Eric Pedersen and Zach Monahan thought they knew poverty, until they had to live it.
As AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers placed at Catholic Charities of Livingston County, Pedersen and Monahan are spending a year helping several of the agency’s programs grow. As AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers, they work full time and receive a stipend equivalent to the area poverty level: about $200 per week, from which they had to pay for rent, utilities and food.
It’s a change of pace for the 2008 SUNY Geneseo graduates; Pedersen, 22, is a Long Island native and a sociology graduate, while Monahan, 22, is an Albany native and a biology graduate.
"You’ve really got to make some sacrifices," Pedersen said. "I’m on food stamps, and I got HEAP this year. That’s why I decided to go to grad school. I don’t want to ever get food stamps and HEAP again."
Administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service, which just received more than $200 million in the most recent economic stimulus package, the AmeriCorps VISTA program is designed to expand and strengthen agencies that fight poverty. By the end of a three-year commitment by VISTA volunteers, the programs the volunteers have worked on are intended to be self-sustaining.
At CCLC, Monahan started and is running a program called Home, Safe Home, which helps to make safety improvements to the homes of senior citizens to prevent falls and allow them to stay in their homes longer. The program is one component of CCLC’s Faith in Action program.
Pedersen supports the Healthy Food Pantry, a food pantry in Mount Morris that tries to encourage people to choose fresh food and healthy food options. Pedersen said one of the goals for the food pantry is to be able to supply recipes, in addition to ingredients, to teach people how to cook their own food and stretch their food dollars.
"We’re working on getting fresh fruits and vegetables all throughout the summertime," Pedersen said of the food pantry.
He also started and is running the Furniture Link program, a new program in which donated furniture is distributed to people in need.
"They (Catholic Charities) do get calls that people are eating on the floor and sleeping on the floor," Pedersen noted.
Though Pedersen has found a seemingly endless supply of furniture donations, volunteers with trucks who are willing to transport furniture are in much shorter supply, he said, noting that it is too costly for Catholic Charities to own its own truck.
Joe DiMino, CCLC’s executive director, said Pedersen has found situations that have tugged at his heart, including the mother six children who had fled a domestic-violence situation and had no furniture, save one bed for the seven of them.
"He came back so driven to go out and find more beds, chairs and furniture for this family," DiMino said. "It was nice seeing how moved he was by that situation. It’s a situation that we see all too often."
Monahan also has gone above and beyond his assigned duties, including one time when he drove a Livingston County senior citizen to Rochester for a cancer treatment and then returned with that person and another who was returning from a doctor’s appointment, DiMino said.
"He does all these things that we’re not even aware he’s doing to help out the senior citizens," DiMino remarked.
Having two new volunteers through the AmeriCorps VISTA program for the past six months has infused the CCLC office with energy, DiMino said.
"They make us laugh, and they bring a fresh perspective on things that is very useful," he said. "They’ve never been in human services before, so they look at things differently than people who have been working in the field a long time."
Both men said they were looking for a change of pace from academia before starting graduate school. Though he had learned about the causes of poverty as part of his sociology classes, Pedersen said that, before starting business school, he was intrigued by the chance to learn about poverty firsthand and have the chance to help the community.
"I wanted to see it and find out what it was really like," Pedersen said of poverty. "It was not what I thought it was going to be. There was the difference between book learning and real learning."
Monahan, who is applying to medical school, said he was looking for something very different from what he had been doing.
"I wanted a change from a strictly academic setting to an experiential setting," he said.
One of the challenges the men have faced is volunteer burnout.
"You’re helping, helping, helping, and you just don’t see anything come of it," Pedersen said. "I feel like I’m doing a lot here, and sometimes the people don’t seem appreciative."
Yet a change in perspective can help deal with this feeling.
"In reality, you take a step back and realize poverty is really a lifestyle," Pedersen said. "It’s a lifestyle that’s completely different from the lifestyle I’m used to."
The two men said they have noticed that those in poverty may not put a priority on advancement, possibly because they don’t know of any lifestyle other than poverty and that those in poverty may not have the luxury of focusing on advancement.
"It’s the difference between having your number-one priority be advancement and your number-one priority be survival," Monahan said. "If you are just trying to survive, you will never be at a level higher than that."
Pedersen noted that when CCLC furnishes a home or provides food, it allows a family to focus on other priorities.
"We lift them up a little bit so maybe they can see the opportunities," he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The AmeriCorps VISTA positions are one-year positions, and applications are being accepted for next year. Contact Catholic Charities of Livingston County for details about the positions available.