My Favorite Things

In the Sound of Music, Maria has the Von Trapp family children sing a song about their favorite things to help ease their fears.  While blogging is not really the ideal medium to break into song, this weekend I found myself reflecting on my favorite things about my past two years with Volunteer Maryland, both to remember all the great times I have had, and to soothe my fears about what lies before me after my job ends on Tuesday.  I have grown so much, laughed so much, and in the process created some things that have affected people in a positive way during my time with Volunteer Maryland.  Because of these experiences, while I may not be entirely rid of my fears of the future, I do feel much more prepared.  So, without further ado, I give to you my list of Top Ten Favorite Things about my time with Volunteer Maryland (in no particular order):

10.  I will be eternally grateful for the chance to work with Citizenship Law Related Education Program and their Baltimore City Teen Court program.  I have volunteered there throughout this past year, and am re-inspired every time I go, by the teens, the volunteers, and the staff.

9. Having my car break down and the rallying support from VM members.

8.  Dance Break Fridays.  Since this is not widely known, I’ll explain—fellow VM blogger Laura brought this tradition with her from the Montgomery County Volunteer Center.  You know how on Fridays you can kind of hit a wall, where all you want is the weekend to start, but you still have five things to finish before you can leave?  Well, Dance Break Fridays (or DBF as we affectionately call it) is the perfect cure for this.  We pick a song, usually something like the Macarena or Cupid Shuffle, and all take five minutes to dance our hearts out.  It’s the perfect re-energizer, and embodies the spirit of balancing play with hard work that Volunteer Maryland carries off so well. 🙂

7. When I came to Pre-Service Training back at the beginning of my VMC year, the first person I met was Sandy Giangrande.  We had a great discussion about music, I having sang for most of my life in choirs and she having recently retired from teaching music.  It was such a wonderful introduction to the amazing friends I would meet through this experience, and I am still very happy to be able to call Sandy my friend.

6.  Building my training skills, both in creating and facilitating trainings.

5. Learning to embrace my affiliator side.

4. Learning how to film, edit, and publish videos.

3.  After researching, compiling, writing, editing, and re-editing, on Friday I was able to provide our VISTA members with training toolbooks to help them during their terms of VISTA service.  It was  extremely gratifying to see all the work I put into these Toolbooks finally be put to good use.

2.  Getting to travel all around the state of Maryland to witness and participate in the work that our AmeriCorps members do.  Some of my favorites were helping to serve lunch at Paul’s Place, teaching children about horseshoe crabs on Philip’s Wharf Environmental Center’s Fishmobile, and canoeing down Deer Creek at Eden Mill Nature Center.

1.  All the amazing people I have met, who are committed to something greater than themselves.  It is so inspiring to work with people who are passionate about their jobs, and who give their all every day to make small gains for change in their communities. 

So thanks VM, for the good times, challenges overcome, lessons learned, and true friends.



Throughout these past few months, all of us writing this blog have tried to give you a taste of what it’s like to be an AmeriCorps member with Volunteer Maryland. We’ve told you about our own perspectives, research, thoughts, and experiences with AmeriCorps members.  But one voice from our team has been missing… that of our fourth regional coordinator, Lori Hall.  She has been the RC for the “Superwomen,” a group of Volunteer Maryland Coordinators who work in nonprofits around Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Western Maryland.  I sat down with her last week to learn more about this group of amazing women, and learn about some of Lori’s favorite parts of this service year.

They chose to name themselves the Superwomen at the beginning of the year because they all just happened to be women, but Lori soon found out that “all of them really are super in their own ways,” both with the work they’ve accomplished at their sites and their own personal achievements.  They all came to Volunteer Maryland with a range of experiences, and count among their ranks a former Baltimore City firefighter, a physics major, and a certified yoga instructor.  They each were able to bring these unique experiences to their service year and leverage their efforts to make real change at their organizations.

Lori was particularly impressed with Margaret’s dedication to the students at Barclay Elementary School, where she has worked to pilot a reading program called StoryPals, recruiting and managing volunteers to read stories to students during the school day. 

Megan started off with a background in physics, a far cry from the work she was to do at Cylburn Arboretum.  But as the year went on, Megan flourished, and Lori was particularly impressed with her ability to find and make the most of resources to get things done at her site. 

