Three Lessons from a Peer Leader Whose AmeriYear is Swiftly Coming to a Close

As I write, we have less than a week until our service year is over and I have a lot of emotions about this all of which are waiting to be processed until we get everything officially finished up.Mean Girls gif featuring woman in red shirt crying and saying, That said, I decided to recycle some material for this final blogpost in the form of my capstone presentation. One of our final deliverables of the year is the capstone presentation, in which VMCs and PLs give a 3 minute speech on what their service year has looked like, what they’ve learned, and what they’ve accomplished. It’s a big task to narrow 6.12 million seconds down to 180, but we all did it, and it was easily one of my favorite training days.

For my presentation, I decided to share three lessons that I have learned this year. I hope they’ll be of use to anyone else who might be joining Volunteer Maryland, another national service program, or just interested in reading my carefully meditated reflections.

(I left some of my stage directions in this blogpost so that you get the ~full effect~ so that’s what’s happening when you see a non sequitur in brackets.)

Lesson #1: Being supportive means something different every time

When I first introduced myself to the VM 28 Class in late September, I described myself as a support person, but, to be honest, I didn’t really know what that all entailed. As a Peer Leader, I have been able to explore the importance of support and unravel the meaning of support—and frankly I’m still unraveling.

Modern Family character pointing to camera and giving thumbs up.Because sometimes, support for VMCs meant asking “How are you doing?” and listening. For some VMCs, support meant letting them do their thing and giving a jovial thumbs up [demonstrate especially jovial thumbs up] when good things happened. For other VMCs support meant working 1-1 together to learn a design program.

So… this year, I’ve learned about how incredibly important support is to getting things done at VM and beyond, and I’ve also learned that being supportive means something different every time.

Lesson #2: Collaboration is awesome… and hard, but mostly awesome

I summed up a lot of my feelings about this in a blog post, because that’s what we do at VM, but I just wanted to reiterate this, because, through collaboration, I’ve learned a lot about things I would not have otherwise learned about.

Amelia and Chelsea in a field holding bouquets of kale.
Chelsea (right) and I with our curly kale bouquets.

Now, I’ve worked with a lot of different people over the year, but, as most of you already know, I’ve mostly worked with my fellow Peer Leader At Large, Chelsea, and let me tell you… [hold for dramatic pause] it’s been really fun. Albeit, we challenge each other often and it’s really hard to maintain balance, we’ve also laughed a lot and made some incredible discoveries. And seeing the fruits of our collaborative labor is just really exciting, so… Collaboration is awesome and hard, but mostly awesome.

Finally #3: Everything is a learning experience if you think it is

Cat stuck in a flip-flop.
Sometimes you’re stuck like a cat in a flip-flop.

I say this, because sometimes we look back on our negative experiences, [begin shrinking and slumping] and we dwell and feel bad and sink into a rut,  BUT [spring back up] I propose we, if we’re not doing so already, look at these things as learning experiences.

A personal example: last spring, I experienced [dramatic, deep voice like Alan Rickman saying something grave] “The Dip” that VM always talks about, but you never really believe them until it happens to you. I acknowledge that I wasn’t at my best in those times, and in order to get myself back to my best, I had to learn about what I needed to do to feel motivated and energized at work.

So… when you look back on your service year, remember that Everything is a learning experience if you think it is.

[take a breath]

Section literally called, “BRING IT ALL HOME,” in my notes

This year, I’ve learned about the dynamism of support, about the challenge and joy of collaboration, and the positiveness we sow by thinking about the past as a series Lof learning experiences. These lessons and all of the other things that we’ve been talking about today, are ones that we have discovered together through incredible resilience and drive. It has always been so inspiring to support you, collaborate with you, and learn with you. So thank you for sharing your service year with me.

Silly class photo of VM 28
This year’s AmeriCorps graduates! We’re professionals!
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How to Deal With a Hard Headed Three Year Old

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Have you ever tried to rationalize with a three-year-old?  Apparently, this is something my mother had to do on a regular basis.  According to her, the stubbornness started when I was born, 10 days after my due date! I was born in May, so the Taurus bull in me reared its head often. When I was three years old and trying to learn a backward somersault for gymnastics, my mom tells me I would practice over and over again.  She said I had bruises on the back of my head because the floor in our house was so hard.  She remembers continually asking me to stop and that my answer to her was always, “Just one more”.  After two hours of banging my head on the floor, I had the backward somersault!  You might be thinking: this does not sound like a difficult child.  However,  I also insisted on having my mom watch me.  I wanted to make sure that once I mastered the backward somersault, she would see it.

