Volunteer work, a worthy challenge

Last July, after 45 years as a news reporter, I joined Volunteers in Service to America — "the Domestic Peace Corps." Since then, I have been repeatedly asked, "How do you like your job?"

It's a difficult question.


My, job as President Lyndon Johnson declared in creating VISTA a half century ago, is to wage "war against poverty." And, as I and other trainees were told: "Fighting poverty isn't rocket science. It's tougher."

So much tougher, in fact, that I find it uncomfortable to say I "enjoy" my job.


The work I do in Maryland is frustrating, often gut wrenching. Far more people are hurting than we are helping. They include single moms, jobless dads and homeless children as well as foster kids who have been abused, discarded and traumatized.

Their stories are jarring. Like the newborn baby whose unemployed parents lived in a tent in the woods while awaiting space in a crowded homeless shelter, and an adopted teenage girl who ran away from a state institution and ended up with sex traffickers.

Then there's the elderly couple who no longer wanted their 15-year-old granddaughter who had been abandoned by her mom and dad a decade earlier, and a family of seven who had to move in with relatives after falling behind on their rent. A church helps feed and clothe them.

Despite seeing such suffering, I don't dislike my job. How could I?

That's because we slowly make progress — at least for some folks on some days. Like the teenage boy who bounced in and out of a dozen foster homes and institutions before he finally settled in with a "tough-love" couple he could embrace as "Mom" and "Dad." After getting suspended from high school eight times, he buckled down and graduated with honors.

That was a victory worth celebrating. But other times, it's hard to tell whether what we do is helping.

On a Friday night, I got a call from a single mother evicted from her apartment with her three children. "Please help," she said. I made a few calls, and they ended up spending the weekend at a motel free of charge. On Monday, however, she was again looking for a place to live and refusing to let go of her children — even for a day or so.

"I can't give up my kids," she said when I suggested that she let one of our volunteers temporarily care for them. "No."

"OK," I said. "But call me back if needed."

I never heard back. I hope she found housing — for at least a while. But I don't know.

Unlike most of my young fellow VISTAs, I had a long career before signing up for national service. I spent my last 35 years as a news reporter in Washington D.C., covering an increasing number of "public servants" who seemed more interested in getting re-elected — or running for higher office — than in serving the public.

That was particularly true in recent years when Congress refused to even raise the minimum wage, renew expired long-term jobless benefits or move to curb gun violence that plagues impoverished areas.


I finally realized that like many in Congress, I had been there too long. So I left.

I'm spending my year of VISTA service with Building Families for Children, a nearly century-old nonprofit founded in Baltimore and now headquartered in Columbia, with an indefatigable staff.

I'm working to raise its profile and increase its clout by writing stories about those it helps, collaborating with churches, fellow nonprofits, businesses and community leaders, and recruiting volunteers.

I've also helped raise money, including a $100,000 gift from a generous private donor. But it isn't nearly enough to break the cycle of poverty for so many.

With the U.S. poverty rate at 14.8 percent, much more needs to be done. Like transforming distressed neighborhoods into safe havens where parents can raise their children, giving them real hope and opportunities.

In the meantime, I finally have an answer when asked, "How do you like your job?"

I say, "It's a challenge — a worthy one."

I'm glad I'm here.

Thomas Ferraro lives in Davidsonville, Md. His email is tom@buildingfamiliesforchildren.org.

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