Saturday, November 5, 2011


In the 60’s I joined VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America).  It was my way of serving my country.  It was like the Peace Corps, but helping people in our country.  It was a great awaking for me in so many ways and I consider it a very important part of my life.  It took this rural, naïve, Iowa girl out of little Maquoketa and took her to see and experience very important life lessons. 

VISTA volunteers were paid a very small stipend and were required to live in the same neighborhood as their placements.  I was placed in the Milwaukee Spanish ghetto and lived in a 2nd story apartment on the near south side and worked from early morning to late at night.  My day began at 7:00 AM catching a bus to pick up small children and assisting in the Head Start Program and then worked at a Spanish teen club called the Spot in the afternoons, evenings and weekends.    I’d like to share just a few of my eye opening lessons I learned. 

Poverty in the big city is criminal.  It robs kids of human dignity.  I thought I knew poverty until I saw real poverty first hand.  And yet I know that people in 3rd world nations know a poverty that is even more devastating.   I saw young children wait until the milk man was delivering milk to someone’s step and they would run and grab milk from the back of the truck to have something to eat.  I saw this almost daily.  It was their only breakfast.  They we thieves at the age of 5 or 6.   I saw very young girls offering themselves up late at night to make money.  I saw very young children 5 or 6 years old on the streets very late at night.  I saw gangs that hated each other and fought and sometimes killed each other..  I saw life having no meaning to youth and them playing Russian Roulette to pass the time (A terrific kid I knew killed himself this way).  When life was so miserable, people didn’t care if they lived or died.  People just lived one day at a time.  I saw drug addicts making a score and drunks falling down on the street outside the teen club.

Street kids peeking into The Spot to see what is going on.
 It was so easy to become a part of them.  They immediately accepted me when they knew I accepted them.  It began with something as simple as seeking out an aspirin for a girl who had a bad headache.  No one ever cared if she hurt or not.  She told me after giving it to her what a big thing that was.  Showing love, respect and that I cared made it easy to join their community.  They taught me much more than I ever did for them.  They taught me to love their cultures, their Catholic faith, their traditions, their food, their friendships and their value.

It was my job to help guide local teens and keep a teen club open to keep the teens off the street.  Of course it only did kept them off the streets temporarily.  They still had to go back to their poverty, poor schools, abusive parents, drugs and alcohol and they still spent a great deal of time on the street.   I remember a young girl I cared for very much being offered a full scholarship to Marquette University.  She did not take it.  Instead she became pregnant and lived with a boy friend who abused her terribly.  She just wanted to be loved.  I saw her loose her mother to cancer and how her father counted on her to take care of her younger siblings.  She was Mexican and her boyfriend was Puerto Rican which was socially unacceptable.  Her father threw her out because of it.  Life was cruel in so many ways to each youth I knew through no fault of their own.  Years later when I moved back to Milwaukee and rekindled friendships with some of the youth that had become adults, I was surprised to see how they had managed to find some happiness.  It was a very simple and quiet happiness of hard work and raising a family, but they were happy.  Maybe I gave them just a little taste of what life could be like.  I’d like to think so.  But they paid me back by allowing me to be me and they loved me for who I was.  Thank you for your love and your lessons.  They will remain with me always.

Your best lessons come from life experiences.  As humans we seem to need to learn our lessons the hard way and don’t listen when we should.  It is part of being human. 

Be happy and God bless you.

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