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!

Peer Leader X 2: Four Tips for Successful Collaboration

When I accepted Volunteer Maryland’s offer to become a Peer Leader, I was keenly aware of the fact that I would be one of two people working to support the next class of Volunteer Maryland Coordinators. Chelsea had already signed on for VM 28, and I had briefly emailed with her, but I still had no sense of how we would work together. I remember the trepidation I felt my first day. It was a new office with a new staff and a very new learning curve, all things most people are anxious about on their first days, but I was also going to meet Chelsea, and we were going to have to figure out how we would be working together for the next 11 months.

Chelsea and Amelia
Chelsea (left) and I giving conflicting messages at the Governor’s Service Awards.

It turns out, we work well together. See, Chelsea is an incredibly powerful, passionate, and knowledgeable person. She is committed to making the AmeriCorps experience as great as it can possibly be for VM. She has a constantly expanding library of thoughtful ideas (often indispensable when we’re problem solving at VM HQ or with VMCs). She is constantly exuding an immense amount of positive energy that she puts towards helping others. Chelsea exemplifies the greatness of Volunteer Maryland, AmeriCorps, and humanity in general, and she inspires me to be great all the time.

The collaborative relationship that I have with Chelsea has been something that I have been grateful for everyday I come into the office. We work together closely on many things whether it’s planning a statewide networking event for AmeriCorps members or drawing up a little graphic for our newsletter. In working with Chelsea, I have learned some important lessons about collaboration and teamwork that I want to share.

Keep an open mind and really listen

Open mind gif“Keep an open mind” is a phrase that crops up in every “how to teamwork” manual that has ever existed, but I think it’s important to reiterate, because it’s something that doesn’t come easily to everyone. I also added “really listen,” because collaboration is not just about sharing ideas, but also about working hard to understand another person’s ideas. In brainstorming sessions, Chelsea and I will often come together with preconceived notions of how we want a project to go. I will insist on fajitas and Chelsea will insist on sushi platters.  I’ll be thinking panel presentation and she’ll be thinking hands-on workshop. When we work together, we don’t just announce our ideas and then butt heads until the winner comes out on top (mostly because Chelsea’s scrappy, and I don’t think I’d win). Rather, Chelsea and I go into conversations looking for a couple of things: (1) to learn from one another about each other’s ideas and (2) to work with one another to create a dynamic, creative, thoughtful thing. To do this, we are always ready to keep an open mind and to really listen to what we each have to say.

Challenge is productive

Gollum conflicted gifThis can probably be intuited from the above, but Chelsea and I often challenge each other with different ideas. Although it can be frustrating for both of us in the moment, I find that the project we’re working on can grow more from our differing ideas. It’s also a good way for Chelsea and I to grow as a team and as individuals. In working collaboratively, I’ve learned how to effectively take in feedback, how to explain my ideas in concise ways, and how to compromise. Getting into challenging conversations with another person can be nerve-wracking in the moment, but, ultimately, it’s good to have your ideas challenged, because challenges can sometimes create opportunities for growth.

Balance and accountability are crucial

Hercules balance gifAnother rather obvious part of collaboration is the idea of balance or mutuality. Chelsea and I share many responsibilities and projects. Because of this, we often have to delegate tasks to each other in a balanced manner. When we’re planning out the cohort meetings, for example, one of us will create the handouts and materials, and the other will do the actual presenting. One of us will reserve the space, and the other will work on informing the VM 28 cohort. We divvy up these tasks as we see fit, and most of the time it goes well. But sometimes we each have a lapse in productivity and more work can shift to another person. Hey, it happens. What’s important in these moments, is that we hold each other accountable and ensure that we work to either restore balance or make sure we’re each okay.

Fun is nurturing, fun is productive

Steven Universe go have fun gifOne of the biggest benefits of working with VM is the amount of fun you have, and Chelsea and I have really embraced that. I’m often guffawing embarrassingly at my desk because of the funny stories Chelsea is retelling. One time soup came out of my nose (the sign of a TRULY fun atmosphere). Although fun can seem like a distraction from your work, it doesn’t have to be. Fun rejuvenates us and gets us energized for the next thing on the to-do list. Fun makes coming into work easier and… well… fun. Working on a team can get tense, working in an office can get dull, but when you have fun–the state cafeteria food tastes a little better and the sun shines into your office cubicle a little brighter.

Collaboration is Hard. Capital “H,” Hard. It involves a lot of trusting, a lot of flexibility, and a lot of communication, and it looks different for everyone. But once you’re able to get it going, collaboration is a beautiful thing that helps us learn and create better. Thanks for being in this collaborative relationship with me, Chelsea!