I slowly learned to use my bull-like powers for good and not evil! We rarely ate fast food, but once in awhile my Pop would cave and take me to McDonald’s.  We were taking a ride through town on our way to get a burger when I saw a woman with two young children sitting on the side of the road holding a sign that said, “Please help, homeless & hungry”.   I remember feeling confused.  I am sure I saw homeless and hungry people before, but for some reason, she stuck out in my head.  She had two girls with her and it made me think – what if those two girls were my sister and I – what if that woman was my mom.  I internalized their situation and I had to do something about it.  I asked Pop if he would buy three extra hamburgers.  He asked me why I needed three more hamburgers if I had just finished eating!  I described what I had seen and pleaded for him to buy the hamburgers for the lady.  Pop did not like to waste money, but he hated disappointing me more – and I knew that!  I got my way, we gave the hamburgers to the family, and every weekend for about five months, we drove around our town handing out anything I could squander from the cupboards in our house.  I think my mom was actually planting extra canned goods and boxed food in order to boost my enthusiasm.

Whether you call it being hard headed, stubborn, or persistent, this Nicki With Oystersattitude has helped me in so many aspects.  As a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator in the Class of VM 24, this resolve helped me to accomplish many difficult or challenging volunteer projects. As a VMC at Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis, I called on my bullish nature to do anything from get trees planted to train Girl Scouts about oyster restoration.  Through the many projects and programs we were able to accomplish many meaningful volunteer experiences.  I am looking forward to being part of so many more!

Saying Goodbye

Big News!  Volunteer Maryland is getting a new director!  Check out our announcement!

I can remember when I first heard of Volunteer Maryland.  I was taking a class at Notre Dame of Maryland University when my professor introduced herself.  Surprise!  It was Barbara Reynolds, Director of Volunteer Maryland.  A few months later, a position announcement for VM’s Project and Resource Manager came to me through the AmeriCorps Alums network and I knew I just had to join this organization.

Before VM, I had never stayed in a job for more than 18 months; though I had the pleasure of working with a number of amazing organizations, I was always ready for the next big challenge.  Until VM.  Since January 2008, I have been at home at in the exciting, fulfilling challenge that is Volunteer Maryland.  So it is bittersweet that, like leaving home for college, I’m saying goodbye to a place where I have both history and family.

During my time with VM, I’ve had the incredible pleasure of working with amazing people and organizations.  I’ve gotten to know and travel Maryland, to learn from the strongest volunteer management training program that exists, and to become even more connected to the AmeriCorps network that I have known and loved since I was 21.

When I became Director, we were riding the national service high – the Serve America Act had passed only two months prior and we were all talking about the upcoming growth of AmeriCorps.  Things changed quickly; I’ll never forget talking with our members less than a year later about the very real possibility that AmeriCorps could be eliminated because of proposed federal budget cuts.

But we’re VM and we’re AmeriCorps and so we rallied our spirits and did what mattered – we served.  Since becoming VM’s Director in 2009, I’ve been witness to incredible impactIn the last four years, our members mobilized 24,452 volunteers who provided 282,028 hours of service to 178,792 community members; 87 percent of our Service Sites reported an increased ability to recruit volunteers; and 85 percent of prior Service Sites note that they sustained or improved their ability to recruit and manage volunteers beyond the VM partnership.

We also increased our collaborations with other AmeriCorps programs, instituting an annual networking event called “Destination AmeriCorps” that brings together AmeriCorps members serving at programs throughout MD.  In 2013, VM hosted the fourth Destination AmeriCorps, which engaged 71 members, alumni, and staff from 13 programs across the State.

During the same timeframe, Volunteer Maryland was recognized nationally for the quality of our programming and impact.  In 2010, VM was selected for inclusion in the publication “Transforming Communities through Services: A Collection of 52 of the Most Innovative AmeriCorps Programs in the United States,” published by Innovations in Civic Participation and America’s Service Commissions.  In 2012, both the Volunteer Maryland program and I received nominations for National Service Impact Awards.

