Viewfinder: How did you first learn about VISTA?
Peter: I first learned about VISTA from my two sisters who had both been volunteers before me. The one volunteered in Oklahoma City in the late 60's and the other served in Laredo, Texas in the early 70's. (Peter's sister, Deirdre, was the featured in Portraits in the June 2010 Viewfinder issue.)
VF: Why did you choose to serve?
Peter: Common with a lot of folks getting out of college, I was unsure of what it was I wanted to do after college. I thought I wanted to go to law school and I was graduating with a major in Ethics and Moral Philosophy from Brown University in 1974. But I knew I didn't want to go directly to law school. So I wanted to get some real-world experience and do something of value for a year or so. VISTA seemed like a natural choice. I was also a budding banjo player and folk music enthusiast and I had a fantasy of traveling to the South where the music and the instrument I was learning came from. I had never been to the South and I had only stereotyped images of that region, many of which were promptly dispelled upon my arrival.
VF: What types of projects did you accomplish as a VISTA?
Peter: I did paralegal work with public housing project cases and social security disability cases as a VISTA paralegal with the Macon office of Georgia Legal Services. I also helped with some class action law suits dealing with rent and tenants rights. I worked a lot on rent issues, tenants' rights, and substandard housing issues. The office was also involved in a lot of mental health law so I was exposed to some of that while I was there. After my first year of law school, I returned to the Macon office to work for the summer and got to continue working on some of the cases I had been working on before.
VF: Tell us your best story about being a VISTA
Peter: One story I have told for years arose from my organizing and legal outreach to the tenants of the Eatonton Public Housing project. I had a GSA car that I used to drive around the large area our office covered. It had an experimental vent on the top which made it distinctive and it soon became a mark that the VISTA worker from the Macon Legal Aid office was in the area.
After several weeks of talking with individual tenants about the illegally high rents they were being charge in violation of federal housing regulations, I was told by a woman that her neighbor wanted me to come down to her unit to talk with her. I knocked on her door and an older black woman answered the door and greeted me with a surprised tone, "Why you're just a BOY!" she smiled. (She was right – I was 22 and likely looked 15 to her). I chatted with her a while and she began to show me her wonderful garden and told me that I needed to get me a wife and some house plants. She then pointed out several books which she said her daughter had written, published by a well-known American publishing house. I then realized that I was talking with Minnie Lou Walker, mother of author Alice Walker!
VF: What did you get out of serving?
Peter: I got a beginning awareness of the reality of how overwhelming poverty is and how all -inhibiting it is. The people I see today in Seattle in my Social Security disability law practice could well have been my clients I saw 35+ years ago as a VISTA, because the basic issues I first encountered then remain largely unchanged.
What I got from VISA was a calling. I realized that you have only one go-round in life, and you have to decide what side you're going to be on. I chose to be on the side of those who have little and need much. I doubt I would have survived law school without the experiences I had as a VISTA paralegal with Georgia Legal Services. Law school can be mind-numbing and spirit-crushing and had I not known something of what legal knowledge can actually do for real people, I might well have dropped out of law school.
Without VISTA, I would never have gone on to be a Legal Services lawyer in Port Angeles, Washington for three years. And … the rest is history.
Another thing I got out of serving in Georgia as a VISTA was an absolute love, perhaps an obsession, with Southern barbecue. I had my first real Southern barbecue when I stopped into the Jackson Fresh Air Barbecue in Jackson, Georgia one day on the road. And now, for the past thirty years I host a backyard barbecue competition among friends to honor my memories of that 'cue, called The Jackson Fresh Air Barbecue Cook-Off and Feed.
VF: What are you doing now?
Peter: Besides my law practice in Seattle, where representing disabled claimants for Social Security disability benefits, I have been married for the past 29 years to Judy Oerkvitz, a former social worker and now an elementary school teacher. We have two daughters (one a social worker and the other is presently an AmeriCorps volunteer with Northwest Immigrants' Rights Project here in Seattle). I continue my banjo playing and song writing with our band for the last 30 years – Clallam County - "Seattle's Slowest Rising Folk Band"® - (http://sites.google.com/site/clallamcounty/home and http://www.myspace.com/clallamcounty). I am also an avid amateur photographer: http://peterhdmckeephotography.shutterfly.com.
VF: What advice do you have for current VISTAs or for people thinking about joining VISTA?
Peter: Don't worry about whether it is a "good career move" - careers will resolve themselves in the future. Join VISTA now. It will give you a unique chance to help in many small ways that you can not anticipate. It will change your life. It should change your life; in ways you could not now predict. It will change your life for the better.
Download PDF of Peter's song "Effie" here.