By Abby Neff | AmeriCorps VISTA

In the middle of December, I attended an in-person training for AmeriCorps VISTA service members. I had never been to Texas, so when I was offered the chance to travel to Dallas for free, I obviously jumped on it. As much as I love Ohio, I was eager to explore a new place. At the same, I was a bit nervous about leaving the comfort of these Appalachian foothills.

Upon arrival, I noticed the age range of the VISTAs in attendance. We were a multi-generational group that came from over 30 states across the country, and everyone was so nice. I had a feeling I was in good hands.

As the week carried on, we attended several workshops led by remarkable trainers. I met so many people serving across the country. I thought our experiences at our varying sites would be different, and some of them were, but a lot of them were the same. One workshop that articulated that sameness was called “Serve and Thrive: Building Resilience as a VISTA Member.”

It was scheduled at the end of a long day of training, so it’s understandable that there weren’t many active participants. Antonio, our trainer, encouraged us to share ways we can be resilient in the face of “compassion fatigue,” a phenomenon that occurs when someone is caring for others’ emotional, physical or mental pain and results from the desire to relieve someone else’s suffering.

I paused and remembered a story I heard on NPR about the word “resilient.” TK Dutes, a reporter for LifeKit, spoke with Lourdes Dolores Follins, a psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, about what resilience actually means.

“It’s a psychological term. We’re talking about a process that involves adapting positively in the context of significant adversity,” Lourdes says.

Lourdes explained how building resilience is like building muscles, but the workout is constant hardship from systems that we don’t have relief from, so we learn how to live with them. She says people conflate resiliency with strength and explains how this concept is leftover from slavery, colonization, indentured servitude and systemic oppression.

“When I hear people say things like ‘Can I just be soft?’ or ‘I don’t want to work so hard. I don’t want to be resilient,’ I see something wrong with the situation. Instead of saying, ‘I have to change to fit with the situation,’ the situation has to change,” Lourdes says.

I found myself raising my hand. Instead of sharing ways I am resilient in my AmeriCorps service, I offered the lessons I learned from Lourdes and TK and how someone doesn’t have to accept their circumstances to be resilient. Instead, someone can resist the systems and situations that cause pain and hardship by leaning into their emotions and collaborating with others to change.

No one said anything at first. And then, people started clapping. Clearly, this was something service members resonated with. People came up to me after thanking me for sharing, but it was important to remind them that this work of resiliency and resistance has been going on for a long time. Longer than I have been serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA and longer than the AmeriCorps program itself.

Appalachians have historically been resilient in the face of resource exploitation, addiction and poverty. It’s important to remember that Rural Action was formed not only to provide resources to Appalachian Ohioans but also to resist the systems that caused the hardship in the first place.

It was empowering to be part of the AmeriCorps VISTAs from across the country who were working together and sharing resources to build capacity in a more effective and equitable way. It was sad to say goodbye to all of the remarkable people I met, but I was ready to come home to the hills.

Rural Action’s AmeriCorps team has been getting things done in our communities for over 25 years. Learn more about our history with national service programs here.