Reflections from an AmeriCorps Alum

It’s been over six months since I completed my second term of service with AmeriCorps yet the memories and lessons from those two years remain very much a part of my life. If you were to talk to any of my non-AmeriCorps alum friends, I’m sure they would roll their eyes and comment on how I never stop talking about my time in AmeriCorps. I suppose to them AmeriCorps is like a secret club and the unfamiliarity of it all makes listening to me unbearable at times. This saddens me because my decision to join AmeriCorps has proven to be undoubtedly one of the best decisions I have made.  I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to serve, to meet such wonderful and inspiring people, to develop close friendships with fellow AmeriCorps members, and to grow and mature into the person I am today. AmeriCorps has impacted my life in more ways than one and truthfully it would take more than a blog post to illustrate just how much national service means to me.

I made the decision to join AmeriCorps in the spring of my senior year of college. I knew I wanted to take some time off after graduation and do something meaningful– I wanted to volunteer and give back. I heard of AmeriCorps through a friend and I did some research on the various programs My first term of service of AmeriCorps was with AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps). During our orientation one of our fellow AmeriCorps members got up to speak. He described NCCC members as an “army of altruists” and this description has always fascinated me. National service doesn’t necessarily mean service in the armed forces. Service can come in varying forms and AmeriCorps members serve their country, both indirectly and directly, by working to address some of our nation’s most difficult challenges. Former President John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” For me, and for thousands of current and former AmeriCorps members, this quote resonates. I wanted to serve my country, make a positive contribution and join a movement of people who felt the same way. AmeriCorps provided me with this opportunity.

I can honestly say that AmeriCorps has molded me into the person I am today. I am a better person because of what I experienced in AmeriCorps. I think one of the best aspects of AmeriCorps is that you learn to live simply as a result of your very modest living stipend. Although, this was a source of anxiety and frustration at times, I will never take for granted what I have, because I know what it’s like to struggle financially. AmeriCorps seeks to teach its members what it means to live close to or below the poverty line. It’s easy to become indifferent or apathetic to the needs of others when you live in a privileged enclave and can’t identity with the struggles of others. Through personal experience, AmeriCorps motivates its members to seek out solutions to poverty and to assure that every person’s basic needs are met.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone how detrimental the economy has been to recent college graduates finding employment. AmeriCorps for me was like my first big “break.” It provided me with the opportunity to travel the country, work with a number of different nonprofits and government agencies, acquire relevant experience and develop the skills I would need to be successful. Essentially, AmeriCorps transformed me from a somewhat naïve recent college graduate into a motivated, informed and experienced professional in the nonprofit sector.

AmeriCorps has opened so many doors for me and has provided me with so many opportunities. As a result of my service, I have been nominated for a Jessie Ball DuPont Fellowship through my alma mater, McDaniel College. Additionally, I had the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream of volunteering abroad in Africa, by using the Education Award I received to participate in a January term course. Still not convinced? After finding a job opening on AmeriCorps alums for a FEMA Reservist position, I applied and received a call the following day requesting an interview (I worked with FEMA during my term of service with AmeriCorps NCCC). I could continue to cite examples. However, for the sake of brevity I will allow those three to suffice and leave you with one more thing.

Friendship. I met some of the most amazing people in AmeriCorps. These people share my passion for service and making a difference. The bonds you form in AmeriCorps are unlike any other. In a previous blog post for Volunteer Maryland, I wrote about how AmeriCorps for me was where I felt most at home. My Ameri-friends became Ameri-family. I love how we will always have our memories of service and how we will always encourage and inspire each other to leave the world a little better than we found it.

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So Long, Farewell…

I can’t believe this is my final blog entry. Everything seems to be moving at the speed of light as my second term of service with AmeriCorps is inevitably coming to a close.

I honestly don’t even know where to begin but I do know that I am so grateful for my 11 months with Volunteer Maryland. I came to this position with a strong background in direct service and wanted to increase my knowledge of the nonprofit sector and develop my leadership capabilities. What I have come away with is so much more than I could have ever expected.

