More than giving thanks

I’m thankful for the chance to help others.  That’s what I shared this past Thanksgiving holiday when anyone asked me, “What are you thankful for this year?”  Yes, I am thankful for my health and the health of my loved ones, but more importantly I am thankful for the fact that my health affords me the chance and the ability to do well in this world.  So instead of focusing on food and gatherings and football  this Thanksgiving  I chose to spend the first several hours of my morning giving back.  As an ThanksgivingAmeriCorps member I am all too aware of the situations of those less fortunate than myself and I wanted part of my Thanksgiving to be in service to those people.

My roommate and I woke up at 7 am on Thanksgiving morning and went out to join over 120 fellow volunteers, including several other AmeriCorps members, at Moveable Feast. Moveable Feast helps to put healthy food on the tables of people in Maryland with AIDS, cancer and other life-threatening illnesses and when we arrived we found out that our time would be spent helping sort a week’s worth of meals for 200+ clients.  Once the sorting was complete we then worked with volunteers loading meals into cars for delivery and as an added bonus to the morning, my roommate and I were able to make a few deliveries ourselves.  Delivering those meals may have been the most sobering and rewarding part of my service.  There is a bittersweet dichotomy that occurs when you find yourself trying to balance the joy you feel helping someone and the stark realization that there are so many who are in need of that help.hgl

Holidays are a great opportunity to give of your time in service to others, but it’s also important to keep in mind that there are hundreds of other days when people need help just as much.  We here at Volunteer Maryland are all about volunteering.  Not only do our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators recruit volunteers for their respective sites  but they also participate in their own direct-service each week, as do myself and all of our staff.  In fact, by the end of this service term we will collectively log over 4000 hours in service to others. I don’t know about you, but I know that I speak for all of us here at Volunteer Maryland when I say that we hope all of you who read this will consider giving a little of your time to volunteering before, after, and during the holidays.

Thanksgiving – A Lesson in Outsourcing

The following is a guest post from VM’s Outreach Manager, Patrice Beverly.

Today is a rather sad day.  It is the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers.  Sure the stuffing is not as moist as it was week ago, and the mashed potatoes may have lost a bit of their softness, but the taste is undeniably Thanksgiving.  As I scrap the container for the last few morsels, I started thinking about the amount of coordination that went into this food fete.  I come from a big family, so long ago we abandoned the one person does all mentality of Thanksgiving.  It has become a symphony of outsourcing.  Each year members of my family tackle the questions of how to feed about 30 – 40 people, or as we call it, a small intimate gathering.  I am a pretty good pie maker, and am always game for a side dish or two.  My nephew makes great mashed potatoes.  My niece makes a mean green bean casserole with jalapeño peppers as an awesome pick-me-up to an otherwise mushy concoction.  I realize this coordinated effort is not new as many a Thanksgiving table is set with contributions from all that attend.  But this year it got me thinking about outsourcing and Volunteer Maryland.

I am not great at cooking a turkey.  As a matter of fact, on one of my first attempts, a dish rag that I was using made its way into the cavity of the old bird, and was baked in with the stuffing.  Dish rag stuffing is still a favorite story in my family.  So I go to the experts here.  I want quality, and know that within my reach are several experts in preparing turkey. So why struggle with doing something I am not sure of, and will come away with so-so results?  This is where I see Volunteer Maryland.  Not in the turkey prep role, but in providing real solutions to volunteer program problems.  See, there are so many variables when looking at volunteer program development, it can bring on that feeling of an overwhelmed host trying to prepare the perfect feast.  Preparation, timing and execution not only are the keys in the kitchen, but the keys to volunteer programs as well, and Volunteer Maryland can take them all on.  With 20 years working in the volunteer program development test kitchen, we got this down and continue to find better, more effective ways of creating, building and sustaining volunteer programs.  It really is a no brainer.  So let’s talk turkey, I mean volunteer program development.  Join Volunteer Maryland for a 45 minute webinar detailing what we provide.  More information is on Volunteer Maryland’s web site.  You don’t even need to bring anything, and I promise you will leave full of information and food for thought.

Why? How? Pie?

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday last week.  I must admit, I was regretting a serving or two of stuffing and gravy as I made my way to the 15th Floor this morning.  I’m just sure it wasn’t the apple pie or baklava slowing me down!  Thanksgiving my home was filled with tantalizing aromas, delightful laughter and fascinating conversations.  We ranged in age from 8 to 80 with the college students being the ones who had travelled the farthest.  In addition to a contingent from University of Maryland, James Madison University, Ithaca College, Case Western Reserve University, and University of Connecticut were represented.  There was lots of purple attire sported too, even by other than Baltimore Ravens fans.  Some of our guests had never been to our home so good thing they didn’t heed their GPS when it said “You have reached your destination,” a half-mile from our house.  My husband is not a cook but he is a remarkable storyteller.  Since we had guests who had not met one another prior to Thanksgiving, this was very important.    As the “uninitiated” arrived, he ushered them in, showed them around and told stories about how each of the guests was connected to our family; a Thanksgiving orientation story, if you will.  Apparently they learned a thing or two about me that day!

