Be Well, Do Good Work, and Keep in Touch.

Today is my final day of work with Volunteer Maryland.  It’s funny to think about how I’ve been anticipating this day.  At various points it’s seemed impossibly far away, impossibly soon, and just plain impossible (this job is going to end? That’s crazy talk!).  Now that it’s here though, it of course feels like any other day.  As much as it feels like a normal day, I know that next week change will be here.

I have mentioned a few times that I have had the privilege of working with Camp Fire USA as a host site, and I’m happy to say that I will be reporting to the same office come Monday morning as a program manager.  Suffice it to say, I would not have come across- or been qualified for- this position without Volunteer Maryland. I will be running an after school club at Takoma Park Middle School, which will be a combination of public speaking, meeting facilitation and service project planning. All three of those are things that I was literally incapable of two years ago and which I’ve been able to fumble through with the patience of the staff at Renewing Life Family Center, Inc. and Volunteer Maryland. After two years of providing indirect service and studying best practices, it’s going to be a radical change to get up in front of teens and actually provide programming. I have participated in training about meeting facilitation and have even created and presented a webinar on it, and I’m both eager and nervous to put those theories I’ve studied into practice.

Then on Tuesday classes start, which is exciting and terrifying in its own way.  Two years ago, I was in a complete rut and had no idea how to combine my passions into a career path.  During this past year though, I’ve decided that studying dietetics and public health is a great way to bring together many interests of mine.  Whether I wind up at an organization finding ways to affordably and adequately feed vulnerable populations, at a community garden with an outreach program or advocating for bringing local produce to food deserts, I have no doubt that I can bring an expertise in dietetics to the nonprofit world in a fulfilling way.

Besides having found some sort of direction, even the logistics of going to school full-time for the foreseeable future would not have been logistically possible without my VISTA experience, either.  Our program manager Maureen was able to get me in touch with Camp Fire USA, where I can work part-time in a meaningful way.  The education award will help defray the costs of school over the next several years, and my experience with living on a stipend has given me the ability to thrive even with limited income. All in all, I feel like I’m in a very good place moving forward.

To each and every person I’ve met over the past two years: thank you.  I have confidence and networks both personally and professionally that I would have never thought possible, and I see this as only the beginning of great things. In the succinct words of Garrison Keillor: be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

Nothing Endures But Change

You know how sometimes when a big change is coming you understand it academically and logistically, but you don’t really “get it”?  I have exactly one week (well, okay, one week plus about 8 hours) left with Volunteer Maryland and it’s just now hitting home.

I started writing this last night while sitting on the floor of my largely vacated apartment.  This month is full of transitions: VISTA members graduating while others settle in, my VISTA leader year ending, classes starting, beginning a new position at Camp Fire USA and moving into a new apartment. It’s sitting in that nearly-empty apartment by myself packing up the last few things that made everything a reality, though. I moved in a couple of weeks before beginning my VISTA Leader year and now I’ve been moving out as my term comes to a close. The connectedness between the two is undeniable; as I’ve been sorting through the last few things Volunteer Maryland stuff is omnipresent. My VM polo shirt under the bed (oops), name badges from conferences strewn about the closet, binders from VISTA Pre-Service Orientation, VMC Pre-Service Training and VISTA Leader Training on my teeny tiny bookshelf that can’t hold my books. And let me tell you, there are lapel pins everywhere.  Sorting it all into boxes was a very strange physical reminder that yes, this is really ending. And soon.

I recently created my final VM VISTA webinar about transitioning into the VISTA role at a sponsor site, and mentioned that culture shock is a normal and real part of the process. Culture shock is generally described as having four steps:

  1. Excitement- The “honeymoon” phase where the new situation or place is seen as wonderful and almost romantic.
  2. Withdrawal or Negotiation– where anxiety and doubt kick in. Anger, sadness, mood swings and self-doubt or doubt in the new situation or place is common.
  3. Adjustment– things begin to feel normal again and one begins focusing again on their own basic daily lives. Things are still a bit new and different but it’s manageable.
  4. Enthusiasm or Mastery– where one enjoys and functions well in their new culture

I believe that these stages apply well to any transition, not just moving from one locale to another.  I am trying to stress to our members that it’s okay to be experiencing culture shock or transition shock and that it’s normal and that just recognizing it can be a huge help. Ironically enough though, it wasn’t until last night that I realized I myself am in stage two in a big bad way. Just like when I was too busy making sure our members had “Life After AmeriCorps” plans to be working on my own, I had sudden realization that I wasn’t taking my own advice.