Around this time of year, I hear this phrase quite constantly: “I can’t believe it’s already April!!”  I always chuckle when I hear it from our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators (VMCs).  This common exclamation a wonderful realization that we have officially arrived at the mid-point of our service year.

In April we are reminded of how incredibly fast time flies by, and at Volunteer Maryland we take time to reflect on what we have achieved and where we are going next.  As Patrice recently shared, the mid-point of our service year is a time for rest and reflection, but also reporting!  Reporting is a big part of my world right now.  Through reading the VMCs’ recently-submitted reports, I’ve enjoyed learning more about why they have felt like time has passed by in an instant.

Take a quick look at what our group of Volunteer Maryland Coordinators have reported to be their major accomplishments related to volunteer program development:

  • Recruitment of volunteers (woohoo!)
  • Strengthening of community partnerships
  • Leading new volunteer training/orientations
  • Creating new tools, such as volunteer hours tracking databases
  • Relationship development with staff and volunteers
  • Recognizing/appreciating volunteers

Although this is a mere list, these accomplishments are mighty.  It doesn’t take one day to find prospective volunteers, build and research the content for a volunteer training, or build a genuine, kind relationship with a volunteer.  It takes time and planning to succeed, and these VMCs have been busy.

In addition to their accomplishments, the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators have learned more about themselves and their communities.  The chance to give back to others while gaining much in return is a dynamic experience.  I loved reading reflections shared through each “VMC Story,” a short tale of each person’s experience thus far.  Although there are so many stories to share, I’ll share just one this time.  Here’s a peek into Sam’s experience:

Being a VMC means enabling others to improve the lives of others by creating a positive and sustainable change within their community. Shepherd’s Clinic and Joy Wellness Center serves uninsured patients in one of the unhealthiest communities in Baltimore; my role as a VMC is to engage volunteers to get involved and make a difference with a population who has both life circumstances and negative stereotypes working against them.

A phrase I often hear is that by being an AmeriCorps member, I am “dedicating a year of service to others.” However, that is not how I view my service year. I consider this year a time where I have the invaluable opportunity to become immersed in a cause that is much bigger than me. I am dedicating a year to learning from those around me, to growing as a professional and – more importantly – an individual, to being involved with the amazing Shepherd’s Clinic and Joy Wellness Center and everything it stands for, and to build relationships with those who also believe in the work of Shepherd’s Clinic and Joy Wellness Center, Volunteer Maryland, and AmeriCorps.

At the mid-point, the VMCs are understanding more about how their dedication and hard work has helped them get their volunteer programs jump-started.  Although much has been accomplished so far, there’s much more good work to be done.  I can’t wait to see what’s yet to come!

The Power of Retreat

April is a report heavy month here at Volunteer Maryland.  Our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators just submitted their mid-year report full of data and stories and our sites submitted an update on how they are doing with their National Performance Measures.  What this means is Laura Aceituno, VM’s Program Manager extraordinaire is spending many quality hours reading and aggregating data for our Quarterly Progress Report due in mid-April.  Reporting is of course necessary in this world of service, but so is taking a step back.  Reports can offer a moment of reflection for the writer as they discuss successes and challenges and build the narrative of progress thus far through stats and stories, but there is something missing here.  What is missing is the space to give all of this work meaning, and commit to keeping on.

It has been well documented that an AmeriCorps member’s service is not easy.  It has tough road written all over it, and that toughness can get to the best of us.  Volunteer Maryland refers to this time as “the dips”.  It is when a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator finds it hard to see progress in their work, and the limited resources available to them seem more limited than ever.  This can be a dark time for those on the getting things done highway as their journey is half over, but the light at the end of the tunnel can seem a bit faint.  So how do you help folks get over this bump, and onto a successful second half?  You take them away.

Each year, VM hosts a retreat for the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator’s to re-charge, re-access and re-commit to their service.  In the past, the retreat was a two day affair with an overnight stay.  This year we are trying a new approach. Many of our folks have part-time jobs, or take classes in the evening or have families to take care of, so the overnight aspect of the retreat posed a problem.  This year we are doing a one-day retreat with a focus on leadership and deepening service.  This retreat is for the VMCs, but the truth is I am really looking forward to it.  The opportunity to pause, and build skills for what is to come seems luxurious and almost decadent, like a huge box of delicious chocolates.  But here is the thing, pausing is just the right move when each move feels heavy with little to no progress.  That pause can lead to new ideas, new attitudes, and new opportunities bringing changes from dip to doing.  Pausing with purpose is the true power of a retreat.

Taking a pause, even if it is just for a breath can be just the thing for what dips you.

A Morning at the Maryland Food Bank

Our group at the Maryland Food Bank!

Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are champions of service.  They not only lead community volunteers at their matched organizations, but participate in service themselves!

