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!

Instagram #Inspiration: Benefits and Tips for Service-Oriented Organizations

Social media has been a driving factor for the marketing departments of many businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies. People are on social media more than ever before. In 2015, 76% of Internet users in the US had at least one social media profile. So naturally, marketers go where the people are. For both non-profit and for-profit businesses, social media is a way to gain more resources. Whether it’s through advertising the next big thing in subscription-based deliverable goods or boosting support for a local fundraiser, social media is crucial for development.

Parks and Rec gif of Tom Haverford saying, "Every day I start by hitting up Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, and Instagram."

So, how can AmeriCorps and other service-oriented programs utilize social media in a savvy way to promote volunteerism and the awesome work they do?

Well, I could speak about the benefits of every social media platform out there, but I won’t. Instead, I’m going to focus on a little Peer Leader Pet Project that Chelsea and I have been working on since way back in September 2015, when we first started at VM: INSTAGRAM! First, I’m going to introduce why VM has an Instagram, and then I’ll follow that with some general tips for success!

Instagram by the numbers: InstaWHOA

Now, I am personally drawn to Instagram, because I’m a creative person and I really like visual interpretations of people’s worlds, but let’s look at some of the numbers: Instagram is the third most-used social media platform, capturing the attention of 28% of Internet users (following Facebook and Pinterest). On June 21st, 2016, Instagram announced that they had hit 500 million users, more than 300 million of which use Instagram daily. In addition to this, Instagram reports that 80% of their users are from outside of the US.

Nina Garcia saying, "This is such an Instagram moment."

Instagram has a huge, global pool of users to connect with, which means organizations have the potential to reach a whole bunch of people–whether they’re potential AmeriCorps members or just want to find a place to volunteer in their hometown–that they would not have reached otherwise.

“Don’t tell me–SHOW me.”

As I mentioned before, Instagram is unique from other social media platforms, because it’s focused on images and videos. This allows for a compelling, creative method of telling your organization’s story. And to VM, storytelling is important. For Chelsea and I, the VM Instagram is a way to show off the cool stuff our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are doing. We like to focus on the interesting, not-your-everyday-job type of activities (like hanging out with horses that are older than you, see below). This material not only gives our followers a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on during a Volunteer Maryland service year, but it also shows how much fun we have during our service year! Our current AmeriCorps members get to feel proud of what they do, potential AmeriCorps members can see a glimpse into a future with Volunteer Maryland, our partners get more air time, and other organizations can see what we’re up to.

View this post on Instagram

Happy #AmeriFriday from Freedom Hills! VMC Valerie, her volunteer Katherine, horse DeeDee, Program Manager Nicki, and Peer Leader Chelsea enjoyed some time in the #sun today after a successful final #partnership meeting. Thank your for your #service to #veterans and the #disabled Valerie and Katherine! (And DeeDee!!) Fun Fact: Katherine and DeeDee will soon compete together in a Dressage show for their Century Club Award, available to a horse and rider team whose combined age is 100+ #AmeriCorps #ServeWithMe #NationalService #AmeriCorpsPride #AmeriCorpsAlums #VolunteerMaryland #VM #horses #farm #equinetherapy #volunteer #volunteers #Friday #easternshore #PortDeposit #Maryland #MD #vets #rehabilitation #dressage #seniorhorse #DeeDeeis30

A post shared by Volunteer Maryland (@volunteer_maryland) on


“Follow4Follow?”: Connecting with other programs

Many AmeriCorps programs are currently on Instagram! The Corporation for National and Community Service, Points of Light, AmeriCorps Alums, City Year, the Choice Program at UMBC, and Arizona Conservation Corps are all awesome accounts to follow, because they always have interesting posts and they demonstrate effective Instagram usage. We can also connect with any organization that has a public account, and we can even repost each other’s content. For example, AmeriCorps Alums liked one of our group photos and reposted it on their account to show off some AmeriPride, which also granted VM a bigger platform (see below).


Tips for InstaSuccess:

Follow others, especially organizations that are doing awesome stuff like you!

When we first made the VM Instagram account, we immediately set out to follow all of the organizations that were like us, and then we branched out a bit. So follow all of the accounts linked above, but also check out the  Maryland State Archives and Maryland’s Office of Tourism (incredible use of Instagram by some of our own state agencies), as well as Baltimore City Rec and Parks, Maryland Food Bank, and ALL of the National Parks Instagrams (and there are so many), but especially the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Hashtags. Use them. All of them.

Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake yelling, "Hashtag!" in unison, while creating a hashtag symbol with their fingers.For every picture we post, we use the AmeriCorps hashtags (#AmeriCorps #AmeriCorpsAlums #gettingthingsdone #servewithme, etc.) and we also try to make use of other popular hashtags like #tbt/#throwbackthursday or #wellnesswednesday. Get creative and make your own hashtag for a weekly activity, but don’t forget to…

Post consistently.

Pretty self-explanatory, but but don’t abandon your Instagram for long periods of time and get disappointed that you had no new likes or follows. We generally try to post 1-3 times a week. Nonprofit Tech For Good recommends to post at least weekly and has lots of other good recommendations in this. 

