National Service in My Life

National Service has been a guiding light for me in my life, something that has always led me in the right direction when I’ve found myself too far off the beaten path. In addition to being a second year AmeriCorps member, I am also a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Mali ’02-’04). We are celebrating AmeriCorps Week this week–a very important time for us at Volunteer Maryland–and last week was Peace Corps Week. It’s important to have this time devoted to National Service in order to spotlight the people devoted to National Service. For me personally, the experience has been profound and those people have made all the difference.

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Riding a camel in the Sahara just outside Timbuktu!

Peace Corps was the experience of a lifetime, as I was a 22 year old, barely out of college and placed wide-eyed in an extremely rural village as a Natural Resource Management Volunteer. Virtually every step was a challenge (as the line went, “the toughest job you’ll ever love”): completely different climate, completely different diet, completely different language, completely different culture altogether. I eventually found my footing and adapted to these things, but in a lot of ways, the most life-changing element was the Volunteers I served with. They were a group of idealistic people, up to the task but with an extreme willingness to be vulnerable that I didn’t always understand but was drawn to nevertheless.

For the next decade following Peace Corps, it became obvious to me how spoiled I had been to be surrounded by such remarkable people. When I wanted to recenter my life, I started looking at the things in Peace Corps that had made me happy: the people, the camaraderie, the constant challenge. Naturally, I looked at AmeriCorps, a program I was well aware of largely due to Volunteers who had participated either before or after Peace Corps service. Before I knew it, I was living quite a ways from home (Michigan) in Baltimore, Md, and was surrounded by people cut from the same cloth as those who inspired me so much in Mali. My VISTA year with Strong City Baltimore (July 2015-July 2016) was an excellent way to get me onto a better path, mind, body, and soul: I helped coordinate various middle school robotics programs for Baltimore City Schools with the JHU Center for Educational Outreach.

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Proud Strong City VISTAs at the JHU CEO!
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Visiting VM’s Habitat for Humanity Wicomico Co site!

This time, I wasn’t one of the young ones, I was one of the “old” ones. And that opened new doors to me as well. I loved watching and helping people fifteen years younger than me press through and do great things, and the taste of mentoring I got inspired me to spend a second AmeriCorps year as a Peer Leader at Volunteer Maryland, where it is now my role to give Volunteer Maryland Coordinators support of all types to help them through their service year. They inspire me constantly to reach down deep for my better nature, and they give me avenues to use my powers–meager though they are–for good.

For me, National Service has always been my North Star, the compass point that leads me to a meaningful life when I can’t find any other way to get there. Whatever National Service means to you, take this week to reflect upon it, and share in the community that we’ve all created with our service.

Coping with the Shifting Seasons

 During my AmeriCorps VISTA year, I served as the Robotics Coordinator at the JHU Center for Educational outreach.  My project incorporated a wide array of activities that were often connected only by their association with competitive robotics, so the character of my service at any moment in the year was directly tied to the progress of the VEX Robotics season for Baltimore City Public Schools.  My first two months were dominated by undergraduate recruitment for a mentoring program where college students would work with middle school robotics teams during the season.  Then the season started, and my responsibilities began to spread out more:  helping plan and support event recruitment, training and managing mentors, running the VEX program at a local community center, and helping with a lot of behind the scenes event logistics.  The season was a busy time that ran from late October to late February.  Once the season was over, everything shifted once again:  now I was creating and revising sustainable plans based on what I had learned already, and formally evaluating the mentor program with input from children, coaches, and mentors.  Additionally, I was reworking the City Schools robotics website, and helping to optimize the storage space for robotics gear.

The toughest times of the year are when you are trying to contact people who are nonresponsive, and it’s impossible to get anything done without hearing from them.  Recruitment and evaluation can both cause this sort of bottleneck, as can ideas that need someone’s approval.  If your year is built around heightened activity for a stretch here and there—like my VEX season–other times can feel like the doldrums.  So what can you do when things get slow?

  • This is a great time to evaluate. If you have two or three months where you won’t need your volunteers, set up interviews or focus groups to get feedback.  It shows you are interested, keeps them in contact and invested in your site, and gives you valuable information.  It’s not a bad idea to look for ways to tie this into recognition, as well.
  • Sustainability plans: this is a time that you can consider how your volunteer program can carry on without you.  Does the program need room to expand?  If you chart the course, can certain volunteers or staff assume the torch with significantly less investment of time and energy than you are putting in?  What have you tried that never needs to be attempted again?  What has worked well, and what has promise despite lukewarm results?
  • Get to know your team and their projects, and especially projects they wish they could implement. Sometimes, you can find new areas of expansion for volunteer programs this way, and gain new sources of support in the office.  The sustainability of your volunteer program is much more robust if many people around the office see the value to projects important to them.
  • Arrange a supplemental training day for your volunteers. If you got a lot of feedback about certain issues, there may be interest in an offseason training session.  Similar to evaluation tactics, this offers volunteers a chance to make a bigger investment in their work and keeps them connected to you and the site.
  • Recruitment! Offseason recruitment is not always easy because volunteers don’t like to be committed as early as you want to have them signed up.  However, you can lay the groundwork by advertising a future recruitment event.  It’s also a good time to network to try to find new sources of volunteers that you can reach out to in the future.

If you have any other thoughts on how to push through the slow periods of volunteer coordination and to maintain productivity and motivation, please share them!