And, in a wonderful celebration that happened just two weeks after the birth of my son, we celebrated VM’s 20th anniversary with alumni, current and former Service Site partners, community supporters, and all three of our previous directors.  With stories, photos, vintage video footage, and original program displays, we celebrated 20 years of incredible impact.  I couldn’t be happier to have been part of such an event.

Over these years, I’ve worked alongside some of the most passionate, intelligent, resilient people I’ve ever met.  I’ve seen growth in individuals, organizations, and communities that many wouldn’t have thought possible.  And I’ve seen real growth in myself.

Thanks to the community of VM, I’ve learned how to enjoy networking, to better listen, to meet others where they are.  I’ve learned to dance in the hallway of a government building and accept that I don’t have to have all of the answers or know the dance moves in order to be a leader.

After all of this time and all of these people and every one of these experiences, I struggle to imagine a September that doesn’t include Pre-Service Training.  But, come this September, I’ll face a new challenge – one that I am so happy to take on.  After VM, Experience Corps, NCCC, VISTA, and Learn and Serve, I now get to join the Maryland Governor’s Office on Service and Volunteerism.

It’s also a really exciting time for Volunteer Maryland as we welcome VM alum and Outreach Manager Extraordinaire, Patrice Beverly to the role of Director.  I hope you’ll join me in celebrating her promotion to this position!

I’ve known for a long time that service is my thing, that AmeriCorps works.  That enabling others to serve – and to serve well and effectively – is a calling.  My time at VM helped solidify that and I remain incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be a part of  Volunteer Maryland.  So I bittersweetly say goodbye to VM and hello to AmeriCorps programs throughout our State.  I can’t wait to work with you.

VM25 staff and Peer Leaders.  (Thanks to VM, I also have a new-found skill: jumping photos.)
VM25 staff and Peer Leaders. (Thanks to VM, I also have a new-found skill: jumping photos.)

Continuing 20 Years of Service

As our Finale ceremony sneaks up on me, I am panicking slightly about wrapping everything up in time, but at the same time relishing the excitement of the successful completion of our 25th Class of Volunteer Maryland.  I am gladdened to think this that class will join the proud ranks of alumni of both AmeriCorps and Volunteer Maryland.  And guess what?  Both Volunteer Maryland and AmeriCorps are celebrating their 20th anniversaries!

This September will mark 20 years since President Clinton signed into law the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993, which created the Corporation for National and Community Service and AmeriCorps.  The following year, the first class of AmeriCorps members took their oath at the White House.  Volunteer Maryland celebrated its own 20th anniversary of creation and the first class serving this year.

As our members transistion into alumni, they will be continuing two decades of tradition.  It is powerful to think of how much has been achieved in that time by the numbers of those who have served through AmeriCorps.  Not only is much achieved in the year of service, but it also inspires me to see what alumni go on to accomplish following their service.  I hope to stay in touch with every member of this class so that I can see what they will tackle with their energy, passion, and experience next.

AmeriCorps_20YearsVM 20th logo

National Conference Journal, Day 2

Two days into the National Conference on Service and Volunteerism, and I’ll start by bragging: we got to hear John Legend sing live to us today.  Yeah, that was a big highlight in my day.

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The top themes when addressing education inequalities being discussed as John Legend came on stage.

Even cooler was hearing him and others talk at the “Sunday Supper” about what action people are taking to create equality in education.  A Sunday Supper started as a way to bring neighbors together, come to understand each others’ views, and take action.  Hosting one at the conference was amongst the many venues that were offered to start conversations.

The next biggest highlight of this day was the number of conversations taking place amongst AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Alums.  Today was full of opportunities to discuss the impact of AmeriCorps and how the alumni of the program (coming in just under a million, if you could those currently serving this year!) might continue to serve the community as we approach our 20th anniversary.  However we do go on to serve, I believe that Ben Duda is exactly right when he said that those coming through the AmeriCorps system have exactly the skills that the nonprofit world in the 21st century need.

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AmeriCorps Alums in a lively townhall discussion

I’m looking forward to more great conversations on the final day of the conference!

