All That and a Pair of Haikus

Last night, Volunteer Maryland celebrated its 20th anniversary.  As a Volunteer Maryland Peer Leader, I have been involved in the planning, and had an intellectual understanding of the import of this event. But, wow.  Seeing is believing.  AmeriCorps programs are, by design, organizations with high turn over rates.  Most members are in and out in less than a year.  Each Volunteer Maryland class knows that there is a broader community of alums out there, but they exist mostly as part of a mythology — a foundation narrative that is recited but not experienced.

But last night, members of Volunteer Maryland classes from 15 years ago mingled with members of last year’s class.  Peer Leaders met their predecessors.  And the biggest lump-in-throat moment of all came when the Founder of Volunteer Maryland, Ellie Young, met our current Director, Maureen Eccleston, for the very first time.

As the evening proceeded, those of us who are new to Volunteer Maryland heard stories from the previous Directors — Ellie Young, Cathy Brill and Barbara Reynolds — about how Volunteer Maryland has changed (and stayed the same) throughout the years.  Ellie and Cathy talked about the “wild west’ pre-AmeriCorps years when Volunteer Maryland was a one of a handful of demonstration programs that led to the advent of AmeriCorps.  Barbara talked about how aware she was of the precious legacy she was receiving from Ellie and Cathy, and how mindful she was of maintaining its robustness.  Barbara also talked about how, during Pre-Service Training, Volunteer Maryland Coordinators used to reflect on the experience through Haiku and Hula.

The program portion of the evening ended with remarks from Izzy Patoka, Executive Director of the Governor’s Office of Community Initiatives.   He presented all four directors with the Governor’s Citation congratulating Volunteer Maryland on 20 years, but not before he offered, in honor of Volunteer Maryland’s tradition, two Haikus.  And I leave you, dear reader, with one of them, by Kobayashi Issa:

O snail

Climb Mount Fuji,

But slowly, slowly!

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To Boldly Go

By Kerry Ose and Bilqis Rock

As a Volunteer Maryland Peer Leader, I have been impressed by the way that many of the VMCs in my group are blazing a new trail.  They are coordinator volunteer programs that do not exist yet, or, as one VMC put it, “advocating for volunteers before they are here.”

The stories I am hearing from these VMCs are inspiring.  They are meeting with program directors, assessing needs, creating volunteer position descriptions, writing manuals and just generally developing a whole new arm of their organizations.  But it isn’t easy.  The origins of volunteer programs are a bit like creation myths — they involve obstacles, conflict, perseverance and lessons learned.

Bilqis Rock, one of my fellow VMCs from VM24, has always been particularly good at telling the story of her nascent volunteer program at Health Care for the Homeless (HCH), so I thought I would invite her to co-write this blog.  She writes:

For a nonprofit, working with volunteers is a no-brainer. Volunteers are passionate about the cause, give your organization great PR, and best of all, they’re free! What’s not to love? This is what I thought entering Health Care for the Homeless last Fall as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator. Turned out, volunteers were a tougher sell.

From the get-go, my supervisor told me that the challenge to developing a volunteer program at HCH would not lie in volunteer recruitment; there are many people requesting to volunteer with HCH every day. The more difficult part would be the internal work of establishing systems and expectations among staff members in order to create meaningful, sustainable and useful opportunities to engage community members.

I thought, pssht, people just need to hear the volunteer gospel, and they’ll get it. I’ll be able to put volunteers in action in no time.

During my HCH orientation, I asked a variety of team leaders, what ideas do you have for volunteer involvement with your team? In what ways can your staff and clients be supported? Some people told me how volunteers had not been useful in the past. Some came up with a few trivial tasks. Most often, I was met with a blank look.

Soon I realized that putting volunteers to work right away was not going to be my job. My job was going to be about building relationships with people across the HCH community to find out the answers to the question, “where do the needs, interests and abilities of HCH clients, staff and community intersect?”  Creatively finding those intersections is the key to building a volunteer program at HCH.

These beautifully came together on a couple of occasions—when a barber provided haircuts for the men’s group, when physical therapy students provided otherwise inaccessible PT services, when public health and nursing students completed research projects and service efforts—but the process continues to be a work in progress.

Staff members are not inherently resistant the volunteers; I’ve found it is often rooted in a lack of vision for how volunteers should be appropriately incorporated into HCH’s work, and a lack of support for staff members throughout the volunteer process. These are areas that need to change to develop the volunteer program. This work takes time, and it’s a constantly moving target.