The staff at Volunteer Maryland really believed in our ability to produce quality work and learn by trying new things. As Regional Coordinators, we were truly welcomed and embraced as part of the Volunteer Maryland Support Team. Professional Development I think was a goal for all four of us personally, but I know for sure it was considered a priority for us by the Volunteer Maryland staff.

Over the course of my 11 months I had the opportunity to sit in on partner Site-Visits, attend outreach events on behalf of Volunteer Maryland, help with the phone screening of VM 23 applicants, create a webinar for our members on alternate uses of the Education Award, contribute to an amazing blog and much more. Earlier in the year I wrote a blog post entitled “Flood of Opportunities” and that is exactly what this year has consisted of.

I have had the chance to support and get to know not only the 9 members of my region but a class full of talented individuals. Each one of them dedicated themselves to their volunteer program and worked tirelessly to address their particular community need.  Recently, I was thinking of how much I would have liked to have been a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator. The experience one gets and the level of responsibility one takes on is really remarkable.

Lastly, perhaps the hardest thing about an AmeriCorps service year is the friends you will meet and most likely need to say goodbye to. I have developed some close friendships from my year with Volunteer Maryland and I know I’ll go through Ameri-friend withdrawal as soon as I leave for home (Boston).

What’s next? Well, for once in my life I honestly don’t know and I think I like it that way. I’m looking forward to returning home, spending time with friends and family, and discerning where I need to be and what path I’ll take next.

Thank you to Volunteer Maryland for a wonderful year and good luck to VM 22 as we all embark on new journey’s 🙂

Camp Make a Difference

I have been hearing about Camp Make a Difference all year so when I had the opportunity to go and volunteer with the campers, I went.

Camp Make a Difference is offered through the Columbia Association in partnership with The Volunteer Center Serving Howard County. This summer season the camp is running  for three one week sessions. However, in the past it has run for four weeks.

The campers enjoy all the comforts of a typical summer camp by doing fun recreational activities and cooling off from the summer sun in the swimming pool. However, what’s humbling is that the youth of Camp Make a Difference have chosen to also dedicate a considerable portion of their time volunteering with local agencies and learning about the importance of community and giving back.

Last Thursday I met the campers at the Ellicott City Senior Center. It was bingo day at the center and the room was packed. The campers spread out throughout the room and sat next to the seniors. Some of the seniors had hearing problems, sight problems, or mild dementia so the campers helped their senior if they needed any assistance.

I had a good laugh sitting next to my senior. She must have heard John Denver’s “Country Road” on the bus ride over to the center because she kept singing “mountain mama take me home”. She sang for a good 15 minutes before the bingo game began and that’s no exaggeration! I surprised her and pulled out my iPod shuffle and turned it to “Country Roads” and she got a kick out of hearing the song and singing along.

It was really interesting to watch the campers interact with the seniors. Some of the campers, you could tell, were just incredibly comfortable interacting with seniors while others were a little more nervous. Either way they all brought a lot of joy and a change of pace to the seniors who are most likely accustomed to routine.

I asked one of the campers seated at my table why she chose to enroll in Camp Make a Difference and she replied saying that she wanted to make her contribution and get more involved in volunteerism.

Hats off to all of the campers of Camp Make a Difference because they are undoubtedly doing just that.

‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’ Comes to Baltimore!

Yesterday, I had the privilege of volunteering at the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition build in Baltimore city. The beneficiary of the build is the Girls Hope scholar program of the Boys Hope Girls Hope local affiliate. This organization is truly noteworthy and I’m happy to see that the girls will now have a safe and productive place to call home, too.

At present, Boys Hope Girls Hope offers a sense of refuge to its male scholars by providing them with a group home through their residential scholar program. The boys have access to a quality education, live in a safe environment, receive constant support and motivation and are encouraged to achieve their dreams. They are also financially supported through college.

All is true for the girls in the program with the exception of a safe place to call home. Now, that’s where Extreme Makeover: Home Edition comes in!

