My Life of Service
In honor of the Corporation for National and Community Service’s AmeriCorps Week, I have decided to share my story of service.
For me, it all started as a young Cub Scout. We were tasked with performing various acts of community service around our neighborhood, such as collecting canned goods, helping elderly people across the street, and cleaning up yards and repairing driveways.
I had no idea why I was doing any of this work. I was raised by a single mother with help from my elderly female babysitter, my grandma, my aunt, and my (9 years) older sister. The idea of a male role model was an enigma to me — perhaps that’s why my mom signed me up for this program?
Anyway, I always enjoyed these service projects we would do and always felt really good at the end when the community members would praise and thank us. Woohoo! But…I still didn’t connect the dots to the greater good I was producing — I was too busy collecting Pogs and figuring out whether or not I was going to get teased at school for having outdated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures or not.
Also during this time in the late 90’s, a flood struck my hometown. Everyone we knew had their basements and homes flooded, kids were floating in boats in the streets, and somehow our house was spared. So, my mom and I responded in an obvious manner: we helped out our friends and neighbors. We went from home to home hauling stuff out of the basements and helping to mitigate the damage done to the homes from the floodwater. I didn’t think of it as doing “service” — I was just trying to help. Why wouldn’t I?
After Cub Scouts, I took a sabbatical from service work to focus on “personal & professional development” AKA being a teenager and learning how to navigate the social pipeline. And…I failed miserably. After many failed attempts to being accepted by my peers — I eventually lost over 60 pounds and began making friends and earning social popularity points.
Figuring out who I was, with a single mother busy at work, led me to concentrate less on academics and service, and more on laughing and having a good time with friends. Not something I can say I regret — but it left me directionless upon high school graduation. As a first-generation college student, I had no idea what college even was — all I knew was that my peers, my mom, and society in general expected me to go if I wanted to succeed. Okay, fine. I’ll go.
I enrolled at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee because it was an hour from where I grew up (Sheboygan, WI) and it was in a city I was familiar with and had fond memories of. My aunt lived 5 minutes from the ballpark and I would constantly go to Milwaukee Brewers games growing up. She also enjoyed giving me history lessons about the city as a child — such as bringing me to iconic and historic buildings such as Jeffrey Dahmer’s old apartment (my peculiar upbringing helped me to grow up fast).
It took me 3 weeks to find the cafeteria and even longer to feel like I belonged in college. The social life didn’t appeal to me whatsoever. I didn’t drink or do drugs and I don’t much like large or loud parties. I also maxed out in credits across a variety of majors — so it was difficult for me to find specific academic passion. EVERYTHING WAS INTERESTING!
One day, on a whim, I signed up for a local volunteer opportunity to mentor inner-city youth. I thought that since I had no other social obligations, and since I love kids and teaching, I might as well use my free time efficiently. I LOVED IT!
The kids were so much fun and so receptive. I was hooked! The next week, I signed up to be a Big Brother through the Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Metro Milwaukee program and was matched with Deonte, a 6th grader who loved basketball and computers (and didn’t so much love homework). Him and I bonded over our mutual love of sports, food, and what it’s like growing up without a father.
After my foray back into community service — I couldn’t stop. Every weekend I was helping out at a new event or festival and tutoring during the week between and after classes.
I became immersed and passionate about my Journalism classes, and decided that I wanted to use media and outreach as an efficient way to spread the news about the good things happening in the world, the problems that need to be fixed, and the opportunities that would lead to better community life.
Upon graduation, I moved to Oregon to become an AmeriCorps*VISTA (volunteer in service to America), a national service program designed to fight poverty started by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. I was excited to be able to devote myself full-time in a community that needed my help and could benefit from my skills.
I was able to do some important work as a VISTA, living on a poverty wage to experience and empathize with the economic struggle working-class citizens have within America. I worked with local emergency management professionals and learned the profession (and thousands of acronyms) of hazard preparedness, mitigation, and resiliency and the disproportional effect hazards have on vulnerable and functional/access needs populations. I was also able to take part in Project Homeless Connect — a one-stop shop for people that are low-income and homeless to get their taxes prepared, write a resume, get a haircut and new clothes, and provided with a few resources that might help them get back on their feet. Although my AmeriCorps*VISTA year was a life-changing experience, and I made lifelong friends, there were some low points. Supervisors quitting and getting shuffled around resulted in me having a 4-hour commute everyday (bike to the bus station, bus to the city next door, walk to the office). This wore on me, financially — physically — and mentally, and I questioned whether I was making the biggest difference as I was capable of.