My training as a social worker comes in handy. I try to meet staff members where they are in terms of working with volunteers. I seek to understand their working environments and their motivations for resistance to change. Eventually, being able to acknowledge their perspectives, I ask them to form new ways of thinking and try new ways of operating.

What I know now is that deciding to engage volunteers in a nonprofit’s work is a no-brainer. Figuring out how to make that happen is a different story.

A Beautiful Friendship

About  a year ago, my daughter and I joined Volunteer Maryland Coordinator Abby Becker and several other volunteers to help with fall cleaning at The St. Francis Neighborhood Center (SFNC) in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood in Baltimore.  Though we were there for only a few hours, there was no doubt in my mind that this was an extraordinary place.

Founded in 1963 by a group of priests, seminarians and community members, SFNC is, according to its mission statement, “committed to breaking the cycles of poverty through education, inspiring self-esteem, self-improvement, and strengthening connections to the community.  SFNC strives to give people hope for a better tomorrow by providing them with the tools they need for a better today.”

SFNC provides a wide range of programs and services, including Peace Patrol WalksCommunity Mediation, and the Power Project, which is a multi-faceted youth development program.

Three years ago, SFNC began partnering with Volunteer Maryland, welcoming their first Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, Corrine Handy.  At that time, the SFNC staff had virtually no staff, and the Power Project hadn’t even started yet.  Today, SFNC has a staff of four, including Corrine and two subsequent VMCs, Sara Sullivan and Abby Becker.  That’s right — SFNC built its stellar staff and strong programming in large part by partnering with Volunteer Maryland three years in a row.

VM doesn’t deserve all the credit, of course.  SFNC staff have an amazing aptitude for building partnerships and leveraging community resources.  Reflecting on her year as a VMC, Abby Becker writes, ” I am proud to have cultivated wonderful volunteers who are reliable and dedicated to our programs in the long-term, particularly to working with The Power Project.  Each day, we now have at least one person who is truly tied to our mission and deeply connected to the young people.”

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photo credit: Ran Zeimer

Now that Abby (pictured above with the rest of the SFNC staff at the Reservoir Hill Festival) is a permanent staff member, she continues to be enthusiastic about the many opportunities SFNC has to offer. “We have many fall community programs, including Free Job Readiness Workshops, Free Personal Finance Workshops, and the continued Free Community Yoga classes, all of which are open to the public.

In the Power Project, students have loved our fall enrichment activities:  printing press workshops, African Drumming and Dancing with Zebra Kids, and a special arts series in partnership with the Walters Art Museum, focusing on Black Renaissance Art.  The students’ artwork will be featured in an exhibition this weekend at the Walters Free Renaissance Family Festival.  And don’t forget:  the Reservoir Hill Festival was September 15th – our most successful yet!  It featured 10 live bands, a community resource fair, and The Gathering – Baltimore’s premier food trucks.”

Suffice it to say, SFNC is a happening place, and one of the most beautiful examples of what a long, fruitful partnership with Volunteer Maryland can yield.

Where are all of the dudes?

In Volunteer Maryland’s history, about 73 percent of our AmeriCorps members have been women.  In this past year, Class 24, we started the year with eight men (out of 32) and finished with just three.  As we gear up for Class 25, the number of men who want to serve is incredibly low.  To date, we’ve interviewed 19 women and just two men.  (Note: Applicants are not required to include gender as part of the application and one can’t necessarily tell gender from a person’s name or other information on an application.  Besides, unless you write your name in all lowercase letters, I’m not interested in that section until I’m contacting you.  I’m much more interested in the meat of your application than your name or address.)

So, what’s going on here?  Where are all the service dudes?

I know Volunteer Maryland is not alone here.  I saw a photo on Facebook the other day of a group of ten AmeriCorps VISTA members starting their service in Baltimore.  You guessed it: nearly all women.  I’ve worked for NCCC and Experience Corps and was a VISTA member with a cohort of about 20 others.  In each program, the women were the majority.

Still, two out of nineteen?  I have to believe that there are more potential AmeriDudes out there that we’re just not reaching.  To prove this to myself, and maybe to convince some concerned fella that’s nervous he’ll be alone in a sea of women all year, I put together this slideshow of some of VM’s Dudes of Service from the last couple of years.  I hope we’ll get to add more in VM25!

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Thank You to VM24!