Lori admired Carole’s ability to constantly find new things to learn and improve upon during her second year as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator at her site, Eden Mill Nature Center.  I was also blessed to be able to see the fruits of Carole’s labor when I attended the Regional Meeting that Lori held at Carole’s site.

Teara has been a leader both at Jewel House Inc., and in her community.  A former Baltimore City firefighter, Teara has been able to connect her Volunteer Maryland service to many points in the community, bringing in guest speakers for the youth she works with and also serving as a resource to other organizations around the city.

Nicole’s enthusiasm and dedication to her work with Jones Falls Watershed Association is contagious.  One cannot attend one of her tree plantings or trash cleanups without coming away with a fiery commitment to the preservation and restoration of urban environments.  Lori was particularly impressed with how Nicole is always prepared… she even keeps a shovel in her car 🙂

Lori was very proud of the amount of work Tiferet has done at Kayam Farm, an educational Jewish organic farm at Pearlstone Retreat Center.   Experienced in organic farming, but new to volunteer management, Tiferet was able to successfully manage some pretty huge groups of volunteers, and build up a dedicated corps of regular volunteers that have been a tremendous asset to Kayam.

Lori was most impressed with Nicky’s ability to smoothly coordinate and communicate with volunteers at four different locations with People’s Community Health Center.  Nicky’s independence and commitment to public health really make her stand out as a superwoman!

Grace is the go-to-gal at her site, A Step Forward.  Whenever Lori visits she is impressed with how well respected Grace is by volunteers, clients and coworkers, a respect she earns by being empathetic, caring, and unwilling to take any excuses.  She’ll work with anyone to help them get the job done for themselves!

What struck Lori most about Breanne was her ability to get things done.  Through her work at Volunteers for Medical Engineering (V-LINC), Breanne has used this extraordinary ability to complete a number of projects, including helping to coordinate volunteers for a video showcasing the impact that V-LINC projects have on people’s lives.

Lori doesn’t like to talk about herself a lot, and would much rather showcase the successes of those around her than discuss her own.  She has been an essential component of our Volunteer Maryland team, providing a calming and motivating force that really brings the group together and helps us reach our goals.  Seeing her interact with her region, you can tell that she genuinely respects and appreciates each and everyone, and the AmeriCorps members can feel that and give it right back to her.

Congratulations to all these Superwomen!

Beyond the wisdom of the flock

Last week I was having a discussion with my friend and fellow VM blogger Laura.  I mentioned how I had become quite disillusioned with using Twitter, because I felt like I was just hearing the same topics and discussions over and over again.  People, especially in the nonprofit sector, have been hot to tout Twitter as this wonderful tool for spreading your message and connecting with people, but the thing that I soon felt was that after listening and interacting for a while, it was very difficult for me to find any new ideas.  And if you are not creating new ideas, then the point of all this interaction becomes self-validation, which can foster not so great things like a false sense of effectiveness, complacency, and at worst, tunnel vision and a decrease in openness to new ideas .  Now, don’t get me wrong, validation that you are doing good work and that you are saying something people want to hear can be a good thing, but if you don’t actively seek out other opinions, then it is very easy to become stagnant.

A few days after this conversation, Laura sent me a talk by Ethan Zuckerman on called “Listening to Global Voices.”  This talk addressed exactly these concepts, albeit far more eloquently and statistically than I had been able to do. 

I highly recommend that you watch the talk (it’s about 20 minutes long).  The main point that Zuckerman tries to get across is that what happens on social networks is what happens in real life- “you interact with people that you’ve chosen to interact with.”  What this usually means, is that you end up talking with people who have similar interests, which usually means that they hold similar values, come from similar backgrounds, and probably look kind of like you too. Zuckerman calls this “gaining the wisdom of the flock,” and it’s a very easy pattern to fall into,  one that I’m sure everyone has noticed at some point.


Zuckerman points out that when the internet was first created, it was predicted to be a great equalizing force, giving everyone a chance to make their voices heard.  Instead, what has happened is much of the information in English is focused on the United States and a small part of Western Europe.  Basically, we as an internet audience focus on learning more and more about ourselves.  One statistic that particularly unnerved me was that in the 1970s, 35 percent of news broadcast in the United States addressed international topics.  In the 2000s, that number has shrunk to just 12 percent of news.  In our supposedly increasingly connected and global world, that number is shocking.