Anxiety? Yup. Sadness? Yup. Mood swings? Let’s just say that my friends are amazing for listening to me blubber and that the thin line between laughing and crying doesn’t currently exist.I do inf act take solace in the fact that it’s a process caused by a series of situations, though. And that it’s not just me.

America in Miniature

Volunteer Maryland is clearly a powerhouse for volunteering. Our members are devoted to national service, our VMCs work exclusively to expand volunteerism at their sites, and our even our VISTA sponsor sites rely on volunteers to get critical work done. Whether an organization has a formal volunteer program or staff members rely on their personal networks (who hasn’t been extra nice to that friend with IT skills?), it would be difficult to deny that volunteering in its many forms is absolutely critical to helping organizations across the board provide services. This I’ve understood for a very long time.

But Volunteer Maryland is also about something else: Maryland. And that’s the part that’s just been hitting home for me recently. In terms of personal philosophy, I have over the past two years seen the power of working comprehensively within a local region versus working on a niche issue on a national or global level. For organizations we work with, that can translate into providing hot food, job training, clothes and other goods to one neighborhood as Paul’s Place does in Pigtown or providing extremely comprehensive nutritional services and meals to the medically vulnerable by focusing on Baltimore and the Eastern Shore, like Moveable Feast. For Volunteer Maryland as a whole, it means working with dozens of organizations each year within this one state, which has led to an unbelievable collective networking ability and experience of what works in this region.

Beyond feeling like I’ve gotten to know an incredible amount about the nonprofit sector in this state, I’m also fascinated by the topography of Maryland and its unique blend of urban and rural areas between the shore and Appalachia. On Wednesday I had the pleasure of meeting with Sarah, who is wrapping up her VISTA year at The American Red Cross of the Delmarva Peninsula in Elkton, MD. While I was there she thanked me for driving all the way up there (it’s not that far, but that’s just how nice Sarah is), and seemed genuinely shocked when I said that I love the drive. In fact, I am apparently the first person she has ever heard say that about the area. I couldn’t imagine why! Just in the hour between Baltimore and Elkton I got to go through a tunnel under the Patapsco river, see tons of huge ships and heavy-duty equipment just North of Baltimore, and cross what I believe was the Susquehanna river to find impossibly flat land on the other side.

On the way back, I (accidentally) took a different route and wound up on a major road completely surrounded by marsh. I don’t know that I’ve ever unexpectedly stumbled upon vast marshland before, and it’s a pretty neat little experience. During a time when I’m already consumed with reflection, it served as a reminder of how excited I’ve been on so many drives over the past months. It’s been incredible to see beaches, mountains, suburbs, fertile land and concrete cities and to meet the people who shaped- and have been shaped by- them.

I suppose that’s just another one of the unexpected benefits of this position. I doubt that anyone’s been recruited as a VISTA Leader by being told “so at various points in the year you can drive over and through an assortment of bridges and tunnels and view a wide array of terrains while rocking out to that classical music of yours. It’s like a really short road trip with an office at either end!”, but maybe it’s worth a shot the next time around.

Hello, Goodbye

In the past week we have seen 16 VISTA members successfully exit our program while 16 more began, graduated class 22 of Volunteer Maryland Coordinators, and said farewell to 5 amazing support team members. In addition, at my host site we had a council fire to celebrate the centennial year of Camp Fire and ended our summer camps. Lastly, I had the chance to head to Camp F.E.V.E.R with our program manager Linda to speak to several astoundingly smart and interested kids and teens about vegetarianism and veganism. It has been, as the kids say these days, epic. With so much having happened over the past week I don’t even know how to begin to try to focus this post on one topic.

