Getting the best out of the AmeriCorps experience

For many AmeriCorps programs July is a time of transition.  AmeriCorps members might be coming up on the end of their time of service, or they have already graduated and are moving into the next stage, whatever that may be for them.  Here at Volunteer Maryland, as Kerry said, we have just about five more weeks left in our service year.  Many of our class are on the job hunt, looking for the best place to use their skills.  Alumni of AmeriCorps bring special skills and experience with them, and Volunteer Maryland Coordinators especially.  If you happen to be hiring, here are some of the benefits of hiring a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, as originally printed by former VMer, Megan Stransky:

1)      Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are well trained!  Volunteer Maryland provides around 100 hours of training to our AmeriCorps members on topics ranging from the basics of volunteer management, to conflict resolution, to storytelling for nonprofits, to time management, and the list goes on.  Not only that, they also have a toolbook that contains all the secrets to volunteer management that they get to take with them after the service year ends.  That thing is a brick and contains a ton of information that they can share with you and your staff to help the whole organization better understand volunteer management.

2)      They are committed.  There is no better way to judge a person’s commitment than to offer them a difficult, full-time, 11 month job, for an AmeriCorps living stipend of $13,000 (after taxes, it’s more like $10,000).  When you work that down to the hourly rate, it’s really not much money and for the challenges some of our members face, it shows how dedicated to the cause they are that they are willing to do the work for so little (after all, the goal of AmeriCorps is not to get rich, but to serve others).

3)      They are creative problem solvers.  VMCs either work with existing volunteer programs to make them more successful or work on creating brand new volunteer programs for organizations that have never worked with volunteers before.  Either way, they generally face challenges in doing this and need to rely on their own creativity to solve the problem at hand.

4)      They are fun to work with.  When you work in a nonprofit, you deal with some pretty serious issues, but knowing how to have fun at work can make facing those issues a whole lot easier.  Well, VMCs are a fun group of people—they like karaoke, gardening, going to the beach, bowling, etc.—and they could definitely help lighten the atmosphere at your organization.

5)      They are part of a great network of AmeriCorps alumni that your organization can tap into.  Since 1992, Volunteer Maryland has had over 500 AmeriCorps members serve at nonprofits across the state.  Not only that, but thousands of people have served in AmeriCorps since its inception, every single one of them knows how much passion and determination it takes to serve in AmeriCorps, many still work in the nonprofit sector, and they are willing to help their fellow alumni succeed in life after AmeriCorps.  So, if you need some connections in the nonprofit world, hiring an AmeriCorps alumnus (specifically, a VM alumnus) can really help you tap into that network.


It’s That Time Again

It’s spring at Volunteer Maryland, and that means another exciting round of site visits!  Each fall, the Volunteer Maryland Program Manager and Peer Leaders visit every Volunteer Maryland Coordinator at his or her site.  This amounts to a whirlwind tour of Maryland, and it also involves hearing about the amazing work VMCs have been doing to strengthen the volunteer programs in their organizations.  Here are some highlights:

beccal20130320_1341328672570184_fb572a2ee2_zAllyson Bloom

At the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless, Rebecca Larew is has created a Speakers Bureau Manual.

At Ardmore Enterprises, Kat Patterson has initiated a series of service projects at the homes of individuals who have intellectual disabilities.

At the Accokeek Foundation, Casey Lowe hosted more than 50 volunteers for Accokeek’s Earth Day celebration, Earthfest.

At the Maryland Association of Environmental and Outdoor Education, Allyson Bloom has trained 60 Green Leaders to assist Maryland schools in achieving Green School Status.

Watch this space for another update on our amazing Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.

An Early Spring Break

The idea of spring break brings with it images of sun and sand.  But this past week, for 11 students from Brandeis University, it meant, among other things, building a fence on the National Colonial Farm at Piscataway Park.  Accokeek Foundation Volunteer Maryland Coordinator Casey Lowe worked for months to prepare a service experience for these students that would be meaningful to them and truly helpful to the Accokeek Foundation.  Not only did these students build a fence, but they also cleared brush from the Blackberry Trail, fed livestock, and prepared a high tunnel on the Ecosystem Farm.

Congratulations to this wonderful group of students and the VMC Casey Lowe on several jobs well-done!

Volunteers pose with Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, Casey, before heading back to Massachusetts by Accokeek Foundation

A Whirlwind

We are two months into the Volunteer Maryland service year, and that means, among other things, site visits!  Twice each year, the Volunteer Maryland Program Manager and Peer Leaders travel far and wide, visiting each Service Site, where we meet with each VMC and Site Supervisor, talk about the service year and tour the site.  When I was describing these meetings to a friend over the weekend, I remarked “There was a lot of love in those rooms!”

It’s not hard to understand why.  Though VMCs have been on-site for only about seven weeks, they have already made tremendous progress developing programs that their sites have wanted for years.  Site visits are an opportunity to let VMCs know that their efforts are deeply appreciated.  Last week, I got to visit Krisia Jones at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, Gina Knyazev at the Conflict Mediation Center of Montgomery County, Rhonda Nelson at Volunteers of America Chesapeake, Kristen Wharton at CHEARS, Nina Lewis at United Communities Against Poverty, and Kat Patterson at Ardmore Enterprises.

Six visits down, eight to go — I feel another road trip coming on….

Vote Every Day

Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.
—Marjorie Moore

The recent election has been the focus of the nation for a while now, and now that it is done people are refocusing their energy back to the everyday.  But your chance to vote isn’t over.  Think about what issues that got you fired up.  Why not take that passion and apply it every day of the year?