I don’t really understand why this is.  It seems like a lot of people (including myself) say that they want to reach across divides and connect with people who hold different values, without actually knowing the best way to do that effectively.  Zuckerman ends his talk by challenging people to figure out not just how to do this for themselves, but how to make the platforms that we use for information gathering more conducive to effective information sharing.  “It’s not enough to make a personal decision that you want a wider world.  We have to figure out how to re-wire the system that we have.”

So what are ways that we can do this?  I’d love to know your ideas 🙂

Is it that time already?

As of today there will be exactly 16 work days left of my year with Volunteer Maryland.  And I’m not the only one who feels like this year has gone by faster than Dash from “The Incredibles.”  

“Where did the time go?” is a common theme in my conversations these days, with my co-workers, my friends, and myself.  In terms of wrapping everything up for work, we all seem to be pretty much on track, but nailing down all the plans for after our years of service is a different story altogether.  Whether we’re trying to find a place to live, getting ready for a new job, or frantically searching for work, it seems like there’s just so little time left to get it together! 

And yet, there is plenty of time left.  So breathe 🙂

At this point, the looming deadline has instilled fear into our hearts, which can be quite motivating.  The important thing now is to work smarter, structuring time and actions wisely so we don’t spend a lot of time running around in circles and not actually doing anything.  So, what follows are some of my favorite tips (which I actually found from other tips lists), and resources for making your life easier in your quest to figure out your life after AmeriCorps (or whatever transition you may be making).

Scour the hidden job market:   I found this one from an article from  In the article, they say that, “in good times, only about 20% of available positions are ever advertised or posted. In a slower economy, even fewer jobs than that are publicly announced in any way, because employers don’t want to be inundated with resumes,” This means that you can’t rely on websites like,, or even to bring you all the information you need.  You need to take advantage of networking opportunities, personal contacts, and driving around the neighborhood looking for “for rent” signs in order to find the best fit for you.

The Connecticut Department of Labor has a really good article about making the most of the time you spend job hunting- the next four tips come from that article:

Keep track of everything and follow-up with leads immediately. Keep notes about the employers you contact, the dates you send your résumé, people you talk to, and notes about those contacts.  Once you find out about a position, apartment, or whatever, follow up with it right away.  If you wait, you could either lose your motivation or someone else will have snatched it up. 

Make a “to do” list every day.  One of the things I find is that even if I do this, it’s really hard to keep up the habit and I can get off track.  I find that making a list of goals for the week or the month is a better place to start.  Then taking those goals and working “backwards” each day to figure out how to make sure I get those things done on time makes it easier to accomplish them. 

Try the buddy system. Having a friend to get you through the times when you’re getting frustrated, fed up, or just plain down can make a world of difference.  Set up a regular time to meet about your progress, accomplishments, any leads, and to make sure that you are both staying on track. put out a book called Making a Difference.  This document has some pretty great resources about honing your job search information, and then it goes even further to give guidelines on how to negotiate nonprofit job salaries and benefits, and tips on how to save and manage debt.  One interesting fact they include is that “the average college graduate today is expected to change jobs 12 times and to change careers at least three times during his or her life.”  So all you job seekers are in quite good company!

The website EnCorps has an article on what you need to do in a successful job hunt.  It is a pretty comprehensive resource geared specifically towards AmeriCorps members.

AmeriCorps Alums is worth signing up for, especially because if you do, you can access a job search database that posts various nonprofit sector jobs. 

Above all, the most important thing to remember is, if you come to the end of your year and you still haven’t been able to do what you needed to do, don’t beat yourself up about it!  That will accomplish exactly nothing, and is more likely to set you back.  I’m currently taking an evening class on human development, where I learned about a study that was done with fifth grade students, which you can read about here.  In the study, they had the students complete puzzles of increasingly greater difficulty.  One half of the students, when they completed a puzzle, were told, “Wow, that’s great, you must be really smart at this!” and the other half were told, “Wow, that’s great, you must be a really hard worker!”  As the puzzles got harder and harder, the group that were told they were smart did worse and worse, because when things got more difficult they began to question if they really were smart or not.  In contrast, the “hard workers” did just that… worked hard until they solved the puzzles, and did drastically better. 