One week ago tomorrow we celebrated the end of another term of AmeriCorps service.  Volunteer Maryland’s 24th class completed their time with us and went out with a bang.  There are the statistics: 3,432 volunteers engaged in service; 31,764 community members served; 22 volunteer programs created or improved.

But this class represents so much more than numbers.  As I said to them in my final remarks, they did something all year long that is remarkable; they collaborated.  That’s right!  They shared ideas and resources, asked questions, networked, and volunteered at each other’s sites.  I watched this collaboration from the middle of September through the end of July and wondered if they knew how unusual it was.  Collaboration is a word often thrown around, but not seen nearly enough.

Class 24 collaborated and, through their collaboration, everyone benefited.  I’m confident that they learned more than they could have done by going alone.  I think their Service Sites benefited by learning from others’ trials, errors, and successes.  I’m sure the volunteers benefited from the recognition ideas that were swapped.  And, ideally, all of these benefits have enabled community members to be better served.

I know I benefited from their collaboration.  The energy when we all got together was incredible.  The stories from the field were filled with passionate ideas and a great dose of humor.  The sense of community that grew over this service year energized me to continue our work together.

And I know I wasn’t the only one who noticed how great they are.  Nine Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are continuing with their Service Sites beyond their VMC terms.  That’s 41 percent of the VMCs who completed the year successfully.  That’s a large and impressive number – and I’m sure it would be larger if more Service Sites had the ability to hire additional staff.

So I’ll say it one more time before I finally and thoroughly shift gears into Class 25: Thank You.  Thank you to the 22 Volunteer Maryland Coordinators, 2 Peer Leaders, and 21 Site Supervisors that helped make this year amazing.  Thank you for your partnership, your dedication to strengthening our communities, and your collaboration.  I’m honored to have worked alongside you this year and I look forward to learning of your continued work in the years to come.

VM24 members and Site Supervisors
VM24 AmeriCorps members, Site Supervisors, and staff celebrate the Class Finale on July 31, 2012.

“When the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly”

So this is it.  My last blog entry as a Peer Leader with Volunteer Maryland (VM).  Where did the time go?  Seems like I was just writing my first post as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, and now my second year with Volunteer Maryland has come to an end.

While I was mentally preparing to write this final piece, the transformation from a caterpillar to butterfly came to mind.  I don’t know why.  Neither one of them is my favorite insect (I prefer lady bugs), so why was this process the first to pop in my head?  Probably because I have experienced a transformation during these two service years, much like that of a caterpillar.

It all started two years ago when I decided to join AmeriCorps before pursuing graduate school.  I wanted to gain adequate experience before filling out graduate school applications and I have done that and more.  During both years, I wasn’t sure how much ground I had I gained until I looked back to see how far I have come professionally.  Hearing the positive feedback from the Volunteer Maryland Support Team and other AmeriCorps members has confirmed how much I have grown as well.

I would respectfully call my years before VM as the “caterpillar” stage.  I enjoyed those years, and thought I had everything figured out.  By the time I joined VM, I had already entered the “cocooning” stage of my journey, where I gained/improved professional and personal skills; preparing me for the what lay ahead.  Now, I can confidently say I am ready to bloom and start a new journey as a “butterfly.”

Volunteer Maryland will always hold a special place in my service autobiography (if I ever write one) because it has given me tools I could not pay for, but desperately needed to progress as a leader, community activist, and person.  As I move on to law school, I will never forget this experience.

In a way, this is not the end after all, it is just the beginning.

Reflections, food, and fun!

Back in December I wrote a post in which I mentioned Ok Go’s perpetual motion machine video that complements their song, “This Too Shall Pass.” As I reflect back on my service year, that video comes to mind (just ignore the lyrics) again. I felt like I was in constant motion, some times things got really messy, and I had a blast!

I was directly involved in more than 20 nonprofits serving citizens across the state of Maryland. Some organizations, like St. Francis Neighborhood Center, I had become familiar with last year as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator. This year I developed a deeper understanding of SFNC’s mission and the amazing impact they have on the Reservoir Hill Community. I will never forget the delight on the children’s faces when they arrived on Read Across America Day. Others, like Baltimore SquashWise, I was introduced to for the first time. Words fail me in describing the warm welcome I received from the SquashWise volunteer family at the Meadow Mill Athletic Center squash rally this spring. I wish I lived close enough to be regularly involved in this wonderful organization.

I also had the opportunity to develop relationships with AmeriCorps members serving in programs other than Volunteer Maryland. I met Dara from Public Allies, Cory from PALS, Shane from Campus Compact, and Cora from Experience Corps, just to name a few. It made my day when I attended Maryland Association of Nonprofits Organization events and walked into a room full of friends!