As I write this blog entry, men and women are just now finishing their 12:00 AM to 6:00 AM volunteer shift. Yes, that’s right—Volunteers work around the clock for seven days to complete the home on time. Unfortunately, due to the considerable amount of rain we received on Monday afternoon, it is possible that the revealing of the home will occur a day or so later than they had originally anticipated. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are able to pull it off though as there are countless volunteers on site working extremely hard to keep everything on schedule despite mother nature’s lack of cooperation.

I volunteered for the 12:00 PM to 6:00 PM shift. From the beginning I knew this was going to be an amazing day. The gentleman, Marty who sat next to me on the bus ride over, and I engaged in a conversation about how we learned about this volunteer opportunity and why we were here. He told me about his construction business, which he’s owned for 30 years, and how more recently he’s spent a substantial amount of time volunteering his time, money and skills to aid in the re-construction effort in Haiti. Hilarious, to know that after working on site for a few hours, who do I see but Marty running the whole construction effort in the front of the house.

I was inspired by others that I met as well including the construction worker that took a week off work, no pay, to volunteer. Him and I were cutting plywood and I must have told him a half-dozen times to go home and sleep-he’d been working since 8:00 PM the night before and it was 3:00 in the afternoon!

The energy at the build was incredible. There were volunteers young and old, female and male, skilled and unskilled, local and non-local, all working together to help this well-deserving nonprofit.

I have to say, for as much of a pop-culture junkie as I am I had no idea who Jillian Harris was. She apparently was “The Bachelorette” on ABC’s The Bachelorette ( which if you know me, you know I love!) Season 5 ( I was living in the woods in Texas). She was on “the set” off and on throughout the day, being filmed doing a variety of different things.

I remained oblivious all day it seemed. At one point while I was taking a break, about 6 women ran up to this man and started screaming “Pauly!”. I sat there, quietly eating my snow cone and wondering what all the fuss was about. Apparently, he’s one of the designers. Forgive me, the only person I remember from the show is Ty and he wasn’t there 😦

I left the build yesterday feeling really inspired, really happy and really muddy. It was a fantastic day!

*If you are interested in volunteering, they are in desperate need of skilled volunteers. The volunteer check-in is located at 5830 Hillen Road in Baltimore and they are shuttling volunteers to the site throughout the day.

Honoring those Serving Overseas

I have to admit some weeks I experience a little bit of writer’s block when it comes time for my weekly blog entry. I feel like a lot of things are winding down in VM world yet I still want to continue to offer readers something interesting and different each week.
This happened to me yesterday morning as I was trying to brainstorm the subject of my post. However, I quickly remembered that I totally have something exciting to share!

A while back I signed on to help with volunteer recruitment for Camp F.E.V.E.R (Fitness, Environment, Volunteerism, Education, and Responsibility) through The Maryland Umbrella Group . I was very excited to have been presented this opportunity because it allowed me to do what my VMCs do on a daily basis.

Camp F.E.V.E.R was in need of three types of volunteers in particular; bus drivers for weekly excursions, office help on Mondays and guest speakers to speak on one of the camp’s five focus areas.

I quickly got to work recruiting as many volunteer speakers as I could as this was the greatest need. A big thank you goes out to Lauren and Linda as they were my first volunteers to step up to the task!

I decided that I myself wanted to volunteer and chose to facilitate a letter-writing session where the campers write and decorate their own letters which will be sent to men and women serving overseas. I thought this would be a great example of volunteerism and especially relevant around the July 4th holiday.

I came across this site which has been very helpful in providing me with names. One thing I like in particular about this site is it allows you to choose the addresses of those serving in all branches of the military. I have tried my best to pick an equal amount of men and women and to also get a good variety of addresses from each branch of the armed services.

Last week, I went out and picked up red paper, glue sticks, patriotic confetti and as of now I am still on the hunt for some quality American flag stickers. I tried the Dollar Store, Walmart, and Party City and had no luck. I am hoping to get to Michael’s in the next few days to scout out their scrapbooking aisle. If any of you know where I could locate such stickers, I would be very appreciative to hear of your suggestions!

