As I write this entry I am on my way back to Baltimore on the Bolt Bus from New York City; however, I realize that as you read this I will have already returned to Charm City. I am hoping that my future self- Laura on Thursday- will have spent the last 24 hours reflecting on the past few days at the 2010 National Conference on Volunteering and Service. So far, that has been true. Anyway, enough of this weirdo time travel talk. It’s time to get to the details.
I am still absorbing everything right now but I can definitely say that I feel a renewed appreciation for service after attending this conference. The conference staff and leaders in the service world did a nice job of pumping up the energy for such a large group of do-gooders. Outside of the energy and celebration, I feel that my true inspiration was found from the fellow leaders I met. I enjoyed meeting many different people in my sessions; lovely people from all over the country, from Montana, Colorado, California, New York and everywere in between!
The best part of my overall experience comes from an amazing opportunity I had to meet and learn from some exceptional leaders in the service community. On Wednesday morning I attended an immersion session in East Harlem. My group and I learned about the work of the New York Restoration Project (NYRP), a non-profit founded by Bette Midler that builds community gardens and plants trees in an effort to not only raise awareness of urban greening and neighborhood beautification but bring the community together in a very collaborate and respectful way. Their focus, which I feel all non-profits should more fully connect with, centers around the ideal of, as one staff person said, “to be a good neighbor.” I was incredibly inspired by the innovation, focus, drive, and genuine kindness of the staff members who introduced us to their work.
Since 1995 NYRP has built over 50 community gardens in communities throughout New York City. All of these gardens have been built with the respect and insight of interested community members; NYRP invites residents to their design meetings where they determine, with the help of in-house designers, the look and use of these gardens. Ideas for the space, which are usually at a decrepit or abandoned space before development, are flexible and are open for change based on the residents’ needs.
I was so impressed when I learned that monthly community meetings are held for NYRP staff, residents and stakeholders to discuss the space, sign up for time slots to use the space for social events, and remind the members of their control of this lovely space. And when I say lovely, it doesn’t even come close to how beautiful and creative these areas are. You feel utterly at peace and inspired spending time in those gardens. Aside from the beauty of the design and the grace of nature, I was struck by this organization’s ability to truly engage their residents. While they are still working on bringing on a large portion of their community in to this project, they completely get what they need to do- listen to, talk with, and act on what the community needs, not what they think they should do or believe. This is SO key for any community to move forward with the assistance of any organization.
I was able to chat with NYRP’s former and current AmeriCorps members, learn from educators, community outreach workers and forestry manager, and listen to a volunteer speak of his own passion and experience. I am inspired to share and utilize this knowledge with everyone I know who shares the same passion of creatively enhancing the communities we live in.