The Service Cycle Begins Again!

I can hardly believe it’s the last day of August.  It’s been a fast-moving couple of weeks.  We’ve closed out Volunteer Maryland Coordinator Class 22, kept in touch with the new VISTA members as they’ve begun to acclimate to their new assignments and offices, and we’re been preparing like crazy for Class 23.  Class 23!!

The summer, as always, is filled with anticipation.  Our Outreach Manager, Patrice, spends her summer recruiting, screening, interviewing, and matching new AmeriCorps members with nonprofit organizations throughout Maryland – our Service Sites.  Now, with just two weeks until we begin Pre-Service Training, we know we’re in the final stretch.  Most of our positions are filled and we’re hankering to get started.  One of the best parts of getting started happens tomorrow when we’re joined by three new members.

Two of the members, Corrine and Megan, were VM Coordinators this past year.  They’re now joining us as Regional Coordinators.  A brand new face is also joining the VM team tomorrow; Maggie has relocated from Indiana in order to serve as our newest VISTA Leader.  I’ve spoken with Maggie on the phone and can’t wait to meet her in person.

There we go: the service cycle starts again.  Who knows what this year will bring?  We know we have some pretty amazing AmeriCorps members who are about to embark on a year of intense service.  We know volunteer programs will be built and improved at organizations that serve children, the environment, families suffering from homelessness, and more.  We know that at least 5,000 community members will volunteer with our programs to meet these needs.  We know lives will be changed forever.  (I know mine will.  I have never met an AmeriCorps member who doesn’t make me want to do more, to do better, to work harder.)

So tomorrow we’ll jump in with orientation, then we’ll quickly hit the ground running.  Maggie will get to know our 16 VISTA members who started serving one month ago; Corrine and Megan will get ready to help train and support more than 30 VM Coordinators who will start on September 15.   Soon, you’ll get to meet them and hear their stories, too.

For now, wish us luck as we begin our next service adventure!  We’ll keep you posted along the way.

– Maureen, VM Director


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.

Demonstrating Impact, One Person at a Time

The need to demonstrate results is growing in the nonprofit sector.  We need to show that our volunteer programs and services are genuinely impacting our clients and communities.  This push – from funders, donors, clients, staff, and volunteers – is a push in the right direction.  At Volunteer Maryland, we train our VM Coordinators to write and report on measurable outcomes.  Often times, this is one of the most challenging parts of the service year.  How do we demonstrate tangible change in 11 months?

It’s not easy.  So when VM Coordinator Michel Elben witnessed a real-life outcome, she had to share her story.

When I met Ashley she was sitting alone on the stairs of the stage in the cafeteria.  She quietly read a book about horses while the other girls ran around jumping rope and playing basketball.

There were six of them, these little tiny women, a potent mix of vinegar and sugar – except Ashley.  She sat in the back and didn’t talk, just read.  I wasn’t really sure why she wanted to be in an environmental education program with these other loud girls.  They were singing Lady Gaga and writing their boyfriends’ names on their jeans.

When we reached Phillips Wharf Environmental Center (PWEC), Ashley climbed out of the van and helped me get out the snacks and water.  The other girls ran around getting their energy out, ate their snack, threw the trash on the ground, and then impatiently listened to our volunteer educator talk about Chesapeake critters.

Ashley had started to warm up and even giggled when the girls had to partner up with animal shells, feathers, skulls, and pelts to draw then and try to identify what each one might be.  She seemed to find a friend in the other Ashley, who was a year younger, because they were both interested in the “weird stuff” like horseshoe crabs, oysters, and toadfish.  At the end of the day, they received field journals and were told to record their findings of animals at home.  They would be able to take home a PWEC critter over Christmas break.

I grew to know all the girls pretty well.  By Christmas, all the girls wanted seahorses but Ashley decided to take a horseshoe crab home.  She was the only one who had researched something else.  She was scared of the crab itself and I talked to her about their care, how to hold one, and where their special features were.

“So they’re kin to spiders?” she said.

YES!  A measurable outcome that was sooo worth it.

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.

The Impact of Volunteering

Inherently, I think we all know that service impacts both the volunteer and the recipient of the service.  What we can’t always know is how much of an impact the service is making.  This example from Volunteers for Medical Engineering (now V-LINC) was one of the stories told by Volunteer Maryland Coordinator Breanne Reynolds this year.  Breanne just finished her VMC year, but I think it’s fair to say that she’s left a long-term impact on the volunteers and the community.

