Woody Allen once said ( supposedly) that 80% of success in life is about “showing up.” I thought he said it was 90% but I must have been away that day. Perhaps that is a tad too general but for AmeriCorps Project CHANGE, we can say that for the students that we serve, success in service is 100% about showing up.
High needs students are struggling to succeed because their family or their home or their life cicumstances are not stable enough to trust the past or predict the future. They have got used to carers who come and go, or teachers who try and give up, or life cicumstances where one day, they are living at risk in one country and the next, they are refugees seeking assylum in another, minus family or friends. They are immersed in a language and culture they do not understand and so is it any wonder they feel they are drowning?
For all students wanting to build a life, it first of all means building some sort of reliable platform, some sort of launching pad that is going to hold the weight of all their challenges, and yet, energize their dreams. If the ground beneath young lives keeps shifting, then they grow to distrust what life has to offer and learn to distrust anyone who shows up offering to make a difference. A child will want to know “Do they really care?” like they say they do? How will I know?
No matter what the member intends or what circumstances intervene, a student is usually a better observer than interpreter. They will know if a member cares not simply by the smiles or the words but by the sheer fact of presence. Is the member showing up all the time? Is the member here, ready, energized to engage with me, or is the member coming late, coming tired, or not coming at all? That sends the loudest message to the students about who cares for them. It is those who consistently show up for them.
Over the years, Project CHANGE has met some great people who apply to serve and who sign on, but for whom the commitment to serve was never going to work because the member needed first to be committed to meeting their own needs. It is the oft told tale of the plane losing cabin pressure and the instruction we hear to put the oxygen masks on ourselves first before we strap up our kids. How can we help others in real need if we are not able to create a stable life for ourselves or meet our own needs.
Then at best it becomes a competition- will I be there for the students or will I go pay my mother’s rent so she is not evicted? It becomes win-lose. And at its worst, a member will be so needy that the students he is trying to help are tasked with keeping the member together. That is an abuse of the position.
One daunting question to ask applicants but one we hope they answer honestly is- Are you someone who is successful in meeting your own needs in such a way that you can model to your students what that looks like? And in how you meet your own needs, does that create enough freedom for you to being there for them, untrammelled by other competing responsibilities or urgencies? Some members fall into the trap of allowing their generosity to grow beyond their resources. Needy people are not the best carers for people with needs. And for students who often are a bundle of tangled and conflicting needs, they need a mentor who has worked that out and is not using AmeriCorps service as a life experiment to sort out their own lives.
Our students deserve better. Even if a member does not know that, all she has to do is ask her students. They know, in an instant. Being there for them is wonderful and great but an illusion if there is no there there.