Did I mention how much fun I have had? Just yesterday I looked like a Blue Man Group wannabe after putting grout on a mural with Project PLASE. It was an incredible cooperative effort that engaged clients, community members, staff, and volunteers. Last fall during a tree planting day at Anacostia Watershed Society I met an amazing group of corporate volunteers from a local engineering firm. They even offered to feed me!

Speaking of eating, food was a memorable part of my service year. Both exchanging recipes and discovering great places to eat. I made the Stinking Rose recipe Sumiko gave me for staff meeting this week. I’m still trying to get up enough nerve to attempt Liz’s chocolate cake. Joy introduced me to Lemongrass, a great place to warm up on a cold February day. And, thanks to Patrice, I discovered Nando’s Peri Peri. The Butternut Squash and Couscous salad is delish. If you are in the Bolton Hill neighborhood, be sure to stop in On The Hill. The sandwiches and salads are excellent. I am looking for an excuse to go back and get a burger. . .hope Laura can join me!

Last, but not least, Volunteer Maryland. I loved working with Maureen, Laura, Patrice, Kim, and Joy. If you are considering serving with AmeriCorps, become a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator. It’s fun, you’ll learn a lot, and you might even get lunch!

Time Management: Plan Time to Have a Dance Break…seriously

On Monday, I traveled to my primary office in Baltimore (Volunteer Maryland’s headquarters) to attend our scheduled Support Team meeting.   You may recall that I also have a Host Site on the Eastern Shore so I do not have to make the two hour commute to Baltimore on a daily basis.  It was my turn to put the agenda together and for the opener I chose one of Volunteer Maryland’s traditions, a dance break.  You read correctly, a dance break!

For as long as I have known about Volunteer Maryland, taking five minutes to dance in the middle of the day has been event the Support Team has looked forward to.  Since Barb and I are not in the office on Fridays, the normal day for a dance break, we have not participated in many this service year.  This Monday I chose a Just Dance Wii game routine to Shakira’s World Cup song, “Waka Waka.”  We probably looked ridiculous to those passing by our hallway, but it was fun and that’s what really mattered.

A few months ago I wrote about the importance of planning time to plan and now I am encouraging you to plan time to dance (or for another office tradition).  Why?  I’m glad you asked.  It is my firm belief that a company or department of any size should have office traditions because they are essential to having a healthy work environment.  Who wants to have the office blues all the time?  Office traditions boost morale amongst staff members, strengthen camraderie, and can decrease the amount times a person is feeling like the woman below.

What kind of traditions does your office have?  If you don’t have a tradition, maybe you can create one.  It doesn’t hurt to throw out a new idea that would benefit the entire office.  Share with us!!

What Would @Kanter Do?

 This post is dedicated to Stephen Covey.  He died shortly after I began writing it and was a paragon of “Personal Branding.”

She would curate, that’s what! Beth is the queen of content curation. I, on the other hand, am more at the handmaiden level. So, given my status, I’ll do the next best practice and “re-purpose”. Last week I wrote a piece for the Volunteer Maryland newsletter on transitioning into the future. There are only two weeks left of our AmeriCorps service year. In the interest of leaving my co-contributors, Joy and Laura, room to say a few words, I left a chunk I really liked on the cutting room floor. A rabid recycler, I am repurposing it for today’s post lest it wind up in the rubbish.

Last spring the Destination AmeriCorps committee gathered resources to be shared with attendees of the event. One that Joy contributed caught my eye, “How to Create Your Personal Brand in 6 Easy Steps,” by Joey Weber. According to Weber, “Personal Branding” means intentionally influencing how the rest of the world perceives you. This includes colleagues, future employers, social circles etc. Weber quotes Tom Peters’ adage, “We are CEOs of our own companies: Me, Inc.”

I am not sure that I would say practicing the steps outlined is “easy.” They are practical and several of them resonated with me, so I am going to invest some time and energy in developing my “personal brand” as soon as I complete my end-of-year responsibilities. I’ll paraphrase them for you:

1) Choose 4-5 qualities you want to be known for
2) Rank these qualities in order of importance to you
3) Condense those elements into a “personal elevator pitch”
4) Adjust your online identity to reflect your personal pitch
5) Create a personal website
6) Intentionally live your “personal brand”

The first time I read the article, I choked at number 5; then I read number 6!

How do you brand yourself?