poverty

To provide more of a context for all of this, the following information demonstrates how out-of-date poverty measures are: “The U.S. Census Bureau determines poverty status by comparing pre-tax cash income against a threshold that is set at three times the cost of a minimum food diet in 1963, updated annually for inflation using the Consumer Price Index (CPI), and adjusted for family size, composition, and age of householder. ‘Family’ is defined by the official poverty measure as persons living together who are related by birth, marriage, or adoption. Thresholds do not vary geographically.”
Minimum wage in Kentucky is $7.25 an hour. That is $15,080 a year, or 125% of poverty. This is the lowest the federal government allows states to set the wage. If a Kentuckian works at a job where they’re tipped, their employer can count tips toward their wage and compensate as low as $2.13 an hour to match up to the $7.25[4]. A living wage in Jefferson County is $10.50 an hour, $21,840 per year, or 180% of poverty. The county has the 5th greatest income inequality in the state, with the top 1% of income earners making 19.2 times more than the average of the remaining 99%.

Local VISTAs make 47% of a livable wage. If we abide by the golden rule that rent should amount to no more than 1/3 of our monthly income, we could afford $260 in rent off the face-value of our stipend, which means finding a roommate, and probably an apartment in a neighborhood with an already high concentration of poverty.[5] Kentucky ranks as the 5th highest rate of poverty in the United States. For African Americans, the average income is $17,732 or $8.50/hr, 150% of poverty. Consequently, 31% of African Americans live in poverty compared to 17.3% of whites. 18.5% of the state’s entire population lives in poverty (at or below 100%).[6]

The Existential Crisis of VISTA-hood

All numbers aside, I cannot claim that I have a true understanding of what it is to be poor in this country, especially while raising a family, so I wouldn’t dare. I also do not think that understanding is possible by serving a year as a VISTA. I certainly have more of an idea now than when I came in, but empathizing with people is not the same as helping them. I have to decide whether to buy new pants or groceries, can’t afford to contribute to unplanned happenings like car repairs, and could only attend a Spokane friend’s wedding in September because I have people looking out for me. I miss being generous and selfless with my money. I miss my financial independence and the illusion of stability. I get home at the end of the day zapped, and a lot of the time can’t find the energy to be patient with, or kind, to myself and loved ones. I can’t absorb statistics that Van rattles to me, like the ones above. It’s not just Kentucky either – these are nationwide problems, especially in rural America, tribal communities, and the south. I can tell you right now that if I wasn’t in a healthy relationship with a fantastic, financially-stable man, being a VISTA would be a nightmare.

If I had done this alone, I probably wouldn’t have had the chops to see it though, which pains my inquisitive, adventurous spirit to admit. I by no means come from an affluent family, but we never had want for anything, and were raised on a diet of my mom’s damn fine chicken pot pie, Mel Brooks humor, and appreciation of life. In my naïve little mind, I didn’t mind the idea of making no money as a VISTA if I was able to make a lasting positive impact for other people. There was no way for me to predict how this would go when I was looking at the year ahead from a computer screen 2,053 miles away. You can’t know – you’ve just got to keep doing crazy things, take risks, do good where you can, and be grateful for the people you have in your life.

He-alth-care… Is What I Got

My advice to all of you starting out, even those in the thick of this, is use your resources! Please. Apply for SNAP benefits. Get insurance coverage while it’s still a thing. If you’re a single adult making less than $16,385 (that’s you, VISTA!), you’re eligible for KY Medicaid. KYnect will assign you a provider, but the experience may be unreliable since the marketplace is so upside down at the moment. Find a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) nearest to you. They will take Medicaid, offer quick scheduling, comprehensive services, and culturally/linguistically appropriate care. You can sign up right here: https://findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov/. I have personally had several positive visits to Family Health Center on East Broadway (just had my teefs cleaned today, as a matter of fact…for FREE!). They are all great people who provide quality services, but expect a long wait time before your appointment.