To avoid too many tears on the keyboard, I’m going to hope that I’ve done a decent job of telling each individual how important they’ve been to me over the past year. Comparing myself now to the Lauren of last September, I’m more comfortable with groups of people, I’m more confident in sharing ideas and knowledge, I’m more proactive, and after being here less than two years I have more of a bond to Maryland than I have to any other state in which I’ve lived. I’ve gone from reading about the hard work of those in the nonprofit sector and the perils of under-served populations to having actually experienced some of the great things that go on and seen why it’s so important. VMCs, VISTAs and Support Team Members alike, you have on countless occasions saved me from failure without knowing it, and helped me move on when I’ve failed anyway. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people with whom to navigate this year of unknowns.

Moving forward, I am so excited for our new class of VISTA members who I got to meet last Friday! Even having high hopes going in, they completely blew me out of the water with their passion, drive, intelligence and experience. Knowing how much the service year has impacted myself and others and seeing where these guys and gals are all starting- watch out, world! Knowing the passion each site supervisor has for their organization and project and having spent even a short time with the individuals who will be taking these projects on, I have no doubt that good things are going to happen over the next twelve months.

I am finishing my own service year, and want to make sure that I can help these amazing people get off to a good start. The beginning of any service year is a bit of an overwhelming time, where you need to balance idealism and energy with getting to know your site and you start figuring out how to complete full projects in the time it takes most people to acclimate to a workplace. In addition to making calls to see how everyone is settling in, I’m working on a webinar that will be something of an introduction to nonprofits. I remember hearing lots of new terms thrown around and spending a good bit of time in my first few weeks Googling around to see what exactly a board of directors does or what makes and executive director different from a CEO.

To anyone in the nonprofit or national service field: do you remember your burning questions early on? Is there anything you wish someone had explained a couple of weeks in? I want to make sure I don’t make too many assumptions based on my own personal experiences.

New Beginnings

Today marks a huge transition for Volunteer Maryland’s VISTA program, and for my roles as a VISTA Leader.  Today is the last day of service for 16 of our VM VISTA members! Thank you Ali, Andrea, Christina, Erica, Hanna, Hattie, Janice, Jennifer, Jonathan , Keila, Kit, Rachel, Rebecca, Renee, Sarah and Tim! The accomplishments you have achieved over the past twelve months are truly staggering and I am proud to have played even a small role in this class. Thank you for being patient as I flubbed my way through our first webinar, rambled on at trainings, and likely gave a few less-than-helpful answers to questions you have had (and followed up 10 minutes later with conflicting information after asking someone who was more familiar with the topic at hand). Thank you also for gracefully handling nervous phone calls and member visits, as I slowly became comfortable with providing support as a leader.

Thank you most of all for working through a tough year in order to provide critical structure to organizations which are bettering our state.  It would be a major accomplishment for anyone to take over a marketing campaign, write complete bilingual curricula, write winning grants, or start a mentoring program from scratch. You have been able to do these things (and countless others!) in only one short year. on top of that, you’ve been at new organizations and have created materials and/or trained staff to ensure your project can live on. The dedication and passion you have shown is truly moving and I have absolutely no doubt that you will continue to achieve great things in future careers. I can’t wait to hear word of alumni news, make sure you keep in touch!

On the other end of the spectrum, today is also the first day I will meet 16 brand new Volunteer Maryland VISTA members! After spending three days in Philadelphia for Pre-Service Orientation, they will spend one day with us so we can all meet each other, explain Volunteer Maryland’s role in their service year, and send them on their way! On Monday, they will begin working at their host sites and really get a feel for what this year will bring. I very clearly remember my own Pre-Service Orientation two years ago, and how excited and motivated and downright petrified the experience left me. After spending time with hundreds of like-minded people who had the same anxieties and the same idealism as myself, and after spending three days without a single person asking why on Earth I would ever want to join AmeriCorps VISTA, it was scary to think that the big comfortable training was over and we were being left to actually attempt what we’d been discussing.

The very beginning of a service year is full of energy- you have your goals on paper but don’t yet know your organization well, may not have seen your desk, and don’t have solid plans on how to begin. Many members have moved from out of state, so on top of that there are the anxieties and excitement of discovering a new area. It’s a chance for complete renewal both personally and professionally. Suffice it to say, I think these 16 individuals will have a lot on their minds and I’m looking forward to being around that excitement. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here at the beginning of their year of service and to have already had a bit of experience, so hopefully I can help them start their year well.

