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Road Trip, Part I: AmeriCorps commencement

Posted by Ron George on August 5, 2017

Family pride: Caitlin with her mom, Kris, and sister, Kylie

There are lots of good reasons for taking a road trip with one’s spouse, but we had perhaps the best reason of all in July: Granddaughter Caitlin was graduating from almost a year of volunteer labor with AmeriCorps. We were not going to miss it. Then came news that she would speak for her class at the graduation ceremony.

This is the first of several posts about Mary’s and my best vacation ever, and it is by far the most significant. We had a wonderful time driving more than 4,500 miles together, visiting friends and family along the way and touring beautiful, fascinating places we’d never seen before. It was all incidental, though, to AmeriCorps commencement ceremonies in Sacramento Calif. – 300 young people, most of them women, who spent 10 months of their lives making America great.

AmeriCorps is the National Civilian Community Corps, a federal organization of volunteers contracted by agencies throughout the United States to perform laborious and largely thankless tasks. The training is rigorous. The work just plain hard. Here’s the Wikipedia article if you want to know more. (Check out the video here.) It’s astonishing that most folks I know don’t know much about AmeriCorps. I didn’t know nearly enough, and I knew nothing at all about Senior Corps, which recruits folks like me for national service in local communities. (I guess I’m not over the hill yet.)

Caitlin is not alone in our family being an introvert. It comes with the genetic territory. She leans toward shy and reclusive. She’s talented and smart, but her first go at college didn’t work for her. So, she struck out on a different path. Turns out she’s not averse to hard, physical labor; moreover, teamwork brings out the best in her. Sociologist Peter Berger’s memorable maxim seems to apply: Everyone wants to be a meaningful member of a meaningful group. It became clear to us last month that Caitlin had found a meaningful group and that she had become a meaningful member of it.   

Caitlin is the first of our seven grandchildren, daughter of Matthew and Kristin George, both of whom labor in the vineyard of public education. We’re as proud of Caitlin’s parents – and her sister, Kylie – as we are of Caitlin, and that’s true of our whole family of children and grandchildren.

Our family pride burst forth in full bloom on Thursday, July 20, under a blazing Sacramento sun. Three hundred AmeriCorps volunteers had walked the stage. AmeriCorps staff professionals had had their say. Then a nervous but confident Caitlin George walked to the lectern and gave the following address.

After ten months of service, we are certainly a smaller corps. Smaller, but better for it. Because somehow, despite our diminishing ranks, you have rebuilt 21 homes, planted 17, 369 trees, helped over 14,000 people affected by natural disasters, and returned three million dollars to local communities through tax returns. Over these ten months, you have helped families, saved the environment, and shaped futures with your bare hands. You got dirty, you got hurt, and you got sick. And despite all of it – all of the rain and the car trouble, the heat and snow – you came back, each and every day.

You are easily the most dedicated people I have ever had the privilege to work alongside. You willingly shouldered the daunting task of saving the world one act at a time. And now, you have successfully come out on the other side.

Congratulations, Class 23. You have made it to the beginning of the end, the day when the same circumstance that brought us together shoves us, stumbling, from the AmeriBubble and into what’s next. I don’t know what that holds for all of you, but for me, today is a day of questions. I have to ask myself what it’s going to be like when I go back home. How is it going to feel in a house with people I haven’t seen in months? What’s it going to be like when my best friends are across the country instead of across the hall? What am I going to do, surrounded by their absence?

In a matter of hours, I will have my answers. And I am terrified. I am not ready, or willing, or prepared. But the time for us has come, and everything we’ve worked so hard for is upon us. We are going home.

Some of us, possibly, will not look back.

And then, I think, there might be some of us who always will. There might be some of you out there who are like me, some of you who will feel terribly out of place when you’re sitting alone in your car. There might be some of you who catch a whiff of sunscreen next year and remember these last summer months with your friends.

But whichever category you fall under, one thing is for sure: we will not leave this place untouched by our teams. These people have been your lives for ten months. They’ve been your support system, your secret keepers, and your every waking moment. They have dragged you down and pulled you forward. Whether you knew it or not at the time, they were behind every decision and every move you made.

They are what got you here today.

So before you leave, thank them. Let them know what they’ve meant to you this year. Tell them that you’ll miss them, because sooner or later, you will. You’re going to feel a void pulsing around you, a silence that you forgot existed. Tomorrow, you’re going to wake up and they won’t be sitting on the couch or making breakfast. You’re going to notice that. You’re going to realize that nobody will understand this year the way your teammates do.

Your family and friends won’t get why you hate popcorn ceilings or what the DRDUL even is. But the people who know the weirdest things about you—like your crush on Russell Crowe or your mild potato obsession—they’ll get it. In a heartbeat.

To me, Green Seven is everything. They have made this year into the happiest year of my life. They have been my motivation, and they have been my nine reasons why. So while this separation probably won’t affect all of you the way it will me, I already have an answer to one of my questions.

When I ask myself, “What will it be like when I go back home?” I know that, simply, it will not be the same.

The Team: Meaningful members of a meaningful group making America great

Did I mention Caitlin is talented? Yes, a writer, for sure, but also a keen observer of herself and her fellow volunteers. She nailed it, because everyone for whom 10 months in AmeriCorps was meaningful knows very well the angst of leaving behind not just friends but comrades. There is authentic grief here, but there is also hope – and, frankly, though life may be blessed in many other ways, it really doesn’t get any better than this.

It’s real, and Caitlin got it.

 

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