Voting is all about using your voice and your power to make a difference in the world around you.  You vote in order to support people who will make the world a better place.  But you don’t need to vote to do that.  Many organizations exist with the mission of bettering their community.  The people who volunteer through these organizations see something that could be and work towards making that vision reality.  They know that volunteers can create the changes they want to see at the lowest levels, at the foundations of society.

This Saturday, I will be joining a volunteer group with Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake as a part of the efforts to rebuild homes along McCabe Avenue in Baltimore City.  Though there will only be ten of us doing a day’s work, I know that I will be a part of bringing a once strong neighborhood back to life. This is the strongest way for my voice to be heard, even when it’s not election season. Don’t let your voice only be heard once a year – make every day a chance to let your neighbors and your community know that they can work to improve the world around them.

Think about how much power that gives you, that every day can be a vote.  This is the time to get passionate and build up the excitement about how you can create the community you want to live in.  Why volunteer your time?  For the same reason that you vote; because you care and you want to make your voice heard.

If I Can Make it Here…

 Here I am in the city so nice they named it twice.  New York, host of the 2010 National Conference on Volunteering and Service.  I’m honored and excited to be speaking in a session on social media today.  Instead of people just sitting in a room listening to people talk, the session has its panel speakers throughout the room, and the attendees can move around the room as they like, listening to the topics they’re most interested in.  It allows for more question and answer, and the attendees can get what they really want out of the session.  I’m really excited about speaking at the session, because I’ll be talking about blogging.  Y’know, this thing that you’re reading here.

I’m sitting in on a lot of sessions, too.  I’m taking quite a few on how to create cities of service.  I’m excited to hear about how people have created large scale buy-in for volunteerism in their cities.  It’s something that I’ve thought a lot about when I lived in Cincinnati, especially after the riots.  I remember looking out over the city and knowing that the city had so much potential, and hoping that it could become a Great American City, but not having any idea about how to make that happen.  Maybe on Thursday I’ll have a better idea about how to make that happen in Baltimore.  And Clevealnd.  And Detroit, and all of the cities that just need a hug and a little more hope.

Something that I don’t see happening here at the conference is some kind of decision about how to move forward.  I’m kind of on the fence about that.  On one hand, we’ve got a lot of decision makers, and a lot of people with a lot of pull, all in a room.  How hard would it be to say, “Alright, here are the steps that we need to take to make sure everyone’s program, everyone’s organization, and everyone’s effort is worth-while and creates positive lasting change in their communities.

On the other hand, though, I understand that there isn’t one easy answer on how to make our communities better.  Each problem, and each community, is going to require something just a little bit different to make changes that are lasting and positive.  There’s no silver bullet.  No one-size-fits-all approach.  The only thing that’s going to make change better are the people that are working in their communities.  It wouldn’t make sense that all of us come back with some magical plan to fix our communities that might end up acting like a bandage rather than addressing the real problem.

So, it’s a bit confusing.  For someone who is about to move on to something new after my AmeriCorps term is up, I started questioning who to turn to and what to do.

Yesterday I met Chris Golden and Jen Martin, two  people that I’d only known on Twitter.  We’re “those kids” that Joe Scarborough mentioned in the opening plenary.  We were upset by the fact that older adults still insist on referring to us a “kids.”  Not leaders, not young adults, we’re those kids that just use Facebook and Twitter and send text messages and we’re not engaged.  More often than not, after someone describes people my age that way, in their very next breath they wonder why it is that we’re not engaged, why we’re not leaders in our communities.  Could it be because we’re not given respect by people older than us for what we know and what we can do?  How are we supposed to be leaders if it’s obvious that you don’t respect us enough to follow us?  A leader without followers is just someone out for a walk.

So, over dinner, we hatched a plan.  A scheme of sorts.  How can we show that people our age, and people much older than we are, can get things done in our communities?  How can we share our skills?  What’s the best way to show that we should be listened to?  What could happen to a community when AARP, myImpact, and AmeriCorps Alums join forces?  Maybe nothing will come of it.  Maybe, we can change our cities.

The lights here really are inspiring.

I Could Do That

How many times have you seen something awesome and thought to yourself “I could do that…” even though someone has already done it?   Sure, ideas are great, but we’re in AmeriCorps.  We love ideas, but we’re all about getting things done.  What people don’t always realize is just how much ‘getting things done’ actually gets done in order for an event or service project to come off without a hitch, not to mention everything that goes into the trainings Volunteer Maryland does for its AmeriCorps members.

People ask about my job, and after give the thirty second speech, more often they tell me that they could do it.  “Not if you have a mortgage,” is my usual response.  The truth of the matter is that AmeriCorps isn’t for everyone, not everyone “can do that…,” and it’s not just because of the work that gets done, but because of the sacrifices involved in undertaking a year of service.

The biggest sacrifice is the paycheck, or rather the lack of one.  We’re all volunteers, after all.  There is a stipend for AmeriCorps members – the service year isn’t completely without pay – but it isn’t a lot of money.  There are lots of ways of dealing with living on a stipend, and we’ve talked about some of them  here.

I really like talking about my Habitat build days – they’re the second thing that I tell people when they ask me what I do for a living.  Most of the time people talk about how they think it’s awesome that I work with Habitat.  Every now and then, though, someone will hit me with an, “I could do that…”  My usual response is along the lines of, “Awesome!  Let’s go build a house together!”  No one has taken me up on the offer yet, which is a bit of a disappointment, especially when I find out that they mean “I could do that…” dismissively.

The point is that there’s a huge difference between, “I could do that…” and actually doing it.  It doesn’t do you any good that you thought of Twitter ten years ago, or if you were the first guy to tear the lid of your cup of coffee so you could drink out if it, or that you’ve thought about volunteering with an organization whose mission you can get behind.  The important thing is to get out there and do it.  I am AmeriCorps – let’s get some things done together!