The students at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute High School enter their senior engineering classroom like typical adolescents.  The girls giggle over shared inside jokes; the boys walk with that distinctive teenage swagger.  Some steal a glance at their cell phones before class starts and others slouch in their chairs waiting for Mr. Scott, their teacher, to take his place at the front of the classroom.

Mr. Scott begins with an announcement that their client, 15-year-old Matt, fell and broke his leg last week. The class erupts in exclamations of surprise and sadness. They want to know what happened, but Mr. Scott doesn’t have details. “It is exactly why we’re working on this project, though,” he explains to them. “Matt needs to strengthen his legs so this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.”

As part of Volunteers for Medical Engineering’s Designing Our Future Program, Mr. Scott’s class took on a project for Matt who has cerebral palsy and weak muscles. They plan to modify an exercise bike for him that plays music and vibrates when he rides.

Fast forward four months, and several of Mr. Scott’s students arrive at the monthly VME meeting to brief the group on their final product for Matt. It’s a Wednesday night and in a mere three days, they’ll be high school graduates. Their excitement is obvious and they joke with each other as they polish off a pizza, waiting for their turn to present.

When they take their place at the front of the room and click on their PowerPoint, it’s clear that they took Matt’s project seriously despite the senioritis that inevitably creeps into all senior classes during the spring semester. They describe, with pride, the care they took to make sure Matt’s knees don’t knock together as he’s pedaling and the special seats they designed so he’s properly supported as he grows.  Mr. Scott chimes in occasionally, clarifying points – especially when it comes to the more complicated engineering needed to make the music play and the handlebars vibrate when Matt pedals the bike.

When asked what lessons they learned during the project, they laugh and talk about perseverance and having a plan B.  Because like many engineering projects, theirs experienced some bumps and wrong turns along the way. These are lessons that will serve them well whether in engineering school or in life. And maybe an even more important lesson is the fact that with that perseverance and hard work, they were able to make a real and important difference in someone else’s life. Whether they realize it now or when they’re a little older and wiser, that’s pretty inspiring.

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.

Six Months of Stories!

As you’ve read, we’ve said our goodbyes to Volunteer Maryland Coordinators and VISTA members in the last few weeks and, at the same time, we’ve welcomed new VISTA members and are preparing for our 23rd class of VM Coordinators.  Rest assured we’re busy and full of emotion!

Six months ago we launched this blog, hoping to share some stories from the AmeriCorps service year.  And share we did!  We learned about social networking and video-making, took part in an Extreme Makeover Home Edition build in Baltimore, explored job-hunting resources, and shared stories of service of all kinds.  As I had hoped, this has been a fun ride.

Now, as Lauren inches toward the end of her service year, you may be wondering what happens next.  Well, Laura, Lauren, Michael, Kimberly, and Katelyn each have their own journey to take now.  At Volunteer Maryland, we’re looking forward to engaging some new AmeriCorps members in September – and we’ll introduce them to you then.  For the next few weeks, though, you’ll get to keep hearing from Lauren and we’ll share some stories from the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator service year.  Be warned!  This is some seriously inspiring stuff.

In the first blog post, I mentioned how privileged I am to work with the Volunteer Maryland team of AmeriCorps members, Service Sites, and staff.  Let me tell you now – that is a pretty big understatement.  The work they accomplish is simply astounding.  Without their service, there are needs across Maryland that simply wouldn’t be met.  Here’s one example from Volunteer Maryland Coordinator Amanda Lewis, who spent her year at the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless.

He wasn’t asking for much. He wasn’t looking for all these handouts. He just wanted a pair of shoes; nothing fancy he just needed a basic, black pair of shoes. The only pair in his possession was sneakers worn and dirty. These would not work for his job interview the following week.

This is why he was one of the first in line for the “Our Hearts to Your Soles” event at the Home Builders Care Assessment Center.  This event allowed the men to receive foot exams, have their feet properly sized, and then lastly receive a new pair of shoes to fit their specifications.  All of this was accomplished by volunteer doctors and shoe fitters and about 150 donated pairs of shoes.  These shoes came in all different sizes and were mainly warm boots for the upcoming winter weather.  There were not many that could be considered dressy.

Our client maneuvered his way through the process and received his proper shoe size of a 15 triple E.  As one can imagine, there were not many options for that size.  The volunteers did not have the back room of a department store to work with.

The volunteer delivered the only style in that size: a camouflage print snow boot.  Immediately the face of the client dropped. There was no way he could wear something like that to an interview.  The volunteer went back several times with no avail.  Everyone could see the disappointment and sadness on the client’s face.  He looked so broken.

Soon several volunteers were scouring the boxes of shoes to find something that that might work. Finally someone found a black pair of dress shoes, two sizes too small.  It was a long shot but they just might work.  After some finagling and changing of his socks the shoes fit well enough to be worn to the interview.