Also, if any of you know where I might be able to best recruit individuals to serve as volunteer bus drivers ( a Commercial Driver’s License is necessary), that would be a huge help as well! Or, if you or anyone else you know would be interested in volunteering as a guest speaker or as an assistant in the office, that would be fantastic:)

“Live from New York…”

Live from NY… it’s Katelyn’s weekly blog post! OK, that was incredibly lame but Michael beat me to it with the Frank Sinatra reference. I too am writing to you from New York city, where I am also attending the 2010 National Conference on Volunteering and Service. I feel very lucky to be here and to have the opportunity to take in all that the conference and city has to offer.

I have attended a variety of sessions so far. Some have been captivating and meaningful while others, honestly have been somewhat of a disappointment. However, two sessions stand out in my mind and I would like to share them with you.

The first session I attended entitled “Nonprofit Guide to Going Green” by Ted Hart from GreenNonprofits was phenomenal. He was a very dynamic and passionate speaker who thoroughly educated the audience on this hot topic and then dedicated a substantial amount of time for audience engagement through discussion. He even raffled off a free copy of his new book Nonprofit Guide to Going Green but alas, I was not the lucky winner.

Hart discussed his nonprofit’s green certification program and how nonprofits can make significant strides to “greening” their organizations while also remaining cognizant of budget spending. He recommended that the issue be brought to the table and commonly talked about within the office. He also stressed the importance of upper-level management buy-in. Some tips for greening that were suggested include powering down all computers at the end of the day, placing all computers on “power save” mode after 15 minutes or less of idling, placing “Turn off Light” labels above every light switch in the office, encouraging water conservation, purchasing recycled paper and providing bins for the recycling of paper, plastic, glass, cardboard etc.

I left the session feeling energized and ready to serve as a green ambassador of sorts in my professional and personal life. I am excited to read his book as I am sure the material will be relevant to both.

The other session that I would like to share with you was an immersion learning session held at the WTC Tribute Center. The session was on engaging individuals and families to participate in the 9/11 National Day of Service and how hopefully the spirit of service and solidarity that came out of such an immense tragedy, will continue to inspire others to volunteer and give back not only on this day of remembrance, but throughout the rest of the year as well.

We had a chance to walk through the Tribute Center which proved to be highly emotional and touching. I couldn’t hold back my tears while reading the last words of those who passed away that day on the walls, audio clips of firefighters working tirelessly to save employees on the upper floors of the Towers and viewing the hundreds of photos of loved ones that were lost. We also went on a walking tour where we saw the Firemen’s memorial and got a closer look at the reconstruction efforts.

The 9/11 memorial is expected to be open to the public in 2012.

Tada!

So, as most your probably already know at this point, I have been working on creating a webinar for quite a few months now. I initially got started on this project because I was interested in finding out what other options AmeriCorps alums have with regard to using their Education Award.

My first award went almost entirely towards helping to pay off my undergraduate student loans. Although it felt good to put even just a tiny dent in my loan balance, I knew that I wanted to use my next Award for something more personally meaningful.

So my research began. It was a long and tedious process but my goal was to try and get as much information as possible so as to make the process easier for interested alums in the future.

The webinar is almost ten minutes in length and discusses a variety of other options AmeriCorps alums have besides the traditional use of paying off student loans or paying for undergraduate or graduate studies.

One thing that I neglected to mention in the presentation is that it is possible to volunteer abroad. However, to date I have been unsuccessful in finding a volunteer abroad program that has a partnership with a school that will provide credit for the experience. However, I did come across a few programs that were hoping to offer a for-credit volunteer abroad experience in the near future.

I hope you all enjoy the presentation and find it relevant and useful. If you have any questions at all about anything, please feel free to comment on this blog post or email me at kryan@volunteermaryland.org.

P.S A major THANK YOU goes out to Michael for helping me post the webinar video in this blog!

“Oh! The Places You’ll Go!”

I’m not sure if by writing this I am going against the best practices of blogging but I am going to risk being deemed a renegade and also talk about our trip to Eden Mill Nature Center last Friday. I just had so much fun-I knew I’d want to blog about it this week!

Honestly, the last couple of weeks have been somewhat stressful. I have been working tirelessly to finish my webinar (I’m recording it today 🙂 ) and I knew I could only go to Lori’s Region meeting at Eden Mill if I finished all of my work. Luckily, I did because I would have been super bummed out if I had missed out on this awesome day.

