Why I Serve: Maker VISTA Member Sam Erwin

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April is VISTA Month at Maker Ed, during which we are shining light on the work being done by our Maker VISTA program partners and members, and sharing stories of impact, service, and transformation occurring everyday. Be sure to check out the blog throughout this month as we offer insights, resources, and rich perspectives from a diverse array of communities and maker landscapes. Also, click here if you are interested in serving as a Maker VISTA member at one of our partner sites for 2017–2018.


I grew up in the heart of the Dallas-Fort Worth area in Texas. While I lived nearby the major city of Dallas, I spent most of my time in smaller Fort Worth, exploring some of the (many) less populated areas that Texas boasts. I specifically spent my time doing something many kids who grow up in those areas do: working from a young age.

Sam is quick to brighten up the office

My first official job, where I actually got a paycheck and not just pocket cash for odd jobs, was working on a factory assembly line. I built refrigerated display cases, the kind that go into supermarkets. I spent three years working there every chance I could, even skipping school to make it into work.

My initial task on the line was wrapping copper tubes around steel tubs. The copper tubing circulated the freon-chilled air throughout the unit, keeping it cool. My father had worked as a welder, and my experience with the tools he used led to my eventual graduation to another task, soldering the copper tubing that wrapped around the tub to the compressor. Later, I moved to running the vacuum forming plastic molding machine, applying the adhesive vinyl branding to the units, and also worked in the shipping department.

Working in this way, from such a young age, not only shaped my work ethic but my worldview. I was curious, I wanted to challenge myself, and I wanted to expand that view as much as possible. I went to college, and decided to study philosophy with a focus on ethics. It was hard for me to reconcile where I’d been with what I was learning then—maybe more cons than pros than I anticipated in expanding that worldview—and it resulted in me taking a dramatic step. I dropped out of college, joined an AmeriCorps program, City Year, and moved out to Los Angeles, California.

That was my first experience with service. I loved the city of Los Angeles and I loved working with kids. At the time, those experiences convinced me I should become a teacher. I planned to return to Texas, finish my degree, and hit the classroom.

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Sam at the the Maker Ed offices in Oakland, CA

But life—as it tends to—didn’t follow the logic and method of an assembly line. Again I found myself thrown off-track. After struggling with both cancer and addiction, my mother passed away; after years spent developing a work ethic and striving to carve a path for myself, I instead was unsure and struggling. It was dark, and I was heavy with loss; I felt far from the ideas of success I had been forming in years prior.

Ultimately, I had the type of life-changing realization that seems cliche but is so true after that kind of darkness and loss. I thought about the focus and satisfaction of productivity I had building in the factory. I considered the drive and fulfillment I found in service. I wanted to actively do things and help people, and while that seemed vague and inconclusive long-term, in the shorter-term I packed up and moved back to Los Angeles.

I had the boosting benefit of re-connecting with one of my former City Year supervisors, Mario Fedelin, who pushed me to seize what motivated me and apply to AmeriCorps VISTA. The year of service, he said, would jump-start me and offer me a clear path forward.

A VISTA opportunity in particular stuck out to me: Maker Ed. I did research on the maker movement and discovered there was an educational approach for people who learned more from building things than sitting in lectures—people like me. For the first time I could recognize that there are different forms of success out there, and instead of trying to fit inside one tightly defined model of success I had once chased, I wanted to explore others.

Serving at the Maker Ed in Oakland was the right choice for me. My passions have sparked and turned from teaching youth directly, to fundraising and spreading the word about great work educators and organizations do everyday. I love every moment of it and can feel deep down that I made the right decision.

When I ask myself why I serve, there isn’t just one factor that I can point to. For me, it’s due to all these story-threads and experiences—some tangled—that have led me to now. But when I ask myself what service has given me, I know concretely: a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, a sense of accomplishment.

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Click here for more stories about the impact of our program and the service of Maker VISTA members from across the country. Be sure to sign up for the newsletter to stay updated on all Maker VISTA happenings. If you would like to serve as a Maker VISTA or know someone who would, click the “Apply to Serve” icon above to learn more.