So as you are looking towards the end of your year of service, be the “hard workers.”  Keep at it, and you’re bound to see results 🙂

Fun Free Activities for Summer

So, I wrote a really awesome blog post that I left on my computer at work,  unable to access here at home over the long weekend.  Typical.

So here I give you my abridged version of links to fun free things to do around Maryland for the rest of the summer.  I hope that none of you are in the office, and if you are that you are having an awesome time!

Free Movies:  This blog post lists free movies from DC to the Eastern Shore.  If you wanted to watch free outdoor movies every night of the week, I’m pretty sure you could.  I am particularly looking forward to seeing The Princess Bride, which I could see three times outdoors if I so desired.

Free Concerts:  Lots of opportunities to tickle your eardrums without dropping a dime in the DC area, Baltimore area, and Eastern Shore.

Free Outdoor Activities:   This guide, written by the Baltimore City Paper, has a convenient key that lets you see what amenities the park has, and make your decision based on whether you want a skate park, swimming, or restrooms to be a part of your outdoor experience.

So here’s to lots of good, economical times for the rest of this summer, and enjoy your Independence Day 😉

So what’s it like to be a VMC?

As I have mentioned many times on this blog, I love visiting our members.  I eagerly anticipate the chance to get my butt out of my office chair and for a few hours take a peek at the daily challenges and rewards that create an AmeriCorps member’s experience.  Back in May I got the chance to visit Elizabeth Huber, Volunteer Maryland Coordinator with Community Preservation and Development Corporation.  CPDC is a nonprofit that owns and operates affordable housing communities in Maryland, Washington DC, and Virginia.  Her task for the year was to pilot a youth mentoring program at one of CPDC’s communities in Silver Spring, MD, called Park Montgomery.   At first, this involved a lot of indirect service–creating policies and procedures, researching mentoring models, and getting approval from lawyers to make sure every “i” was dotted and “t” was crossed.  But all that hard work and patience paid off, when Elizabeth was able to match her first mentor and mentee in April. 

“My proudest moment was the night that my first mentor and mentee met.  The mentor works for NASA, and the mentee loves science, and they sat and they discussed orbital navigation of satellites.  It was all way over my head, but it was awesome to watch this child and this adult just bond over such scientific things, to get to spend time together, and to finally see all of this paperwork I’ve been doing and the legwork to recruit… to finally see the actual fruits was unbelievably awesome.”

She now has 5 mentor-mentee matches, and is getting ready to start organizing mentoring programs at five of CPDC’s other communities next year. 

Having the chance to interview Elizabeth about her year was really gratifying for many reasons.  First was because it conjured up memories of my own Volunteer Maryland Coordinator experience, the challenges I faced, and the moments I felt like I had really accomplished something.  And second, because her passion and enthusiasm for the mentoring program and for the community it serves was contagious.  By the time I left I was wishing I lived closer to Silver Spring so I could sign up to be a mentor.

But, as Levar Burton would say in Reading Rainbow, “you don’t have to take my word for it!”  I’ll let Elizabeth, Director of Volunteer Membership Marcia Rose Fuoss, and the mentors and mentees tell you themselves 🙂

The CPDC Youth Mentoring Program is currently looking for caring adults interested in becoming mentors.  If you are interested, you can contact Elizabeth at , or check out their website at

Ways to Save a Life

This past weekend I took a crash course in life saving.  One of the requirements to attend nursing school is that you have to be CPR certified, so I signed up for a course at the Red Cross of Central Maryland, which is, coincidentally, a host site for one of our Volunteer Maryland Regional Coordinators, Lori Hall.  After about eight hours I learned just how much work it takes to save a life (you have to compress an adult’s chest as far as two inches to keep the heart beating.  Just put your own hand on your chest and try and imagine that… it’s no easy feat!).

This kind of life-saving can be taught.  I learned the techniques, the order of tasks, and what actions you must do at a certain speed and duration in order to have the best chance of helping that person survive.  However, during the class we also talked a lot about the things you can’t be taught when faced with an emergency situation.  How to take charge of a chaotic situation, how to assess a scene and determine who is in need of the most urgent care, how to tell if an area is safe, and if not, if you can make it safe.  These are skills that come with experience.  When it came to the nuts and bolts of performing CPR, I started from square one, but when it came to these “intangibles,” I already had a leg up because of my past experiences, including my work as an AmeriCorps member.