Leaving Behind a Legacy of Experience

In case you’ve not noticed from the last several blog posts, most of us here at Volunteer Maryland are ending our service years between a week and a month for now. Truly crazy to think about. I’ve been spending a lot of time recently realizing that I only now (kind of) know how to do my job well, and that’s been echoed by my members as they’re reflecting upon the past year. It’s a truly unique feeling to take on a task for only one year, especially coming into it with little to no experience in the field. I’ve been thinking about how overwhelmed I was in my first few months and how much time it took to feel like I was doing anything beyond keeping my head above water- and the fact that our next VISTA Leader may go through the same thing. If only I could somehow magically take what I’ve figured out this year and impart it upon them!
The good news is that Volunteer Maryland, VISTA and AmeriCorps are all organizations with an astounding collective history. I’ve been lucky to be able to draw upon resources and experience from all three sources over the past two years, but even that took a good deal of time to figure out. I’m  not sure how many times I’ve delved into a project or worked on a document only to find out months later that there were great examples to model after. In some ways, this is just the nature of how we work. Most of the things we ‘discover’ in our lives have already been ‘discovered’ by countless other people across the globe. For work that’s so important and needs to be done in such a short time, though, I feel like it’s worth looking into how to reduce this for AmeriCorps members.
On great resource for VISTA members is http://www.vistacampus.org, which has recently been revamped and should prove much more useful. There’s a wealth of information ranging from time management to living on a very limited budget, which seem to be universal challenges for members.  For more specific task-specific trainings, it links to The Resource Center which breaks down a plethora of resources in the categories of Service Activities; Volunteer, Member and Staff Management; Program, Financial and Grant Management plus resourecs specific to each branch of National Service.
The most useful interactions though are always conversations with knowedgeable and passionate people. As useful as written documents and resources are, there’s nothing like a person to bounce ideas off of, especially if that person has some kind of expertise. This is the beauty behind OPEN SPACE TECHNOLOGY and I think it’s the vein through which we can best connect future AmeriCorps members. Thankfully, the great folks running VISTA campus agree and have put together a new section of Connecting with Other VISTAS. Here members can use message boards to contact others who are working on similar projects and see a map of where other members are so they can work together “in real life”. Exciting!
This is also where Volunteer Maryland does a great job- We have dozens of members across the state, a support team consisting of people who have served in various capacities, and awesome trainings where everyone can interact and network to their heart’s content. Most of the time when someone has a question or a challenge there’s someone else in the network who has an answer, or at least a horror story of what not to do. The best practices for the simple things are often the same, and it’s good to know that there are other people who have designed a template for an e-newsletter or created a database or put other systems in place that can just be modified if you only know who to ask. I would love to see this on a grander scale, though. Especially since so many members across the country don’t have such an easily accessible powerhouse of experience.
I realize that there is no way to eliminate the unique challenges that come with an AmeriCorps year of service, but I’m truly glad that there are people working to make sure that each year is productive as possible and I’m looking forward to seeing what new ways we come up with for people to connect in the future.

As of today, the vast majority of our Volunteer Maryland VISTA members have one short week of service left. All VISTAs begin their terms with a Pre-Service Orientation (PSO) which is run by the Corporation for National and Community Service. For three days, you get to meet hundreds of soon-to-be VISTAs across the country, learn more about the commitment you’ve made and partake in frank discussions about poverty, the difficulties of integrating into a new community and the perceptions and biases that we all carry with us.

After Pre-Service Orientation, Volunteer Maryland hosts its own orientation, where we can meet all of our members and they can begin to learn the network on which they can depend over the next year. I was lucky enough to attend the orientation last July even though I hadn’t yet officially started this position and… wow. I’m having really mixed feelings about the fact that that was a year ago. In some ways I feel like I should be saying that they year felt short, but in all honesty that day seems like an eternity ago.