As a part of their service year, Volunteer Maryland Coordinators dedicate a portion of their time to participating in volunteer projects. This means that they temporarily step away from the coordination role and jump into a volunteer’s shoes for a few hours. This is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the nuances of a volunteer experience while giving back to communities across Maryland.

Last week, I had the pleasure of joining our Peer Leader, Elena, and a group of Volunteer Maryland Coordinators to serve at the Maryland Food Bank, one of our partners this year.  Elena is a third-year AmeriCorps member who supports the work of Volunteer Maryland Coordinators through peer guidance and mentorship.  In addition, Elena plans monthly service projects for the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators, including this particular day of service at the Food Bank.

The Maryland Food Bank was a great choice for our day of service for many reasons.  The mission of this organization is “to lead the movement and nurture the belief that together we can improve the lives of Marylanders by ending hunger.”  A great deal of this mission is accomplished by the service of volunteers.  This year, the Maryland Food Bank is hosting two of our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  At the Baltimore branch, Chloe is working hard to recruit volunteers and refine systems of the volunteer program.  In addition, she is helping to establish a new volunteer role called the Community Outreach Volunteer position, in which volunteers assist clients at the Pantry on the Go sites.  Our other Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, Rubab, is working with the Eastern Shore branch, specifically with the Farm to Food Bank program, helping to expand the volunteer pool and streamline volunteer processes.

Our day at the Food Bank’s Baltimore branch started off with an excellent orientation by Chloe. She helped us get acquainted with the history and impact of the volunteer program, as well as what to expect from our experience.  A solid volunteer orientation is an example of one of the meaningful contributions a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator can provide to their matched organization.

Following our excellent orientation, our group headed to the warehouse, where the Salvage Coordinator, Cassie, trained us on how to properly organize and sort donated food and goods.  Fun side note: Cassie is an alumna of the Volunteer Maryland program, and a great example of how engaged AmeriCorps alumni continue to serve in the nonprofit community.  Our group had a fun time sorting and assessing the quality of various food items and household products– items that will go to agencies that are serving thousands of children and families across Maryland.

The spirit of volunteerism is incredibly strong at the Maryland Food Bank, and that was apparent during our experience.  Last year, volunteers contributed more than 33,000 hours of service!  This generous donation of time and service is a testament to the great volunteer program at the Maryland Food Bank.  We look forward to volunteering again in the future and continuing our partnership!

Tales from the Road

As the Program Manager of Volunteer Maryland, I feel so lucky to get to work with an incredible group of individuals.  Our AmeriCorps members, better known as Volunteer Maryland Coordinators (VMCs), work tirelessly to support and refine volunteer programs at nonprofit organizations across Maryland.  With the amazing guidance from their designated supervisor (a.k.a. their Site Supervisor), wonderful things happen in less than a year of partnership.

I get to learn more about these efforts when I visit each of our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators and Site Supervisors each fall/winter.  For the past two and a half months, I have engaged in what we like to call our “site visit season.”  This is a very educational experience in which I travel with a member of our Support Team to meet with each of our 30 partnership sites.  This is one of my favorite parts of my role, as I get a first-hand glimpse of where our AmeriCorps members are serving, as well as gain the opportunity to reflect and learn more about their service.

The knowledge and stories from the site visits have been so insightful and inspiring. Listening to such positive progress is an important reminder of the great things Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are able to accomplish in such a short period of time. I’d like to share with you a few reflections from the site visits that exhibit the impact of our AmeriCorps members.

Volunteer Maryland Coordinators research and implement smart tools that refine the process of volunteer management.

For example, Brinley, VMC at Court Appointed Special Advocates of Washington County, recently instituted a new tracking tool called OurVolts.  OurVolts can be used as an app on a mobile phone, making the process of reporting hours convenient and accessible for volunteers. This process will not only be easy for the volunteers, but help the organization gain an accurate understanding of how many hours their volunteers will serve.  As a result, this data will also be useful for reporting and recognition purposes.

Volunteer Maryland Coordinators understand the importance of recognizing volunteers.

The effort to celebrate the hard work of volunteers has a lasting impact on the quality of the volunteer experience.  An example of such recognition occurs in Baltimore where Montressa develops a regular “Volunteer of the Month” spotlight to recognize outstanding volunteers who serve at the St. Francis Neighborhood Center.  Also, Jessica, the VMC for the Frederick County Department of Aging’s Meals on Wheels program, is developing ongoing recognition events, and will soon be hosting a celebration titled “We Love Our Volunteers” (cleverly tying into Valentine’s Day!).

Volunteer Maryland Coordinators build meaningful connections.