For your physical health, the YMCA offers a sliding scale for its members based on income. The staff at the downtown location is especially friendly and helpful, and the facilities are well-maintained. The Y offers a great variety of fitness classes and equipment, as well as an indoor pool. As far as general well-being in the workplace, keep in touch with your supervisor and be vocal about what you need. If that doesn’t go anywhere, talk with your VISTA Leader and/or the State Office if you’ve tried everything, but are unhappy. Don’t let yourself be treated more like a liability than an asset. A year is a short amount of time, which can feel like forever, and may or may not be worth the while to you. If the shoe don’t fit, go thriftin’ (or barefoot, since being a VISTA is all about the extreme).

“Getting Things Done”- for the Poor, While Being Poor

Upon reflection of what this year has meant in the scheme of my life, I’ve met some great people in Kentucky, from those who work with refugee populations, to our volunteers at the Forest who have been maintaining trails since the 1990s, to gleaning perspective from locals on the West side of town, simply by venturing out of my ordinary. I forget that’s what I did by moving to this state in the first place. The work I’ve done has afforded me skills I may not have gained elsewhere. I have made positive changes, even though they didn’t take the shape I imagined or hoped when I joined VISTA. An office job showed me how deeply I miss working with people instead of pixels. I have come to respect the people I have met through this experience and recognize that like so many institutions, AmeriCorps has its flaws.

Sometimes, I feel like I’ve been stood up by a very charming, convincing date. I’m too old for this, I think, but I wasn’t a fool for doing it anyway, and neither are you. This kind of national service has been eye-opening, if nothing else, to the vital, complex soup of nonprofit work, communication dysfunction of federal and municipal governments (and adults in general), and how fiercely I hold to my convictions. Good luck out there, VISTAs of Louisville, and if you need to shoot the breeze (I reckon you might), you know where to find me. For what it’s worth, I believe in your work, and I hope that it’s meaningful to you, and to the people and places that compelled you to do this, in the end.

[1] https://www.nationalservice.gov/newsroom/marketing/fact-sheets/americorps

[2] ttps://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines

[3] http://www.irp.wisc.edu/faqs/faq2.htm

[4] https://www.minimum-wage.org/kentucky, https://www.dol.gov/whd/state/tipped.htm

[5]  http://livingwage.mit.edu/counties/21111

[6] https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/louisvillejeffersoncountybalancekentucky/PST045216

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Back to Basics

Written by Lydia Grossman, AmeriCorps VISTA serving at the Americana Community Center

Having grown up in the computer age, I am about as comfortable surfing the internet as I am floating through a lazy river (i.e. very comfortable). Like many people my age, I am constantly checking social media, immediately remembering that checking social media annoys me and logging off, then five minutes later forgetting about my vow not to check social media and the cycle repeats itself. I use my computer at work for almost everything I do, from responding to emails to searching for curricula to practicing using the tax software I will eventually have to use in my support of the VITA program at Americana. And when I go home, I frequently get on my personal computer for entertainment purposes. Honestly, I try not to think about the amount of time in front of a screen because it really depresses me.

In starting my year of service, computer literacy was one of three main focus areas as a VISTA at Americana Community Center. Reading through my VISTA Assignment Description, I actually felt that this would be the easiest thing for me to accomplish given how comfortable I am with computers. Now that I am almost four months into my service year and three weeks into a computer class that I’ve been coordinating, I can say that developing basic computer literacy programs is a whole lot harder than I thought it would be. This is because the audience for these programs, unlike me, did not grow up with computers. In fact, many of our participants had never touched a computer before signing up for the computer class. Staff members who had helped with our first computer class, which started earlier this year, warned me that this would be the case. Looking over the previous curriculum, I thought, how can a lesson on parts of the computer take up two full classes? But as people began to sign up for the class and tell me a bit about what they wanted to learn, it became clear that there were many skills that I took for granted as a privileged millennial who grew up with access to a computer and internet at home and in all of my schools.