AmeriCorps Week: Gaining while Giving

We’re about halfway through AmeriCorps Week!  As Kelly said, AmeriCorps Week is a time for “sharing our stories and explaining what a year of service means to us.”

If you haven’t seen it, check out what some of our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators had to say about how AmeriCorps works for them and their communities; we’ve been posting photos all week on our Facebook page.

At VM, we regularly hear from our alumni about how their AmeriCorps service helped make them who they are today – by igniting a passion for service, providing professional skill development, building a network, and more.  That’s one of the wonderful things about AmeriCorps (and about our AmeriCorps program at Volunteer Maryland); the AmeriCorps members gain so much while they serve.  (And, as AmeriCorps Alums, they continue to have access to great learning opportunities, among other perks!)  Here are some thoughts from our current members about what they are gaining while they give.

I Love AmeriCorps“Through this term of service I have learned a lot about volunteer management best practices and consulting skills.  I have also improved my time management skills by simultaneously coordinating volunteers for multiple different programs and my public speaking skills by developing and running a volunteer orientation.”  Krisia Jones, Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington

“[This experience] has gotten me volunteering at places I wouldn’t have considered before, like the hospital, and I love it!”  Kara Grosse, Maryland Coastal Bays Program

“I’ve seen first-hand what makes a nonprofit successful.”  Rebecca Larew, Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless

“[I’ve gained skills in] professionalism, group projects, networking, communication, time management, and flexibility – and I got to meet some great people!”  Allyson Bloom, MAEOE

“[I’ve gained skills in] volunteer management, recruitment and outreach, general organizational skills, time management, project development and implementation.”  Kristen Wharton, CHEARS

“I enjoy going to work every day and I love the group of people I am lucky enough to work with.  I have learned so much about so many different things – history, agriculture, networking, the community, livestock, and myself.”  Casey Lowe, Accokeek Foundation

“Being a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator has given me the opportunity to practice patience, creativity, awareness, and professionalism within a safe a supportive structure.”  Kat Patterson, Ardmore Enterprises

“[I’ve gained skills in] management, interviewing, time management, recruitment, and networking.”  Trayana Thomas, Mosaic Community Services

“[I’ve gained skills in] public speaking, persuading, collaborating, initiating change, multi-tasking, time management, presenting proposals and ideas with supporting materials.”  Kaitlyn Fernald, Greenwell Foundation

“As a Peer Leader, I’ve learned how to plan and facilitate events.  I’ve learned how to use WordPress, Constant Contact, and Mail Chimp.  I’ve become more confident with the Microsoft Office suite and Chrome.  I’ve built on my workshop training and leadership skills.  I’ve developed as a writer and professional blogger.  I’ve developed skills as a recruiter and I have developed supervisory skills.  I’ve also developed time management skills and learned how to successfully ask for donations.”  Kerry Ose, Peer Leader

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!

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.

VM25 Gets Started with Kelly and Kerry!

Well, we are just about to start Pre-Service Training for VM25 and we’re pretty excited.  For the last week, we’ve had a preview of the class as we’ve gotten to know our new Peer Leaders.  They’ve already shown themselves to be professional and flexible as they have started to learn their roles while working hard to prepare for the new class.  Today, they’ll start making phone calls to the soon-to-be Volunteer Maryland Coordinators; it’s always nice to have a friendly face – or at least voice – when we all get together for the first time.

You’ll begin to hear from them soon; they’re working on their introductory blog posts this week.  In the meantime, here’s a little bit about our first two AmeriCorps members of VM25!

Kelly MacBride-Gill previously served as an AmeriCorps VISTA with Habitat for Humanity of Montgomery County from 2010 to 2011.  A recent transplant to Baltimore, Kelly spends her free time gardening, cooking, and dog-watching.  Kelly holds a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Maryland, where she is also a proud alum of Alpha Phi Omega.

 Kerry Ose served as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator in VM Class 24 at Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc.  She has worked as a writer and college teacher, and, in, recent years, has been involved in grassroots efforts to support and improve public education. Kerry holds a PhD in English, watches a lot of Netflix, and is an avid swim parent.

There’s a whole lot to come this year – service, teamwork, celebration, learning, fun, and more.  Stay tuned!