This occurs on a such a significant and multi-faceted level.  Bintou, who serves at Moveable Feast, facilitates orientations for volunteers before they assist with preparation and packaging of nutritious food that will go to individuals who are fighting severe illnesses.  Through her orientation, Bintou connects volunteers with the mission and history of the volunteer program, making the experience so much more effective and rich for all involved.  Over at Education Based Latino Outreach, Johana builds connections with staff through weekly meetings, during which they discuss the progress of volunteers and additional resources to support volunteers.  Through relationship building, the staff can work together more cohesively to best support and supervise volunteers.

While the next piece of information did not necessarily derive from the site visits, it would be a shame to not include it!

Volunteer Maryland Coordinators recruit and manage qualified volunteers as a result of their strategic outreach methods.  I’m proud to share that since October 2014, this group has recruited nearly 900 volunteers and helped manage over 4000 volunteers.  Collectively these 4000+ volunteers have served over 9,000 Marylanders.  Wow!

This is just a snapshot of some of the great work that’s being done by the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators in Class 27, and so much more is yet to come this year!

Reyna and Johana (EBLO)
Reyna (Site Supervisor) and Johana (Volunteer Maryland Coordinator) are a great team at Education Based Latino Outreach.
A group pose during a site visit with Partners In Care. Each person in the photo is or has been an AmeriCorps member with Volunteer Maryland!

Brinley Holmes, CASA of Washington County

A graduate of Gettysburg College, Brinley Holmes has taught English in Vietnam, volunteered while studying abroad in Italy, and served as a Big Sister with Big Brothers Big Sisters. Brinley has two older sisters who are AmeriCorps alums, so she has decided that it’s her turn!  To that end, she is serving this year as Volunteer Maryland Coordinator with Court Appointed Special Advocates of Washington County.

Brinley has grown up doing service and volunteering, and it has become a part of her life. Brinley shares, “I have always learned a lot from volunteering. I hope that by taking this time to focus on others, I will always learn more about myself and the professional direction I want my life to take. I am looking to gain confidence in myself with regard to becoming a professional. Brinley believes this service year will prepare her for life as a volunteer and for a future career.

William Drew, Chesapeake Natives

William Drew, a graduate of Belmont Abbey College and proud Eagle Scout, recently completed a year of service as Volunteer Maryland Coordinator at the St. Francis Neighborhood Center, where he led 79 volunteers who assisted with the Power Project, a free afterschool program for 31 students.  During that time, William also became an avid volunteer at Chesapeake Natives, where he will serve as VMC this year.

Of his upcoming service year, William says, “I want to help and learn more about the environment. I also want to put my developed leadership skills to good use. I was motivated by my desire to help people. I also share many similar interests to the people I’ll be working with.”

During the service year, William  says, “I am hoping to further develop my leadership skills. I would also like to gain construction skills” One of William’s long-term goals is to build a tiny house and start a homestead.

Montressa Hammond, St. Francis Neighborhood Center

Montressa Hammond is a graduate student at University of Maryland University College, where she is studying Nonprofit Management.  Montressa previously served as an AmeriCorps member with the House of Ruth, and most recently she has interned with the St. Francis Neighborhood Center.  She and St. Francis Neighborhood Center staff are very happy that Montressa will be able to continue her service there as Volunteer Maryland Coordinator.

While serving SFNC’s 2014 Summer of Service learning project, Montressa became entranced by the youth’s desire to soak up knowledge, and she noticed there was a need for more long-term volunteers. This inspired Montressa to help the organization continue their great work for the community.

This year, Montressa hopes to build professional skills such as public speaking and networking.

Erin Josephitis, City of Greenbelt in partnership with CHEARS

Erin grew up in Lake Bluff, IL, where she says, “I spent as much time as possible playing outdoors in the protected prairies and forests preserves. From a young age, I was curious about nature and fascinated by caterpillars and butterflies. My family always encouraged me to be involved in giving back, so I chose to work outside gardening and restoring the natural state of prairies and forests whenever the chance arose.”

Erin visited Costa Rica, Spain, Greece, and Morocco while she was in high school, and these experiences nurtured her passion for plants and animals, which led her to pursue a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Sustainable Development from Rollins College. While at Rollins, Erin participated in and led volunteer events including shoreline cleanups, gardening projects, and energy efficiency workshops.

Erin sees service as Volunteer Maryland Coordinator with the City of Greenbelt in partnership with CHEARS as “a calling to use my knowledge and skills in environmental studies, background in volunteering, and passion for helping others to make a positive impact on my community.”

During her service year, Erin is looking forward to developing her skills in Spanish, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), plant identification, and leadership. She explains, “It is very important that I inspire others to become environmental stewards so that the service projects and workshops I coordinate will replicate throughout the community even after my term is over. I want to teach others how to care for nature, grow fresh food, and minimize our ecological footprint. Serving as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator provides the unique chance to be a leader in solving today’s most pressing human and environmental needs.”