I decided to give it another shot the next year by enrolling in AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) — a residential, team-based, traveling volunteer experience with hundreds of other 18–24 year olds placed on teams of 8–12 members (at 24, I just squeaked in!).
Being a part of Silver 1 Class XVIII was the greatest year of my life.
Our 1,800 hours of projects included:
• Coachella Valley Housing Coalition, Indio, CA: Constructing houses from scratch for low-income migrant workers and families.
• Camp Sealth, Vashon, WA: Beautifying a youth environmental summer camp by assembling horse arenas, disassembling and rejuvenating docks in the frigid Puget Sound, and creating and maintaining trails.
• Woodlake Elementary School, Sacramento, CA: Assistant Teaching “at-risk” (about 1/3 of the children were considered homeless) children during and after school and working with them to create an award-winning video for their statewide testing (won a field trip for the entire school to a roller-skating rink!).
• Silver Falls State Park, Silverton, OR: Waterfall restoration (literally dangling from harnesses overlooking the falls) due to flood erosion, trail repair and creation, and other disaster/flood damage repair.
The skills I’ve learned throughout my life while serving with teams and individuals around this country (and beyond) are immeasurable. From witnessing the needs of society first-hand, to working as part of a team to get things done. Whether it has been dangling over waterfalls in Oregon, working with the 10,000 pound majestic creatures of Thailand, working as an assistant to the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, gardening with singer Jason Mraz, or exploring and working in remote parts of Catalina Island — service has brought me around the world — my service has offered me unique and amazing adventures.
Upon graduating from AmeriCorps NCCC, my fate was sealed. I knew that in order to be personally fulfilled and to be efficiently successful — I had to surround myself with motivated and mission-driven people within an organization that was socially responsible with operations that improved society rather than maintaining the status quo (or, worse yet, being a detriment to societal resources).
After working as a professional writer for a year — I realized how important it was for my morals and values to align with the organization I was working for — so I quit and began studying for the GRE in order to enroll in graduate school.
Almost nobody I know went to graduate school — it’s just not expected within my family or in the places I’ve lived. It seemed like a distant pipe dream, something only the privileged few were able to do, and definitely something I would never achieve.
But here I am — on the cusp of graduating from the University of Oregon with my Master of Public Administration degree in order to be a voice for future generations, to improve communities, and to push for equitable and equal policies. Although I’ve been quite busy in school, internships, board service, and research projects — I was still allowed to get some volunteerism and service in:
I received a scholarship to study, live, work, and volunteer abroad in Thailand and Cambodia. During this time I was able to work with hundreds of elephants, coordinated volunteers from all over the world, and was able to get some playtime with the local hill tribe schoolchildren. Truly a life-changing and culturally immersive experience that I am privileged to have experienced.
Service isn’t just hands-on volunteerism. Service is a lifelong dedication to being involved in the public process. Voting, working for campaigns, serving on community boards and establishing community groups, running for office, organizing for a shared purpose, attending city council meetings, starting a nonprofit for a pressing community need — all of these are forms of service that help improve communities too.
I’m going to continue my hands-on and behind-the-scenes service for the rest of my life. Domestic and international, nonprofit and public, with children and adults, fighting for the environment and curbing poverty issues — everything. I am a dedicated, lifelong, public servant. I am proud to serve communities and proud to serve my country.
I will get things done for America — to make our people safer, smarter, and healthier. I will bring Americans together to strengthen our communities. Faced with apathy, I will take action.Faced with conflict, I will seek common ground. Faced with adversity, I will persevere. I will carry this commitment with me this year and beyond. I am an AmeriCorps member, and I will get things done.
- AmeriCorps Pledge
Craig Wiroll has been on reality television, an Asian elephant rehabilitator, a waterfall repairman, a two-time garlic eating champion, and also worked at Pizza Hut and The White House.
He was allowed to attend college where they eventually gave him a Master of Public Administration degree from Oregon and a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from UW-Milwaukee. He lives alone with nobody — oftentimes out of the back of his Subaru.