One of the first topics we went over was using a mouse. It is something that seems extremely easy to me, but it was a challenge for many students, even the younger ones. Volunteers had to guide the hands of the students as they tried to drag-and-drop files, and even just to move the cursor across the screen. Of course, there is the added challenge of learning this material in a second language. Though there is a varying level of English proficiency in the class, none of the students are from an English-speaking country.

Computer use is one of many things that as an American, born in America to a middle-class family, I take completely for granted. I have had to use a computer to be successful in school, college, and almost all of the jobs and internships that I’ve had, and it has never been a barrier for me. In fact, I haven’t even thought of it as a skill–it’s just a part of life for me. But for many of our participants, it is yet another obstacle to thriving in the United States. Think about how many jobs require basic computer skills; without those skills, you would be severely limited in what jobs you can apply for, and also very limited in even finding those jobs to begin with, now that so much is online.

This all showed me that all of the barriers to thriving in the United States are like an iceberg–there are a few obvious things that would make the transition difficult, like learning a new language and finding a source of income. But there is so much more than that below the surface. Seemingly small changes like the differences in our banking system and the job application process can become a huge challenge for many immigrants and refugees. Americana’s mission is to bring families from “surviving to thriving” in Louisville, and facilitating computer class has given me a glimpse of what that really means. It has also shown me why Americana has such a wide range of programs: because the transition from surviving to thriving is complex and affects many different aspects of life.

I know that as my VISTA year progresses, I will continue to learn about the many ways in which refugees and immigrants must learn to adapt as they transition to life in America. I also know that I will continue to learn more about myself, and consider how my own upbringing impacted the opportunities I have in life. And who knows, maybe this job will teach me to stop scrolling mindlessly through the social media void and instead appreciate the people and places that I love right here in Louisville, KY.

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Small Town Feel, Big City Food

As a transplant to Louisville, I’ve come to know that the city is famous for many things.  Baseball bats, and a small horse race in May, undoubtedly dominate the nation’s attention, but something more personal has started to take a hold on the city… food.  I’ve visited the Slugger Museum which was neat, and I’ve experienced Derby from both the infield and millionaire’s row, both of which were awesome, but I will never put myself through that again. But, of all that Louisville has to offer, the food is what takes the cake.

I grew up in a small town in Indiana with a population of roughly 5,000. Mitchell, Indiana is the epitome of small town U.S.A and with that, it lacks a certain sense of diversity.  This lack of diversity also extends to the food.  For 19 years the only authentic, ethnic food I had known was the small Chinese restaurant nestled between a pizza place and a Subway. That changed last November. During my term as a VISTA with Jefferson Memorial Forest and the Southwest Dream Team, I have had the pleasure to not only work with but also frequent, numerous small, locally owned businesses and restaurants.

In the past year, I’ve eaten Hủ tiếu xào gà from Vietnam Kitchen, Lychee from the local market, and Turkey Ribs from Shack in the Back.  Food has a way of defining communities and it is beginning to do just that to Louisville.  Louisville is a big city with the heart of a small town.  These businesses allowed me to feel at home, while at the same time broadening my horizons.

 

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Inside Vietnam Kitchen

 

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Shack in the Back BBQ

Not only has my work broadened my food horizon, it’s also given me a unique perspective of a community. I’ve been able to work with the non-profit Southwest Dream Team, and this collection of individuals has made it their mission to shine a spotlight on the great local businesses in SW Louisville.  It has been eye opening to see a community come together to help lift one another up. Oh, and the food hasn’t been half bad either.

Written by Zane Glotzbach, a VISTA serving at Jefferson Memorial Forest

Emails. Internet. Downloads. Documents.

The modern world has our work and personal lives so dependent on the internet that sometimes it can be incredibly daunting and overwhelming.

AAAAND, since there is nothing we can really do to eliminate the way that technology is a mainstream in our everyday life, we will need to find ways to cope with not letting technology overrun our lives!!

I have come up with three things that I do to stop the TECHNOLOGY MACHINE from taking over, and you can choose to use them, or not use them.

1: MAKE SURE TO TAKE YOUR BREAKS!