If truth be told, it was a most intimidating experience. Here were over a dozen men and women who already knew each other from the PSO in Philadelphia and who had this amazing ability to chatter comfortably while Volunteer Maryland staff looked on and realized that the ice breaker may be primarily for our own benefit. After a couple of hours, I had learned that we were dealing with some well qualified, super intelligent and genuinely interesting people. Stories came up about serving in the Peace Corps, biking across the country, taking on huge leadership roles in college and hula-hooping with fire. The sense of commitment was strong as well- many of our members uprooted themselves to work on their project, and a couple didn’t even have housing yet! I distinctly remember looking around this room and thinking “Wow, these guys are cool. And committed. And talented. How am I supposed to support them?”

Nearly a year later, I must say that I was right about the talent and commitment-the number of dollars brought in, programs built, databases created and materials created are absolutely mind-boggling. On top of that, members have been spending endless hours creating program manuals and doing everything in their power to make sure that the knowledge they’ve gained over this past year will stay with the organization and the programs created are sustainable. Right now would be an easy time to coast, but instead over and over again I hear that the goal is to pass everything on and make sure their work is in good hands And let’s face it, each and every one of them is very, very cool. Running the gamut from how to support local small businesses and agriculture to the superiority of Maryland corn and from philosophy to thrift stores, I have had absolutely delightful and passionate conversations over this past year that I can’t imagine coming from any of my other social networks.

We held a potluck-style Summer Celebration on Wednesday where our members received small tokens of our appreciation and hearty congratulations on a job indescribably well done. I honestly can’t believe that it’s the last time I’ll see that group, and likely the last time I’ll see some of the individuals who comprise it.

To each and every one of our members: thank you. Thank you for the work you’ve done for your organizations, for the passion you bring to this world, for helping Volunteer Maryland show the great work that can be done in a year and for letting me be a small part of the crazy ride. I truly both humbled and honored.

Summer Celebration

Attempts to Create Calm Within the Storm

I’ve mentioned before that I have the pleasure of having Camp Fire USA Patuxent Area Council as a host site. I devote a small percentage of my work week to their programs, and in exchange they let me use their office space and equipment. Moving over to Camp Fire was a bit of a shock to the system a few months ago, what with being crowded out in my office by art supplies and overhearing the occasional guitar lesson outside my door. The past few weeks have been even crazier though because, much like at The Maryland Umbrella Group, summer time means one thing: camp! Mind you, I’m by no means camp staff but we’re in tight quarters so I still see most of what’s going on.

Just this past week, I’ve seen a fire truck (although I stayed inside while the kids got to go through it), witnessed a pizza party with fight fighter and policemen guests and rather young servers, learned how rain sticks are made, heard interesting new slang after a field trip to pirate boats, and saw definitely that children will happily munch on fruit without even complaining so long as you don’t offer junk food as an alternative. Thirsty? Drink some water. Hungry? Have an apple. If only it were that easy with adults 🙂

I’ve also gained an entirely new understanding of my surroundings- it’s amazing how our understanding of our environment changes based on the situations we’re in. I know where the closest convenience, grocery, and discounts stores are and how to determine whether time or cost is more important in a given situation. Most importantly, perhaps, I’ve discovered the outdoor stairwell where there is shade, cell phone reception and quiet! That’s right, folks. It’s a good thing I love being outside ’cause that’s where you’ll find me if the person on the other end of the line doesn’t want to go deaf.

Next week everyone is going to be off at sleepaway camp and I look forward to the breather and chance to recollect myself a bit. I’ll also need to try to be proactive about when everyone comes back. Maybe­ some headphones? I can definitely use some advice on if anyone else has experience with needing to create their own sanctuary within a bit of chaos.

For now though, off to work; If I get enough done, I plan to re-engage during my lunch break. After all, who in their right mind would miss a noontime showing of Where the Wild Things Are?

When Worlds Collide

Generally speaking, I try my best to separate my personal and professional lives. Sure, I often volunteer on weekends and most of my friends have heard me yammer incessantly about Volunteer Maryland, VISTA, and all sorts of great projects going on in our area. The other way around though, not so much. It can be frustrating, but I think I do a good job of leaving my opinions and passions outside of the nonprofit world at home.

