By Gina Nguyen, Penn State Berks
On a chilly Friday afternoon, I make my way to Mi Casa Su Casa, a Latino American restaurant “with a touch of soul.” The Penn Street eatery smells of fresh brewed coffee and an array of baked goods.
The red walls peeked between several original paintings and drawings, and the muted TV aired a telenovela as Jamaican jams entertains the restaurant.
I arrive half past 11 with my colleague and year 2 VISTA, Rhiannon Jacobs, where we also encounter VISTA alumna, Lisa Weaver. Their supervisor, Jim Shankweiler, arrives as Thomas McKeon, or Tom, approaches our table dressed in his usual smile.
As we all get situated, Alvernia VISTAs, Bri Pearson and Melody Dillee, as well as my supervisor, Guadalupe Kasper, joins shortly after.
We sit in a circle around the Berks Countian who currently works as the executive director for the Berks County Industrial Development Authority (BCIDA), an economic development agency.
Now that we are here, what exactly does an executive director for BCIDA have to do with AmeriCorps VISTA?
Well, Tom is not so different from us actually. In fact, he served as an AmeriCorps VISTA in 1972. During this time period, Philadelphia struggled with housing shortages; Frank Rizzo came along as mayor; and drugs and crime plagued the city.
But before we get into the juicy stuff, can we order some delectable lunches? As we spend time pondering over the menu full of countless treats, our waitress, Leira, arrives to place our orders.
By the time we receive our meals, I immediately dive into my plate that has an abundance of yellow rice and beans, grilled chicken, and a beef and cheese empanada.
Now that I am completely regretting the amount of food I just inhaled, let’s have a look at Tom, a 23-year-old “hippie flower child” (see image below).
Check out 23-year-old Tom second to the left.“Not PhD Material”
A recent graduate from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy—now known as University of the Sciences—received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry. After various internships and lab work, he realized he was “not PhD material” and wanted to pursue something he’s truly passionate about. And so, Tom enrolled in environmental law and community development at the University of Pennsylvania; and he decided there and then he wanted to be an urban planner.
As 1971 rolled around, Tom contacted the dean at Rutgers University who advised him to do something to demonstrate his commitment, especially since his background in chemistry was quite drastic from community engagement. Naturally, the dean recommended the full-time, one-year service program—you guessed it—AmeriCorps VISTA.
Rosetta “Rose” WylieAs Tom proceeded to take the dean’s suggestion, he interviewed with a woman named Rosetta “Rose” Wylie, President of Philadelphia’s Residents Advisory Board (RAB).
The RAB focused on changing the living conditions of public housing, since tenants had limited rights. The Board wanted tenants to learn trades and provided numerous services to tenants including: tenant advocacy (case managers), daycare centers, social services, laundromat services, and job trainings.
Aspiring to help tenants learn trades, Rose helped those who were drug addicts clean up their act. To do so, she rented out three apartments within public housing and approached this issue by drying them out.
The high rise building was drug infested and crime ridden. Elevators hardly ever functioned which resulted in tenants hiking the stairways often. The run-down structure was highly impoverished.
The RAB president was a civil rights movement leader who sued Philadelphia’s Housing Authority and won. As a result, this movement set the stage for a model lease, which Housing and Urban Development (HUD) later adopted.
Around 1970, Rose founded the National Tenants Organization (NTO). She believed in the tenants’ rights and wanted them to have a key role in the organization. Likewise, the people believed in her and her mission to create a better living environment while also giving tenants the dominant voice in the community.
The Highlight of Tom’s Year
Rose had convinced Tom to quit his job as a lab technician and work for her for free, which Tom accepted. But before his actual VISTA term began, Rose assigned the young activist his first task to organize the 2nd National Tenants Organization Conference in San Francisco, Calif. He was in charge of the charter flight, which carried approximately 100 passengers who were individual community members throughout the east coast region.
“It was a lot of phone calling and trying to keep track of how many seats we had filled,” Tom says.
His role involved communicating and contacting all passengers, verifying the funds, and ensuring all 100 seats were filled.
“Sometimes people would call and say, ‘I can’t make it’ and then we would suddenly have a free seat,” he adds.
As a reward, Tom had the opportunity to participate in the conference. During his trip to San Francisco, Tom reminisces sitting on the hotel floor, speaking to various civil rights leaders. He spent most of his time with Georgia state representative and social activist, Julian bond, District Attorney Arlen Specter, and Shirley Chisholm, United States’ first African-American congresswoman.
Tom explains how this key moment was the highlight of his year, which I can clearly see why. What 20-something do you know had the opportunity to be around so many civil rights activists of the century?
Before beginning his official term in October, Tom as well as the other VISTAs were required to attend national training similar to Pre-Service Orientation (PSO). As Tom spent his few days in Philadelphia, he had the opportunity to connect with other VISTAs and hear about their VISTA assignments.