Everyone is allowed 10 minute breaks at work (it’s illegal not to take your two ten minute breaks in your work day) and try to take yours away from your computer AND your phone. (I know those are two really hard things to do, especially because my go-to break time activity is on my phone.)

Your eyes and heart will thank you for it later.

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2: GET ORGANIZED

Ok, so the idea of planning your week out in a weekly planner and taking it with you everywhere may seem daunting. Don’t do it. Don’t buy that planner at Target that is so cute but will end up in your work drawer.

INSTEAD;

Organize your files on your desktop. (Duh, Lauren, that is simple). But stay with me…there is an absolute Zen moment when you go to find a file and it is exactly where you put it and it is GLORIOUS!

  • Start with your Downloads.
  • Don’t stop until each file has a home.
  • It’s ok to delete files if they were for a one-time thing.
  • It’s also ok to have a personal file for items you may need at work (auto insurance cards, etc.)

Your desktop and your mind will find you your own PEACE of mind.

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3: CUSTOMIZE YOUR DESK SPACE

I don’t mean for you to PIMP YOUR DESK. But you’ll be surprised what a good desk space can provide for your mind. This also does not mean MEGADESK (*see The Office for reference).

INSTEAD:

  • Repurpose that coffee cup that has a chip in it as a new pen/pencil holder.
  • Bring your own colored pens or pencils to work.
  • Boast a framed photo on your desk: of you, or your cat, or your cats, or other things.
  • Find a home for one of your houseplants on your desk. (Start with an airplant or a succulent, they are really hard to kill).
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Written by Lauren GottWorth, VISTA serving at the Americana Community Center

Farm Fundraising: The Field to Fork Dinner

Ryan Anderson and Dee Dee Flynn, the VISTA members serving at the Food Literacy Project started their services only a month ago, but already they are making a difference. Every August, the Food Literacy Project hosts one of their largest fundraising events, the Field to Fork Dinner. This year Dee Dee and Ryan helped the Food Literacy Project raise over $70,000 for farm based education.

Ryan said that his role was to organize volunteers for the dinner and make sure everything ran smoothly during the event. He also ran the audio-visual equipment, as well as performing live music during cocktail hour with his friend Andrew. Dee Dee worked to coordinate the dinner and solicit silent auction donations. She also met all the guests as they arrived and ran the silent auction. Both Ryan and Dee Dee worked closely with Laura Krauser, the former VISTA at Food Literacy Project, who has continued to work with the organization. The pair said “We both want to recognize Laura for her remarkable leadership during this endeavor. Cheers, Laura!”

When asked about what their favorite part of the Field to Fork Dinner was, Dee Dee said “I think my favorite part of the dinner was engaging with our donors. I love the Louisville community and the Field-to-Fork dinner would not have been possible without our generous donors.” She went on to mention many of the individuals and business that donated their time and resources to make the dinner a success. “It was a magical experience and I cannot thank our generous donors enough.” she said while talking about those that have given their support to the Food Literacy Project. Ryan said that his favorite part was the event was the small spontaneous tasks that arose. He said “Almost immediately before the Live Auction portion of the night, a generous couple offered to add a private boat-ride for a party of four as an auction item. This demanded that we gather boat pictures and an item description for the slideshow in very little time. After a few emails and live updates to the visual presentation, we auctioned the item to an excited crowd.”

Now that the Field to Folk Dinner is over Ryan and Dee Dee are moving on to different projects. Ryan is turning his sites on creating a corporate retreat model to implement at Oxmoor Farm, the location of the Food Literacy Project. He went on to say “The package will include team-building activities, optional volunteer tasks, and possibly a build-and-fire-your-own-pizza activity using fresh ingredients and the cob oven at the farm!” Dee Dee is already working on her next project and has started a crowdfunding campaign for the Food Literacy Project expansion. “We are working on developing and funding property on Iroquois Farm into an urban vegetable farm and outdoor classroom…[to] contribute to the health and revitalization of the Hazelwood and Iroquois neighborhoods.” For more information on the expansion and to donate go to www.generosity.com