There is one major exception, though: I’m vegan. Have been for a couple of years and it’s one of those things that people figure out pretty quickly even if you don’t talk about it all the time. Between declining most meeting food and bringing strange things to potlucks (raw deviled eggz, anyone?), it’s kind of known. Add to that the fact that our VISTA program manager Linda is also vegan and we tend to geek out over recipes and, well, our passion for plants is fairly well known.

I have just had a rare chance for my love of service and plant-based foods to come together, thanks to Katelyn Ryan. She has been working diligently to recruit volunteer presenters for the F.E.V.E.R summer camp at St. Margarets which is being run by the The Maryland Umbrella Group. This camp focuses on Fitness, Environment, Volunteerism, Education and Responsibility. Katelyn thought that Linda and I would be a good fit for a 45 minutes presentation, so we’re going to be talking to the kids on August 4.

I am terribly excited, but also trying to think of ideas of how to present the ideas to the campers. There will be 25 youth ranging from five to twelve years old, and I’m trying to think of a way to engage such a wide age range. I know that I want food, some type of interaction, and a way to look at vegetarianism and veganism as two of many options to eat healthily. That’s where it gets hazy, though. Maybe a cooking demo? Maybe a snack that the kids can make themselves? Is there a way to fit that into 45 minutes?

I don’t have much experience working with kids, so I’m honestly a bit overwhelmed and am looking for suggestions of all types. I am, however, very excited and will definitely let you know how it goes!

Finding Folks to Get Things Done

Our Volunteer Maryland Coordinator and VISTA programs have both been recruiting members as of late.  While each program is on a different timeline and place different responsibilities on both Volunteer Maryland and our partner sites, the mail goal is the same.  We have these projects at great nonprofits which have the potential to be meaningful and rewarding to the site, member and the community.  Our host site supervisors are working on training and orientation as well as how to integrate the member in with staff and what exactly they hope to achieve throughout the duration of the project. Volunteer Maryland is working on how to provide the best support to everyone involved throughout the year, and we’re all getting geared a one-year commitment to create sustainable programs and practices.  All in all, we’re asking a lot of those who will be joining us.  Their goal is to come in, create change, and effectively work themselves out of a job so their projects live on all in a year.  After extensive planning and negotiations on the part of Volunteer Maryland and our host sites, there’s one last monumental task.  We need to recruit someone up for the challenge.

Unlike many positions, we’re can’t effectively recruit based on pay or even long-term job security.  We need to find people adventurous enough to make some short-term sacrifices.  The benefits are plentiful; it’s hard to think of any other scenario where someone brand new to an organization can take on such a level of responsibility and create such an impact in a year.  The experiences, connections, learning opportunities and sheer ability to fully support a mission-based organization are, to me, absolutely invaluable.  Working with nonprofits and individuals so committed to bettering the world around them has quite literally changed my views on society as well as my future career path.  It’s a difficult decision to make though, and it’s not without unique stressors. So how do we find folks who will be devoted to each project and take it as an opportunity to expand their own professional development?

I think the only answer that rings true for each and every one of our projects is that you must recruit based on mission.  We’re not here for the pay check; we’re here because there’s a job that needs to get done and we want to be in the position to do it.  That’s an incredible thing, but can be a tough message to get out to people who may not be already looking into serving with AmeriCorps or working for a nonprofit organization.  Thankfully, though,  thousands or organizations have been recruiting AmeriCorps members for many years and there’s an expansive collective knowledge.

In my recent research, I’ve found this manual to be very helpful- it shows great samples of press releases and public service anouncements which makes the whole process seem much less intimidating. Encorps also has a great section on member recruitment which steps you from creating the plan through recruiting and interviewing and on to preparing for the member’s first day.  There are also plenty of career fairs, college employment offices and online volunteer recruitment and employment listing sites which can be of use.  And as much as we put time and effort into bringing new people to our organization, it’s often effective to use current networks.  Star volunteers may jump at the opportunity to be able to give back full-time, or your best friend looking for a career change might be a good candidate.

If you’ve successfully recruited AmeriCorps members and have any tips or are looking to recruit and have any questions, definitely let me know!