VISTA worker says she feels ‘disrespected’ by shutdown

Meredith McGrew is interested in serving communities. So the 24-year-old signed up with the federal VISTA program and moved from her hometown of Louisville, Ky., to the Lowcountry for a one-year stint at the Palmetto Project.

VISTA stands for “Volunteers in Service to America,” and it’s funded with grant money that temporarily went dry during the recent government shutdown.

McGrew, who is program manager for the Families Helping Families program, administered by the Palmetto Project, and a volunteer project coordinator, is paid $931 a month. Usually, she receives a check every two weeks for $466. Little of that is left over after she pays her share of rent: $387.50.

VISTA workers are not allowed to work a second job, she said. “Salaries are ... very low because they want us to be in a similar position to the people we are helping.”

She does qualify for food stamps, and that eases things a little, she said. Good thing she signed up for the SNAP program at the beginning of her service period. Her roommate, also a VISTA worker, didn’t. The process takes 30 days or so, so she didn’t receive any food assistance during the shutdown, McGrew said.

“I haven’t been outside of work or my house in two months,” she said. “I don’t really do anything fun.”

Now that the shutdown is over and the paychecks are resuming, it’s not likely to get much easier for McGrew. She’ll get back pay, so that will help, but she’ll have to repay a small loan provided by the city of Charleston and meant to help see her through those weeks when Washington went dark.

“I just feel like people are throwing a temper tantrum,” she said of the shutdown. “Some say ‘It doesn’t affect me,’ but I signed on to do a government project to help those in need, and you’re not going to pay me? Yet I’m still expected to work.

“I feel disrespected.”