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The People We Meet

Written by Hannah Ozmun, AmeriCorps VISTA at the American Printing House for the Blind

As we walk down the hall toward the production floor, the hum of the presses grows louder. I turn on my microphone and remind the group to stay behind the yellow tape so that no one gets too close to the machines. Behind me, massive rolls of paper are feeding into the presses where mechanical teeth emboss dots on both sides of the paper and cut it to size for binding. Sometimes a humidifier spits steam next to the paper rolls, ensuring that the paper is not too dry and will not tear when it is embossed. “Braille is high maintenance,” I say as we watch the presses fill up trays of embossed paper. Sometimes I will talk about the grant we just received for a digital scanner to check for embossing errors; sometimes, if I hear the distinctive metallic clink-clink coming from the back, I will walk the group over to the Heidelberg presses, where metal plates emboss single sheets of paper with a flourish of burnished knobs and wheels. The Heidelberg presses rarely run, as they can only produce one page at a time. But when they do, the elegance of old-fashioned printing is captivating.

Every day at 10 AM and 2 PM, the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) offers free drop-in tours of our braille production floor, product display room, Talking Books recording studio, and museum. APH sees thousands of visitors each year, and every week our team of tour guides educates visitors on the history of braille, the raised-dot code read by touch that allows people who are visually impaired to read and gain independence. We walk people through the process of making a braille book on the production floor, including stops at transcription, proofreading, tactile graphics, embossing, and binding. In the display room, we demonstrate products like tactile maps and electronic braille displays, inviting visitors to imagine what it would be like to use these products in the classroom and in their daily lives. In the recording studio, we explain our contract with the National Library Service and listen to a live Talking Books recording session with one of our narrators. And in the museum, we see objects and artifacts that tell the story of the education and achievements of the blind throughout time—a book written by Louis Braille, a piano played by Stevie Wonder, a book owned by Helen Keller—and allow visitors to write their names in braille using a braillewriter.

While we host many field trips for school children and general tours for people passing through Louisville, we also have visitors who come to APH for a specific purpose. Some visitors may be interested in manufacturing; others may know someone who is blind; some are students in a university program to become teachers of the visually impaired. Occasionally, we will give tours to individuals who are blind who have used APH products and listened to Talking Books.  These are my favorite kind of tours, when I can step back and listen to a first-hand account of how a particular product is used or an opinion on which Talking Books narrator has the best voice. Once, in the museum, I referred to our “braille typewriters,” and a woman who was a braille reader gently corrected me. “They’re called braillewriters. You gotta remember that for your next tour.” When we rounded the corner, she reached out to feel the stacks of the 145-volume braille World Book Encyclopedia, the largest braille project APH has ever undertaken. “When I was a kid, we owned this set,” she said, running her fingers up the towering spines. “We had a spare bedroom filled with shelves of braille books, and a ladder to reach the top shelf. I used to read the encyclopedia cover-to-cover because I was so hungry for books.” These are the moments I will remember most vividly from my time here at APH, when I have been reminded to cherish the gift of literacy and the labor of those who work to make books accessible to all.

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Braillewriter at the American Printing House for the Blind

 

In my final weeks as a VISTA, I will give many more tours to families enjoying their last days of summer vacation. My favorite part of the tour is the museum, when visitors stoop over the braillewriters, hunting for the letters of their name on the alphabet chart while cautiously mashing the key combinations. I love seeing their satisfaction when they unroll the paper and feel the dots they just embossed. I have met many passionate people on my tours, like the employment specialist who came to APH to research resources available to his deaf-blind client, and the mom of a blind autistic boy who treasures the Talking Books she receives in the mail. Giving tours has allowed me to become intimately acquainted with the mission of APH as I have met many people who rely on our products to live fully and independently. Before working at APH, I didn’t know much about braille or the education of the blind. I began to learn braille after a group of precocious third graders on a field trip asked me to read a sign hanging in the museum. At APH, I learned history I never knew existed and met people who challenged me to think more deeply about inclusion and accessibility for all. While tours are only a small part of my VISTA responsibilities, I look forward to the calls I get from our receptionist telling me that the lobby is crowded with visitors. I secure my microphone around my waist, rest the headset around my neck, and head downstairs to see who they are, where they are from, and what has brought them to APH.