The work that we do in nonprofits has the potential to save lives every day.  While working with our AmeriCorps members, I have learned that by planting just one tree in your yard, you can prevent 300 gallons of pollutant-filled runoff water from entering the oceans every year.   I’ve witnessed the joy and confidence that a mentor can help bring out in a child.   I have participated in a citizens-on-patrol program created by AmeriCorps members that allowed people to walk safely in their neighborhoods at night.

This work is not always so obviously tied to life-saving…sometimes it’s writing the grant that allows the mentoring program to exist.  Sometimes it’s creating a draft of the policies and procedures for the volunteer program, recieving feedback, and writing three more drafts before it’s usable.  Sometimes it’s taking time to step back and recharge, by doing direct service or talking with peers about why you got into this job in the first place.  Because no matter which way you look at it, the business of saving lives is hard work.  Whether it’s the life of a human, animal, plant, or our whole planet, there isn’t any one size fits all fix.  It takes creativity, determination, and sometimes-like when you’ve become utterly exhausted doing 100 chest compressions per minute for 30 minutes and the paramedics still haven’t arrived-it takes pure guts just to keep on going.

But we do it, because we have the skills, knowledge, and desire to do so.   Now that I have this certification card, I have a duty to act in an emergency situation, because I now have the skills and knowledge, and I may be the only person at the scene who knows what to do.  Do you approach your duties as an AmeriCorps member with that same sense of urgency and responsibility?  Do you use your unique set of skills and knowledge to try, every day, to do what you can to ensure that someone can live a better life?  If so, good for you, and make sure you keep enough balance in your life to allow you to keep on going.  If not, think about one thing that you can do, today, to change that.

Today it is our responsibility to save lives…how will you do it?

Rolling on a River

Where I grew up, it was never a very far trip to find a body of water.  A pond lay close enough to our house that we could, if my brother and I practiced all summer long, spit watermelon seeds into it from our back deck.  The beach was about a two mile bike ride from our house, and I spent many summer camps and science classes learning what secrets the Connecticut River had to reveal.  After I moved to Baltimore, though the city certainly has no lack of watery stomping grounds, my relationship to the water just hasn’t been the same.  This is mostly due to a decrease in my efforts to get to the water, and also the fact that the Inner Harbor, the nearest body of water, is a functioning port, with tourists, factories, ships and, restaurants, rather than a quiet and isolated beach.

Therefore, I felt quite nostalgic this past Friday, as I was sitting in a canoe, letting the current push the boat along with only an occasional dip from my paddle to keep us on course.  Both Laura and Katelyn mentioned the importance of getting outside and enjoying the summer weather, and I am so grateful that my work with Volunteer Maryland affords me the opportunity to do that occasionally. 

Lori, one of the Regional Coordinators for Volunteer Maryland, organized a meeting for her region at Eden Mill Nature Center  in Pylesville, MD.  One of the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators in her region, Carole, has been working there for the past two years, organizing a phenomenal volunteer team that was publicly recognized this past year with a Governor’s Volunteer Service Award .   It was wonderful to see firsthand what an asset Carole has been to Eden Mill, and how much her work there has been appreciated. 

She and her supervisor Frank led us on our canoe tour down Deer Creek, pointing out edible and medicinal plants, signs of animal habitation, and teaching us the best way to call Barred owls.  It really brought me back to how important it is to learn about, engage with, and appreciate nature, as well as the responsibility we have to protect it.   Living in the city it’s been easy to disengage, to get my nature fix from weekly jogs around Baltimore City parks, and some occasional volunteering at tree plantings and park clean ups.  But this was a welcome reminder of how important it is to get out and appreciate nature working and thriving without constant human intervention.  And also how important it is to protect those environments for all who need them to survive, including us.

The Search for a Good Webinar

I am, as a rule, pretty skeptical of webinars that promise to teach me all about “social media best practices.”   My mind tends to want to find similarities in information rather than the differences, so all of these best practice suggestions quickly blend together in my brain, no matter how different they may be.   So when I hear about new webinars I immediately wonder, “Will they tell me something I don’t already know?”