This calm then came over the client.  He not only looked happy but relieved. With these shoes there was no more doubt that the missing piece had been fixed.  He finally felt he was moving in the right direction.

I don’t think we can thank Amanda enough for working with the volunteers who helped this gentleman find calm and keep moving forward in the right direction.  I’m looking forward to sharing more stories with you over the next few weeks and hope you’ll share your thoughts and stories with us as well.

Maureen K. Eccleston
Director, Volunteer Maryland

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.

Time Flies

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Time flies,” about a billion times throughout your life. That adage epitomizes exactly how I feel right now. Where did the last two years go, and how did they fly by so quickly?

Since the end of my college days I have been involved with Volunteer Maryland, and I can’t imagine spending my time in any other way. As I write this, I am still soaking in the fact that I am officially an alum of AmeriCorps.

VM 21 Finale: The end of my first AmeriCorps year!

As Michael mentioned, the last day of the service year was on Tuesday, and we spent it celebrating at an amazingly lovely marina on Kent Island. The day was full of congratulations, reflections, and goodbyes. Throughout the ceremony of congratulations, we had the pleasure of receiving advice and reflections from our keynote speaker, Darryl Jones, CEO of Maryland Nonprofits. I enjoyed his wisdom that he passed along to our class, and felt he particularly made a good point in stating that this is not the end, but only the beginning of a lifetime of serving others. I think that as an AmeriCorps member it’s important to remember that. The year goes by fast, and while our jobs are intended to accomplish much with a short time frame, we should remember that our work can be continued and sustained for years to come. Not only that, the AmeriCorps experience should serve as a reminder that we all have the capability to not only shape the lives of others, and be aware of the needs of our community, but strive to grow as leaders no matter where we are in life.

Volunteer Maryland more than emphasized that special kind of personal power for me. Through encouragement and coaching from the VM staff and facing the task of handling real challenges in the community, I developed a sense of self-confidence and strength that I feel I will carry for my lifetime. The friendships I gained and the lessons I learned from others gave me a clear perspective on life that I don’t think I could have received elsewhere.

Although I am now an alum, I am not quite done with Volunteer Maryland! At the end of August I will be starting a new adventure as Program Manager for the VMC program. I am incredibly excited to work with a whole new group of dedicated individuals, learn more from the awesome VM staff, and continue to grow professionally.

VM 22 Finale: End of my second AmeriCorps year!

Thank you to all I have met and been inspired by. Congratulations to VM Class 22, and I look forward to meeting Class 23! 😀

The Hardest Job I’ve Ever Loved

Today is the last day of the service year for Volunteer Maryland’s twenty-second class of Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  The past year has been an amazing demonstration of the impact that individuals can have on their communities.  The class recruited and managed 6,233 volunteers who served 73,423 hours and 53,208 clients.  The numbers are staggering.  Even after working with this class of Volunteer Maryland Coordinators for a year, I’m still amazed by their passion and vigor whenever they all come together like they are today. 

Watching the members grow over the past year has been amazing.  From their first day of pre-service training back in September when no one was quite sure what they’d gotten themselves into (except maybe the members serving their second year), to today when the members completely own the causes they’ve worked for the past year, each member has grown more than they could have possibly foreseen.

I know that I’ve grown over my two years of service with Volunteer Maryland.  I’ve done things that two years ago I couldn’t have imagined that I would have been able to do.  My voice no longer shakes when I need it to be strongest.  I’ve become a stronger leader, and realized that I have to always strive to be worthy of the people who I lead.  I’ve moved from a strictly academic interest in volunteerism to a passion that helps to fuel everything I’ve done for the past two years.

I’ve had the honor of working with people who are driven and are righteous.  Without the Volunteer Maryland staff, I’m not sure I would have made it through this year.  They are pillars of strength, and supportive beyond what could be expected.  Working with them has made every victory sweeter, and every setback easier to bear, because it was all done as part of a team.  There was not a single moment over the past two years that I felt alone in anything that I did.

After two years of service I’m moving on.  I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little scared.  The past two years have been so hard, but they’ve been wonderful at the same time.  I’ve met so many wonderful people, had so many amazing experiences, and have learned and grown so much. 

Today, though, I’m moving on.  I’m not sure where to yet.  What I am sure of, is that at the end of the day there will be very few dry eyes.  After all of the goodbyes are said, friends are embraced, tears are cried, and all of us go our separate ways and into our own futures, one thing will remain.  This is the hardest job that I’ve ever loved.

I am AmeriCorps, and I always will be.