During his training, Tom met with members who would also serve in the Philadelphia area, so they decided to move in together. In their West Philadelphia apartment, the women and men lived on separate floors and became inseparable.
In fact, he recalls his friends giving him a birthday card that featured a black power fist. On the cover, it stated, “Hi, Whitey,” and the interior said, “Happy birthday!”
We all laugh as Tom explains this gesture was a symbol of belonging and being accepted.
The Philadelphia Community
Just past University City was a minority community—a culture which completely captivated Tom.
To truly learn and understand the city and its people, Tom spent two weeks living at public housing, which was a requirement for his new VISTA role.
He coexisted with tenants, Nancy, her boyfriend, and her two kids. For Tom’s first dinner with his host family, Nancy wanted to have some fun, so she served pigs feet with hot sauce, which he surely has never experienced before!
Benefits for VISTAs
During the 1970s, Tom received a modest living stipend as his only benefit. He and his friends would save their money and put their funds together to buy an album, specifically, ‘Tommy’ which was produced by an English rock band.
The VISTA crew would often play their new records while hosting big parties lasting all weekend long.
“Rose continued to rise in promise.”
During the early 1970s, inflation was rampant, thus resulted in President Nixon freezing rents and creating the National Rent Advisory Board in which Rose was appointed as representative for the tenants to voice their demands.
The board helped regulate rent throughout the country and made recommendations lowering rent costs.
Later, Rose ran for congress, which spiraled into disaster. As Tom describes her, the vulnerable and lonely 44-year-old woman was convicted as more conspiracies came into fruition. Rose had relations with the contractor in the modernization program for public housing who diverted checks into Rose’s bank account.
In addition to the scandalous events, Rose’s son, Aaron Blandon, was later proved as a no show employee. In fact, the contractor had devised a way for her son to be paid without providing any services. Rose even forged endorsements on checks for Samuel Via, a nonexistent person, according to The New York Times archives.
The Tough Decision
At this point in Tom’s term, everything had collapsed. The edgy flower child, as he described himself, wanted to renew his term for a second year, but due to recent events, he decided to move forward in his long journey to come.
He got accepted to Rutgers for graduate school where he later received his master’s degree in City and Regional Planning.
A few years later, Tom ran into Rose as she gave Tom a big hug and said, “Boy, Tom, we had some good times.”
As for his VISTA program, things eventually “got back on its feet” as someone new had taken over.
Despite the outcome of his year, Tom says, “It was a sad ending but an experience for me.”
He enjoyed all the connections he made with his roommates, his host family, and his community volunteers. Even though Tom was living in poverty as a VISTA, he says, “I didn’t feel like I was poor.”
Although he made lasting memories with so many people, he still has one regret.
“I didn’t keep the connections that I had to my community,” Tom says.
Back Home in Delaware County
Eventually, Tom went back home to Delaware County to visit his parents and oddly enough, he felt out of place. At one point, the suburban boy felt like he moved to a “foreign country” when he first arrived in Philadelphia, but after his return home, it was quite the opposite.
Tom mentions his first time in Philadelphia, he was “exposed to living in University City and being involved in student and city life.”
Once he was put into a really impoverished area, lived there, and interacted with the tenants, it completely changed his perspective.
Our VISTA Progress
After his term of service, Tom developed organizational and communication skills which helped him become a better administrator. His invaluable experience provided an opportunity for him to learn from different cultures and to have different ways of seeing and communicating in the world. He learned how to analyze any given situation and make a coherent presentation.
“I learned skills I still use today,” says Tom.
As the windows of the compact red and yellow restaurant become clouded, snowflakes begin coating the Reading streets as Tom continues to explain the progress in each of our projects to what he compares to a “long marathon relay.”
“When you see the Olympics, and you see the torch being passed from one athlete to the other until it finally reaches Olympic lane,” Tom says, “each generation passes the torch to the other with the ultimate purpose being the elimination of poverty in the end; a very long marathon that takes generations to achieve.”
Many of us may decide that nonprofit work isn’t for us, and that’s fine, but it is important to “carry this awareness” wherever you go. Tom stresses the importance of being exposed and understanding the depth of poverty.
He says even if you don’t go back to this kind of work, you have to understand it. You need to remember this experience “because as citizens, you are going to understand that [poverty] and continue to have responsibility.”
Each person’s circumstances are different. If you feel you have unfinished business with your project, Tom advises to stay and do the work that is needed.
Thomas McKeon at Mi Casa Su Casa in Reading, Pa.For those of us who are torn between renewing our second year of VISTA, graduate school, or other career options, it is important to “follow your heart and envision where you’ll go.”
If you’d like to hear more about Tom’s AmeriCorps VISTA experience, please feel free to contact him via e-mail at TMcKeon@countyofberks.com.
Special thanks to Tom for letting me share his story! Once a VISTA, always a VISTA!