“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”—G. K. Chesterton
Hi, Alice here, MHYC’s proud YouthBuild VISTA! In honor of National Americorps Week, I’d like to share a little bit of my story, why I’m a VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America), and how I got here.
Have you ever been told to be grateful for something… and resented it?
From private pre-school all the way to a private university, summers of camp and travel, supportive friends and mentors, a talented, loving, and dedicated family: these are just a few of the things I was fortunate to be given early in this life. But, for someone who grew up with so much, I struggled with gratitude. Not on purpose, but because “gratitude” was more of a word that lingered on papers and tongues than a feeling I felt in my core. When others suggested to me that I should be grateful, I felt ashamed that I couldn’t, wouldn’t, or worst of all: wasn’t. This made me squirm.
Then two years ago a peculiar thing happened and my life turned topsy-turvy. In the wee dark hours of April 1st, 2016, on a very un-funny April Fool’s day, a Denver Police Officer discovered me at the intersection of Clarkson and Alameda, unconscious, sprawled helplessly beside a limp and dented bicycle. At least this is how the nurses told me I was found when I awoke in the Denver Health Intensive Care Unit.
With a smashed collarbone and a diagnosis of “subarachnoid hemorrhage” (aka brain bleed), I spent the next days, weeks, and months waiting in doctor’s offices, taking long naps, slurping tasteless smoothies, crying, and ruminating on phrases such as “pretty good prognosis,” “should make a full recovery,” “you’re lucky,” and, my least favorite, “be grateful.”
I didn’t feel grateful –I felt cursed. And to accompany this sentiment, I collected other feelings of defiance, dismay, and anger as I waded through recovery, stabbing holes in any hope offered to me, determined to sink my own life raft.
Demonstrating the opposite of defiance, dismay, and anger at our last MHYC community meeting, Cassie, a YouthBuild Corpsmember running for Leadership Council, stood courageously in the front of the room and shared:
“I feel like I’ve been fighting obstacles my whole life. But – I have never felt like I belonged to something so much. The vibe and the energy and most of all the support that I have been given here has been beyond tremendous.”
Note: “I have been given.” Belonging, support – these are important gifts that set us up for success, but their potential to infuse our lives with greatness only comes when we approach them as such. When we do so we become grateful, and as G.K. Chesterton famously wrote:
Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.
Perhaps this is why the entire room felt differently after Cassie’s speech, why many in the audience had tears on their cheeks and smiles on their faces. It is the amplifying effect of gratitude that created a sense of wonder that day, doubling all of our happiness.
After the bicycle accident, and the year of wallowing, worrying, jeopardizing friendships, and flailing in my job that followed, I picked up and moved. I moved a lot – Wyoming, Houston; I traveled to Canada, and eventually landed in Kenya. My moves weren’t flighty, they were desperate; I was trying on different ways of life, trying to figure out which one fit.
When I recall the places and people of Kenya, Chef John’s grin as he exclaims “Alice! Habari? Omelet with lots of peli peli?!” is the first that pops up. I was at a little safari camp, working in the kitchen with the wait and cook staff. By the time he saw me in the morning, Chef John had already been up for three hours packing breakfast for guests. He knew I loved lots of peli peli or “chili’s” in my omelet, and this, for some odd reason, gave him joy. Each morning he’d prepare the omelet, teach (or re-teach) me how to flip it in the pan, and inquire about life in America, when could he go there, and when could I come to his manyatta (clay hut) to meet his eight children and countless grandchildren.
The unintended consequence of distancing myself from the accident and my prior life was that I became incredibly open to change, eager to change myself. On my resume, I dubbed this time, “Year of Travel and Service.” It was during this year that I committed to volunteering, an act that I had previously found unsatisfying and shame-provoking, probably because I doubted my own ability to make a difference in other people’s lives. But being in Kenya was a celebration– a time when I rejoiced in others, and they rejoiced in me; a period when I listened, and as I did so I learned just how similar my inner life was to those around me. And, as I received the warmest welcome of my life, I felt compelled to give warmth in return.
As I sat in the community room listening to Cassie’s speech, I felt wonderfully grateful to be in that space, with those people, in that moment, soaking up her story. This feeling of gratitude, it dawned on me, could not exist without feeling grateful for every experience that led me to that moment – including the bike accident.
At the end of her speech, Cassie asked the audience the following question:
“Who said a rose can’t grow in the ghetto?”
There’s a lot of work to be done in this country, and this world, but I believe if we do it together we will become a stronger, happier, and more prosperous community of humans. We will, in essence, grow roses in ghettos, and that’s what Americorps is all about. It’s about using life’s toughest adversaries (inner and outer) to strengthen and unify us around what is right. For me, being an Americorps VISTA is about conquering the doubts I have inside, and instead of allowing them to bring me shame, transforming them into gifts that make me a more open, empathetic, and empowered human being.
I kid you not. My eyes are brimming with tears as I write this because I, like Cassie, am overwhelmed with gratitude to be a part of YouthBuild, Mile High Youth Corps, and Americorps. To be a part of something larger than ourselves is a gift, just as it is a gift to be an American citizen. As a country, maybe it is time to consider our relationship with gratitude, to repair it, practice it, and let it work its magic –growing and multiplying the goodness we already have.
This, I firmly believe, is our life raft.
YouthBuild representing the Americorps Pledge. Scroll over for details!