Now, this is unfortunate, because the amount of things that I don’t know about social media could probably fill the Library of Congress.   I think I end up feeling this way because of the nature of webinars.    They are time limited, usually under an hour.   The presenters have to make sure they plan for participants with an unknown range of backgrounds and familiarity with the subject matter.   And the ones I attend are always free, so they are more often than not presenting introductory level information.

So when I find a free webinar that I learn something from, it makes me do a little happy dance in my office chair 🙂   Just such an occasion took place this past Tuesday, when I attended the webinar, “Social Media Video for Your Nonprofit” hosted by Artez Interactive and presented by Aaron Bramley, founder of  a cause-driven film festival called Lights. Camera. Help.   If you click on the link above you can access the recording and the powerpoint slides, and if you are delving into video making for your nonprofit, I highly recommend you check it out.

There were two especially useful things that I got from this webinar.  First, I learned about Tubemogul, a website that allows you to upload your video to one place and have it go on a number of video sites all at once.   I have not tried to use it yet, but it seems like a very helpful tool, especially if you want to see where people are watching your videos, and decide where to focus your efforts.

The other useful tip was about lighting.    Having never taken a visual media class in my life, I had operated under the assumption that this aspect of filming was either up to the heavens (when outside), or just needed some strategic positioning on my part to make sure no windows end up behind the people I’m filming.   Aaron talked about some simple ways to adjust the lighting in a shot, without spending tons of money.    I also learned about the 3 point lighting system, where you place two lights on either side of your subject in front, and a third light in back.    If you are going to be filming a lot of interviews, then this set up will make them look much more attractive and professional.

There are many options for creating videos for your nonprofit.   We here at Volunteer Maryland use a Kodak Zi8 camcorder, which I like because you can attach a microphone to it and get better quality audio.    Flip offers a program where charitable organizations can get approved to receive discounts on their camcorders.    Another way to do it is to connect with a local college or university film class, and have students be the photographers.   Breanne, one of our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators at Volunteers for Medical Engineering worked with students at Stevenson University to create a video for their organization.

So, if you have been thinking about making movies for your nonprofit, get out there and start filming!

One more for the toolbox

So, after writing about sustainability in my blog post last week, I couldn’t avoid it any longer…I needed to get my butt in gear and ensure the sustainability of my own work!   Documenting the work I have done for the trainings I’ve created has been pretty straightforward and consistant throughout my year- I’ve saved copies of all the resources I’ve used,  feedback I have recieved, plus I have the documents themselves.   When it comes to the videos  though,  I must admit that I have placed a slightly higher priority on learning how to do everything than on documenting the processes.

The thing with multi-media projects like videos is that they don’t lend themselves particularly well to timelines or binders full of step-by-step instructions.   Luckily, I was able to find a great tool called Jing to capture images and videos of what I am doing onscreen, and then use those screen captures to develop tutorials.

With Jing, you can capture still images and videos of actions you perform onscreen, both with or without sound.   This makes it perfect for augmenting a presentation or training that you intend to give in person, or for creating a stand-alone tutorial that people can view online.

It is incredibly straightforward to use.  A quick download, and then the tool appears right at the top of your computer screen, whether you are online or not, available for you to capture images or videos of anything on your screen.

Jing has really helped me to quickly and efficiently explain a lot of steps in a relatively short time.  The videos are limited to five minutes each, at least on the free version (there is a pro version that they offer as well, but its not necessary for my needs).  And by capturing images of exactly what I’m doing onscreen, I can get right to the point without wasting  a lot of words.

The one thing that puts a kink in it’s workability is that the videos are captured as .SWF files.   As far as I can tell, this means that you can only view them online, or with a flash player (I’m not too savvy on the details, so if someone knows if you can view them offline, and that this is rather easy, please feel free to speak up and let me know :P)  If you don’t have internet access where you want to show the video, which is the case in which I find myself, then it throws a wrench in your plans.  However, you can show still images on or offline, which is still incredibly useful, especially if you only need to make a training that you can explain in person.

So, happy Memorial Day, and good luck making your work have a lasting impact!