By Andrew Epifanio
Senior AmeriCorps member and Team Leader on the CSX Transportation team serving at Kimball Elementary School
“What is City Year?”
I get asked this very often. To answer this inquiry, I often give a prepared elevator pitch, a very Wikipedia-esque description of City Year, infused with a healthy dose of idealism. We discuss the work, share insights, and go our separate ways.
Yet, every time I consider the question, I cannot help but inwardly smile to myself. For how does one accurately describe the life of a City Year? As a Senior AmeriCorps member and an amateur photographer, I have had the privilege to see and experience so many beautiful moments – moments that are nearly impossible to put into words. But through the photos I take, I am able immortalize these moments and capture just a brief glimpse of the world in which we live. Allow me to take you on that journey.
The year starts with passion, enthusiasm, and high energy. Idealism is our high, and you can feel the pulse of the corps pumping with vitality and vigor. The shared energy only strengthens the feeling, fueling the beginning of a year that holds so many adventures as yet unbeknownst to us. Yet, we boldly stride forward, with the belief in our own power and the fresh appeal of our new look.
But, as the year marches on, the idealism can tarnish, and doubt often enters the mind. Am I really making an impact? Can I truly help these students—my students—succeed, in a system that makes it so difficult for them to rise above where they are? Am I making a tangible difference for them, or am I just another person passing through their life as they change and journey on?
Self-doubt enters the scene as well. Do I really have what it takes to make it through this year? Do I still have my integrity? Am I keeping up the fight, or am I going through the motions? How much of this can I take before I am changed, in ways that I cannot come back from?
Sweat, tears, and frustration are the marks of our burden. Long hours, lack of sleep, overwhelming work, and seemingly insurmountable expectations can make it difficult to find the strength to carry on. Some days, it’s barely enough to keep a smile on your face. It becomes so difficult to see the forest for the trees.
Yet, at some point, with time and perseverance, you find something in yourself. Something that keeps you going. A spark, a beacon of hope, a light in the darkness. The flame of idealism may burn low, even so much so that it seems extinguished, but it does not burn out. It lingers, for the time we are ready to once again feel its warmth. And that warmth can come from so many sources—what we mean to our students as a source of constancy, kindness, and warmth in a world that provides them with so little, or the community that we find with our peers and the bonds that we share, or even the growth that we see in ourselves. The year teaches you kindness, and patience, and toughens you in the same way that every step of the road strengthens the will of a runner; it gives you true grit.
Most of all, your time with City Year imbues you with an incredible sense of empathy, the foundation of human emotion, yet one that is so often forgotten. This gift, if accepted, is life-changing. You understand what it truly means to give a year of service for the sake of others, and how your compassion can change a life. You create meaning for yourself, through your connection with others. You discover your own humanity by embracing the humanity in those whose lives you touch. By recognizing this humanity in others, you shine your own flame to light the way.
So, sometimes, when asked the question, “What is City Year?”, I like to say, “Let me show you.”