At JVC orientation last August, the staff of JVC Northwest and many former JVs (FJVs) attempted to prepare us for the year ahead with stories, advice, and reflections for five straight days. One of the things I heard repeatedly throughout the week at Camp Adams was, “This will be one of the hardest years of your life.” My initial reaction was one of cynicism to such an audacious statement. How could this year really be that hard? I’ve already had experience living in community, I’ve moved around to different places many times, I’ve volunteered in the past . . . What’s so different about signing up for JVC that it’s going to be the hardest year of my life?
During one of our first weekends in Sitka, while we were still being treated to our weekly boat ride from generous people in town, I found myself laying in an old fishing net, now used as a hammock. On that sunny Sunday afternoon I said to my housemates who surrounded me as they too lounged, “Oh yeah, this is definitely the hardest year of my life.”
While I will refrain from making any blanket statements until the end of the year (if at all), I will admit that, despite some of my mockery of the reflections I heard seven months ago, I am, in fact, finding myself in the midst of a very difficult year. I know I fill my blog with stories of fun times with friends and beautiful pictures, but life as a JV has proven challenging. Yes, I had lived in an intentional community and volunteered prior to this year, but my time in Sitka with JVC has brought insight into facets of communal life and social work that were otherwise unknown.
This year I have been confronted with what it means to walk in the door of a social service agency and spend 40 hours a week working within the confines of a system that feels poorly organized and anything but user-friendly (as a whole, not necessarily my specific agency). Suddenly comments about the “burn-out” rate of social service workers and the idea of “secondary trauma” are no longer foreign concepts, but are instead ideas that I relate to on a daily basis. I’m told I need to focus on “self-care,” but am given few instructions on what that actually looks like, and, instead, it becomes a regularly used justification for (occasionally) going over my monthly stipend: “It’s ok to have this chai . . . it’s self care!” I come home thinking of the bigger questions, about how the laws and regulations need exceptions, and that the details and emotions involved in the work I do rarely fit within the context of government implemented structures that attempt to assist those I serve. I also have gained insight into various aspects of non-profit work (organization, funding, philosophy, etc.) and understand teamwork in a whole new way as I collaborate with the other advocates at the shelter.
JVC is a great program in that it allows me to jump right into the work of a social service agency without a lot of prior experience or training. JVC is also a terribly challenging program because it allows me to jump right into the work of a social service agency without a lot of prior experience or training. I think you get the point: it’s a mixed blessing and each person’s experience can vary drastically depending on the agency, training received, and work expected. Even my housemate, Jackie, and I know all of the same people from our jobs and have had pretty different experiences at our placement.
So with all of our varying experiences at work, my housemates and I are then expected to come together and have an intentional community. While I love the theory of this idea, I’ve found it very challenging this year. Six girls, six different jobs, six various day-to-day experiences, six-very different personalities, and we all belong to the same intentional community house. Did I mention this program is only a year? We only have about four full months left here before my housemates and I head different directions and pursue future endeavors. And this is right about the time we’ve finally figured out a grocery shopping and chore system!
When we recently hosted a dinner for a group of students from University of Portland on a spring break trip to Sitka and Juneau to learn about Native Alaskan culture, I began to realize, in answering their questions (which were great), how much I have learned here and how grateful I am to know the realities of what was discussed months ago at orientation. The ideas of community and social justice that JVC encourages us to explore and wrestle with throughout the year have left me pondering questions, crying on the phone to my mom, laughing with housemates, and ranting to those who I know will still love me after I’m finished. But, ultimately, it has left me willing to keep learning as much as I can and serving as best as I can, how ever that may look (with some rest and “self-care” mixed in there somewhere!).
As it turns out, the FJVs at orientation did, in fact, have some rather poignant ideas. And I’m grateful to those older and wiser who have been willing to give feedback and offer insight into the various struggles of the year. Thank you for the support. I only hope that I might be able to offer the same some time.