Infographic describing the best and worst times to post on social media.

Mix it up

Instagram allows you to post photos, videos, and (if you have good apps) collages of anything you want, so mix it up in terms of content and layout! Post selfies, landscapes, action shots, some Boomerang videos!

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.

The end of an Era, the continuation of a lifestyle

When I joined AmeriCorps two years ago, I chose a lifestyle of service and I will continue to embrace that AmeriCorps_logolifestyle long after I’ve moved on from my AmeriJourney. Next week, my term of service with Volunteer Maryland and AmeriCorps will conclude and since my last post dealt with reflection and looking back, this final post will tackle looking towards the future.

Volunteer Maryland taught me that service can come in all shapes and sizes and even though I’ll be transitioning out of my AmeriRole, I will still engage in direct service and strive to impact the communities in which I live. I will also continue to cultivate the relationships and networks that I built as an AmeriCorps Member. The VM Program prides itself on its diversity and it’s that diversity that allowed me to meet people from all walks of life and gave me the chance to have some incredible experiences and adventures with those people. As a VM Alum, I plan to engage my fellow alums and current VM members and will remain connected with the Program that gave me the chance to explore my passions and join others who shared my love of service. As an AmeriCorps Alum, I will continue to GET THINGS DONE and I will embrace the values of the AmeriCorps Alumni Pledge.


I am an AmeriCorps Alum and 

I make a difference in my community. 

I believe that AmeriCorps is one year 

in a lifetime of service. 

I pledge to continue to serve in 

all aspects of my life. 

I took action, and will continue to serve. 

I sought common ground, and 

will build community throughout my life. 

I persevered, and 

will live each day with conviction. 

I will lead by example. 

I will engage other people 

as we make our world a better place. 

I join the AmeriCorps alumni before me 

as we harness our energy 

to inspire those yet to come. 

Together, we will continue to GET THINGS DONE!

Local Service that impacts a Global Cause

Volunteer Maryland prides itself on getting citizens involved in direct service here in Maryland, and we here at Volunteer Maryland Headquarters are no exception.  For my direct service this year I chose to volunteer some of my time serving with TurnAround Inc, the domestic violence and sexual assault center in Baltimore City.  The center focuses on the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as advocacy for victims of human trafficking through their anti-sex trafficking program.  Human trafficking, widely referred to as modern day slavery, is the trading of humans predominantly for the use of sexual slavery and forced labor and TurnAround works with victims of these crimes helping them to re-acclimate themselves to life outside of the world of trafficking.  Advocates with the anti-trafficking program spend their hours of service attending doctor appointments with victims, engage them in social activities, and serving as someone the victim can turn to for support and encouragement as they enter into a life of freedom.

Being an advocate with TurnAround, I’m able to see the local impact of our work and as a volunteer I understand the importance of knowing how my service impacts my local community. However, I am also aware that as a volunteer I find myself wondering how my service makes an impact on a global scale.  This past month, I was given a glimpse of that impact during the National Conference on Volunteering and Service (NCVS) in Atlanta, Georgia. NCVCS is a conference where leaders from nonprofits, business, and government come together to build and lead a more powerful and vibrant volunteer sector and remind everyone that service really can unite us all. The conference hosts sessions that cover a wide variety of social issues and strategies to combat those issues and a few of those sessions dealt with the issue of human trafficking.  I attended one such session hosted by Lisa Williams, founder of Living Water and found myself part of a dialogue that spoke to the impact that states can make against the issue of human trafficking. Living Water is a home of respite for young girls victimized by human trafficking and Lisa was at NCVS to help local citizens understand that taking action against this issue is a pressing need in all communities including right there in the state of Georgia. She was there to help Georgians understand how getting involved could help to destabilize a $32 billion per year industry and to help them see that one state could make a difference.

As I sat listening to Lisa reach out to the Georgians in the audience I found myself thinking about the work being done here in the state of Maryland and felt a sense of pride in knowing that our state is helping to make a difference.  TurnAround and organizations like it work diligently to help fight human trafficking here in our state by providing service to victims and raising awareness about the issue.  Lisa doesn’t know this, but as she was working to get her home state invested in this issue and showing them the impact they could have, she was simultaneously impacting me.  She was showing me the impact TurnAround has in fighting human trafficking and she helped me see how my service on a local level is truly helping to alleviate the issue on a global scale.

Did AmeriCorps Win the Superbowl?

It probably goes without saying that here in Baltimore, the last few days have been remarkable.  The vibe is pure joy.  There is no hubris, and no one is feeling smug.   Rather, there is the palpable delight of an underdog that fought hard and  proved the pundits (even Nate Silver!) wrong.


If a Superbowl victory were not sweet enough, those of us in the AmeriCorps world have another reason to celebrate:  Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee made the game more interesting by wagering AmeriCorps service projects.

According to The NonProfit Times, the mayors agreed that the mayor  of the losing team’s city would come to the winning team’s city to do a major service project with the aid of AmeriCorps members.  This truly win-win arrangement was preceded by a day of service in New Orleans called the Super Saturday of Service, during which local volunteers revitalized 5 playgrounds.

Stay tuned for news of Mayor Lee’s Charm City service project…