As Kim mentioned, the canoe trip was a great experience. Although, Laura and I were in the same canoe and got off to a rocky start. After struggling to figure out the whole steering and paddling situation and about five collisions later, we finally got it down. We had more laughs trying to paddle ourselves out of the bushes and get back on the right track!

The tour of the mill was really neat and the nature center served as a unique educational resource.

We enjoyed a picnic lunch and then completed our day by visiting Carole’s llamas! We each got a chance to feed, pet, and walk the llamas!

I remember driving home on Friday and just thinking “What other the job would allow me to spend my Friday canoeing down a beautiful creek, touring a nature center, enjoying an outdoor picnic, and petting and feeding llamas?”

I think it’s true that over the course of an AmeriCorps service year, you will experience so many wonderful things that you’d never expect. I think back on my two terms of service and I am so grateful for all of the opportunities I have had. It reminds me of Dr. Seuss’ book “Oh! The Places You’ll Go!” 🙂

Free Summer Fun!

I’ve really enjoyed having a host site this year. Initially, I thought it would  serve as a disadvantage being away from Volunteer Maryland’s office and all of my co-workers but honestly I am really grateful for the experience. Not only have I learned how a volunteer center operates and had a chance to assist with projects but I’ve had the opportunity to meet some wonderful people. Additionally, there have been a lot of perks that come with having a host site . One of the perks is that I have become familiar with the Columbia Association.

The Volunteer Center Serving Howard County is housed inside the Columbia Association building and our office is located more specifically in the Community Services department. Camps, after-school programs, teen clubs and activities, and community events all fall under this jurisdiction.

Working in this office is how I initially learned about the Lakefront Lunchtime Concert Series. Every Wednesday during the summer from 12:00-2:00 PM, anyone is welcome to come enjoy free live musical entertainment. Guests are allowed to bring their own chairs, coolers, or blankets and make an afternoon of it! I personally have the benefit of just walking out my office door and turning left and I have perfect lawn seating and a spectacular view of the show and Lake Kittamaqundi.

For the majority of my service year I haven’t really taken lunch breaks with the exception of stressful days during which time I  walk over to the mall ( arguably another perk 🙂 ).Usually though,  I will eat when I’m on the road or I’ll bunker down at my desk and eat while I work. Sometimes when I’m in the middle of something I’d just rather work straight through than stop in the middle and take a break. With that being said, sometimes I really do just need to walk away from my work and get some fresh air. I think this will become  increasingly more tempting especially as the warmer weather approaches  and my need for some Vitamin D gets stronger.I’m looking forward to spending my Wednesday afternoon lunch breaks out on the grass listening to good music.

If you live in the Howard County area and are looking for free things to do this summer, you may also be interested in CA’s Lakefront Summer Festival. During the summer months and through September, CA will be showing movies for free on Friday evenings on the lakefront. There are some great movies in the lineup this season so be sure to check them out!

Running Towards the Finish

This Saturday, June 5, 2010 marks the end of a very exciting and meaningful experience for me. The girls that I coach through Howard County Girls on the Run will complete their season by running the Howard County Library 5K race.

They have worked so hard since March to build up the endurance and strength to participate in this event. We had our last practice two weeks ago and it was nice to see how our seven girls have bonded over the course of the season. They received cute pink Girls on the Run t-shirts to wear during the race and they spent the last 20 minutes or so of practice signing each other’s shirts.

We will be joined by the three other Howard County schools’ students who participate in Girls on the Run. Collectively, we should makeup about 50 of the race participants that day. With all of us displaying our Girls on the Run t-shirt, I am hoping the program will gain publicity as Howard County Girls on the Run is looking to broaden its reach by expanding to more Howard County schools.

I honestly consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to volunteer as an Assistant Coach with this amazing program. I have seen first hand how unique and special the program really is and how well the girls mature and grow throughout the season. I am looking forward to running with the girls on Saturday but know that I will be sad when it is all over. I guess that’s when you know you’ve had a fulfilling volunteer experience though, right?