At next week’s monthly training, each of the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators will present an abbreviated orientation.  There are three aspects to a volunteer orientation:  cause, system and social that answer these three respective questions:

Why should I volunteer here? (cause)

How will I be volunteering? (system)

How do I fit in with the organization? (social)

A volunteer orientation prepares the individual for his/her relationship with the organization much like John’s stories gave our guests contexts (social) within which to relate to the other guests.  Our purpose (cause) was to enjoy food, drink, and camaraderie as we celebrated our American heritage.  Upon invitation, guests were invited (system) to bring an appetizer, dessert, etc. to share.  By dinner time, we had some mingling going on and sharing of recipes, too.  I am looking forward to the volunteer orientations.  It’s a great opportunity to learn more about the service occurring in our communities.  I wonder if anyone will bring pecan pie?

Of Cranberry Sauce and Volunteer Management

As I stood browning sausage and toasting bread for the Thanksgiving stuffing this year, it occurred to me that putting together a Thanksgiving meal is much like managing a volunteer program.  It requires serious planning, attention to detail, and an understanding of the needs of the people around you (whether clients, volunteers, or your dinner guests).

For our Thanksgiving this year, we had seven people from four different states all convening at an aunt and uncle’s home in a fifth state.  The travel arrangements alone took up a whole lot of time and energy!  Then there was the meal.  Between food allergies and food preferences, cooking with my family can be quite a juggling act.  I, for instance, insist on canned cranberry sauce.  It’s about the only area where I won’t compromise, which I feel is fair for the least expensive item on the table.  We also have homemade cranberry sauce (which, oddly, I played a part in making this year.  Let’s just say I may have overdone it on the cloves.).  Other members of the family have their quirks, too.  Somehow, though, we make it work.  And that’s where the volunteer management skills come into play.

We know that good volunteer management requires a solid vision of the volunteer program.  We have to know what constitutes success before we even begin to put volunteers into action.  Like my heavily-cloved cranberry sauce, that doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes.  But we know our goal and we put our resources into getting there.

Sometimes the most challenging part can be getting the right volunteers into the right positions so that they are happy in their work.  This leads to better work and higher retention of the volunteers.  This is equally true at Thanksgiving.  What role do we give everyone so that each person plays a part in the success of the meal?  Let’s put the people who love cooking up front, the creative types can set the table, and those who love to clean up are on dish patrol.  Stick the friendliest person with the newest member of the family to make him/her feel comfortable.

If you’ve been to a dinner where people are in the wrong roles, you can feel the misery in the air.  Ask me to bake you a pie and you’re asking for a cranky woman in the kitchen and bad dessert for everyone!  We won’t meet our goal of a good meal for all and I’m not going to be too excited about next time.  Ask me to buy the groceries and wash the dishes and we’ll all be much happier.  The same is true of any volunteer event or program.

Plan right and get to know your volunteers.  Get the right people in the right positions and you’re more likely to see those volunteers return and get closer to reaching your goals.

People ask me for the secrets to volunteer retention all of the time.  I still have no Big Secret to unveil, but I think there’s a lot to learn from a family meal.  I hope you all enjoyed your Thanksgiving as much as I did and maybe had some “aha” moments as well!

Close the door. . .Take your mark. . .

I have been volunteering as an official with USA and YMCA Swimming for more than 15 years. I am certified in several positions; one of these is as the Starter. In competitive swimming, this is the person who initiates the race. The standard protocol is for the Starter to say, “Take your mark,” when the swimmers are set, you depress a button that produces an ear splitting blast and simultaneously starts the timing system. At that moment the race begins. Certification in this position requires specific previous experience, passing a written test, a requisite number of sessions as an apprentice, and subsequent assessment by a skilled evaluator. During the apprentice period, I was coached to practice saying “Take your mark” frequently, in any situation possible. The mantra I practiced saying was “close the door. . .take your mark.” This approach is taught because the cadence of conversationally saying “close the door” is the desired cadence for saying “take your mark.” I practiced in the car, in the shower, making dinner and continue to practice before each meet when I know I will be the Starter. According to Malcolm Gladwell, it takes most of us 10,000 practices to be masterful.
At our regional meeting earlier this month, the VMCs talked about their One Minute Spots. This is a 60 second response to the question “What do you do?” that encompasses the partnership between Volunteer Maryland and the community agencies where the VMCs serve. Liz even acknowledged that she had “flubbed” it when asked “What is Volunteer Maryland?” During our conversation, one of the VMCs asked me to share mine. It rolled effortlessly off my tongue. Why? I have practiced for more than a year. I haven’t reached 10,000 times yet and it is a work in progress; Joy and I practiced with Patrice coaching us just a few days into the current service year. I have continued to practice though. Last year at Thanksgiving I practiced over and over again. That was the first time I saw my brothers and their families since beginning the service year as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator. It was a prime opportunity. And, I was better prepared the next month when participating in outreach programs in the community. My family has practiced many skills in the presence of one another over the years. Sometime I’ll tell you about the frogs on the cutting board! For now, use the upcoming holiday to practice your One Minute Spot (or anything else you need to practice!). Challenge yourself to get feedback from people in the generation before and after yours as well as from parents, spouses, and complete strangers.