If you are interested in a tour at APH, drop in Monday-Friday at 10 AM or 2 PM. Our museum is open for self-guided exploration Monday-Friday 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM and Saturday 10 AM to 3 PM. If you have a party of ten or more, please call Rob Guillen at 502-899-2242 to schedule a group tour. All tours and museum visits are free.

Bonus Image: 

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Sculpture created by blind 4th grade students at the American Printing House for the Blind

 

A Client’s Story

Talking about my job is difficult. It’s difficult to describe what the Backside Learning Center does, who we serve, and, more significantly, why we’re around, in the neat, concise, polished way I feel people expect when they want to know what I do. When they ask, I want to talk about our emphasis on education, the horse racing industry, what the backside is, where it is, the 1000 workers that migrate with the horses wherever the industry leads them – most of them coming from rural areas of Latin American countries, the 600 or so who live in the barn area, or backside, of Churchill Downs, the need for them to learn English and the obstacles that hinder their progress with the language, the families who have taken root here in Louisville and have entrusted us to help them help their kids be successful in the US.

There are so many features of this place to highlight, but the eloquent line I want to repeat when I am asked to talk about what I do often comes out fractured and urgent – Urgent, because I lack the time for fundraising and volunteer coordination at the Backside Learning Center, a nonprofit located on the backside of Churchill Downs. I want to get across the importance of the BLC’s existence- that it’s a home- but even more so, the importance of the individuals working in the horse racing industry, and the need for people to know about them, to be involved in helping them reach their highest potential, to understand the obstacles they and their kids hurdle over daily, and to care about their lives in Louisville, KY- their new home.

Unfortunately, I can never do it justice – I can never explain everything. So, I relate the story of one our participants in hopes that it will convey everything I cannot:

Marta is a groom in a barn, where she’s worked for close to 14 years under a Hall of Fame Thoroughbred horse trainer, who’s won the Kentucky Derby. Her day begins at 4 am every morning- even on weekends. She works with the horses- caring for them, getting them ready to train, cleaning them and their stalls until 11 am. After, she goes home to her teenage daughter. Then she returns to work at 3 PM for the afternoon feeding and to clean the stalls. After finishing her job at 5 PM, Marta goes home and gets ready to attend English class at the Backside Learning Center from 5:30 to 7 PM bringing her daughter along to get help with homework or to volunteer.

Marta’s daily routine began in 2003 after moving to the United States from Guatemala. She has worked in the industry since she got here. In Guatemala, Marta spent her childhood days playing with her siblings and friends when she wasn’t working or going to school. She lived on a farm where they cared for many animals including cows and horses, and grew lemons, coffee, avocados, radishes, oranges, corn and beans. Marta attended school for four or five years before having to stay home to help maintain the family’s farm.

Her move to the U.S. was also done to help – to give her family a better life. In Guatemala, Marta left behind her parents, siblings, and her son. Because of their economic situation, Marta left her son with her parents when he was little to seek out a way to help them financially. Her decision to move has helped both her children have more opportunities. “Leaving,” she says, “was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, but I believe it was the best decision. Every two days I talk to my son. My parents have done a very good job with him. I feel I’ve done a good job.” her son is now attending university in Guatemala, and her daughter is starting her sophomore year of high school and working to get into college – both opportunities possible because of their mother’s sacrifice.

Marta and her daughter have been dedicated participants of the Backside Learning Center’s Family Education Program since its beginning. Now in the Advanced English class, Marta is a motivated student whose strong and determined personality shines – qualities she has passed on to her daughter. Both of them – and many people like them – make the Backside Learning Center into the home that it is.

Written by Blanca Ruiz, an AmeriCorps VISTA serving at the Backside Learning Center