April!

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!

We Have Lift Off

We Americans love to count down, don’t we?  Whether it is a ball dropping or a shuttle launching, we are all about the few seconds before the big event.

For many members of the class of VM25, the past several weeks have been a countdown of sorts, to the actual work of direct service volunteers at their service sites. “Of sorts” because, as anyone familiar with Volunteer Maryland can tell you, VM’s method of program development is cyclical.

In fact, one thing I have to come to love about Volunteer Maryland is The Cycle of Program Development.  Alas, I must admit, it was not love at first sight.  And to do this day, my tongue twists around this seemingly simple name.  The Program of Cycle Development?  The Development of a Program Cycle?  (Oddly, these misnomers are not entirely inaccurate — Volunteer Maryland does introduce the notion of a cyclical program, or, to put in another way — it introduces a program that is founded on the development of a cycle…)

Anyway, regardless of my mangling of the term and my slowness to warm to it, I have to come to see this concept as Volunteer Maryland’s pièce de résistance.  At once linear and, well, cyclical, it begins, so to speak, with “The Big Picture.”  What community need does the organization meet?  How?  And how do volunteers fit into this lofty mission and the hard work of paid staff?

Next comes foundation building.  Volunteer Maryland Coordinators learn an important corollary to “If you build it, they will come.”  Specifically, build it before they show up!  For the past several weeks, members of VM25 have been deeply immersed in this phase of the cycle — surveying program managers, developing databases, writing policies, procedures, position descriptions, applications, interview questions —  phew!  I get winded just writing that list.

The third phase?  Implementation!  Lift off!  It has been my honor to follow along as several VMCs have readied their organizations for volunteer programs that will, in some form or fashion, take wing in January.  Whether VMCs are transitioning from coordinating an existing volunteer corps to developing a new one, or recruiting one of the very first volunteers their site has ever welcomed, the new year brings a new chapter in the service year.

The thing, of course, about cyclical processes is that we are always already engaged in each part.  Members of VM25 will continue to consider how volunteers fit into the big picture of their service sites.  They will continue to create, hone, and collaborate on foundational materials and resources.  But from now until the end of the service year, they will see more and more actual volunteers engaged in direct service.

And if anything lifts the spirits on a cold winter day, it is the sight of individuals giving freely of their time to fulfill the mission of an organization that meets a vital community need.  And like a shuttle that has just launched, this service year undoubtedly promises many more amazing moments and memorable adventures.

Relaxation, Reflection, Learning, Goal-setting, and Fun: It’s a Mid-Year Retreat!

It’s been so busy I haven’t even had a chance to mention one of our recent big events.  That’s right, we just had our Class 24 Mid-Year Retreat – and what a retreat it was!

We had a few goals for our retreat: relaxation, reflection, learning, goal-setting, and fun.  And, if I do say so myself, I believe these goals were met.  We were in a beautiful setting with the sun shining and the temperature hitting nearly 80 degrees.  We had a book exchange and bikes were donated for free time.  We spent some time purposefully reflecting on the accomplishments from the last six months (and there are so many!).  We had a variety of workshops, focusing on both volunteer management and skills for “Life After AmeriCorps.”   We were also able to begin to shift gears a bit and recognize that we’re getting closer and closer to the end of the year, setting goals and priorities for the next four months.  And, of course, we spent time reconnecting and having some fun.

All of that was part of our plan.  But this class of AmeriCorps members brought so much more to our 24ish hours together.  Our Peer Leaders, Barb and Joy, put together gift bags, door prizes, and a red carpet to recognize the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  And the VMCs brought so much personality that it’s a wonder we could all fit in one room!

They held their own jam session with instruments brought from home.  One VMC started off the retreat by riding her bike from Baltimore to St. Michaels’ (a seven hour journey and she was the first one there!).  Others brought books and magazines to exchange and discuss.  And they all brought incredible humor.  I nodded off to sleep Thursday evening with my cheeks aching from smiles and laughter.

They did all of this and stayed focused on continuing their service with enthusiasm and dedication.  It’s no easy feat being a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator.  Eleven months is a pretty short time to create a program, recruit volunteers, make it sustainable.  In many jobs, a person gets several months or even a year to really learn the ropes before making any big changes.  A VMC doesn’t get that opportunity; s/he just needs to dive on in and make the change.

I remain incredibly impressed with VM24.  This retreat demonstrated one reason why: they work as hard as they play – and I think both work and play benefit.

My thanks go out to the VMCs for their dedication to service, for the perseverance they continue to show, and for re-inspiring me.

Why I’m Optimistic

Today I’m focusing on a quote that I’ve had hanging on my computer screen since June 2009.  It’s from Paul Hawken, who spoke at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service.

“If you look at the science about what is happening on the earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data.  But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”

We’re at the halfway point of our service year.  At this point, it’s not uncommon for AmeriCorps members to wonder if they are making a difference or to become pessimistic at the slow rate of change.  Paul Hawken reminds us to balance the struggle for change with the optimism that we can make our world better.

It’s Monday and the morning news didn’t give me much to rejoice about.  But I am optimistic because I know AmeriCorps members, nonprofit staff, and community volunteers are working every day to improve our world.  And I am optimistic that, with their continued service, we will restore the earth and the lives of the poor.

You Can Only Run Halfway Into a Forest…

We’re coming up on the halfway point of the Volunteer Maryland service year, and that means it is midyear retreat time.  Our midyear retreat is an opportunity for our members to take a step back from their service sites and reconnect with what brought them to Volunteer Maryland in the first place.  It’s a chance for them to regroup, and a chance to spend time with their peers that they haven’t seen since January. 

Last year’s midyear retreat was a great experience.  I got to hang out with a fellow Volunteer Maryland Coordinator that I didn’t know very well, even though we had driven to trainings together.  I got to spend some quiet time wading in the Chesapeake Bay… in February, and won a prize for being the first person that had done it that season at the venue we held the retreat at.  It was a great experience to hang out with my peers and watch them let down their guard.  Our staff learned that asking me to do something silly isn’t always the best idea – although it does result in silliness. 

This year’s midyear retreat focuses on the idea of play.  It’s something we really don’t take the time out of our day to do once we become an adult.  Playing is a childish thing, we say to ourselves, as we get lost in our world of car payments, jobs, and retirement savings.  I know I’ve lost some play time in my life; I’m working two jobs right now and might be picking up a third in a few weeks. 

There are a few things that I do when I do get a chance to play.  I like to go out into the world and try to see it in ways that people don’t normally look at it, and then take a picture.  I like that I can lose myself in what I’m doing when I go out with my camera. I love getting so wrapped up in what I’m doing that bombs could be going off and I won’t notice.
I love spending time in my friends’ kitchens, sharing myself with them and sitting down to a meal, insulating us from our world and our troubles.  At least for as long as the food and conversation lasts.  

That’s what we’re trying to do for our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators, too.  We want to take them from a place that’s most likely wearing them down right now, and put them somewhere safe and away from any sort of friction.  Not only that, but we’re hoping to give them a set of tools they can take back to their service sites that will help them to deal with any conflict they may be dealing with at their sites.  Hopefully, after the retreat we’ll all be able to move our jobs a step or two closer to play. 

Check out American Public Media’s Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett from July 24, 2008, where she talks with Stuart Brown, a physician and director of the National Institute for Play.