Some people do it for the enjoyment, not the money

On Wednesday, I attended a webinar focused on helping

VISTA/AmeriCorps members prepare for living on the allowance.  The main point of the webinar was creating a budget and sticking to that budget.  The highlight of the webinar was hearing first hand experience from a VISTA member serving in Washington (state).  As a part-time AmeriCorps member last year and a full-time member this year, I can relate to the financial struggles she shared.  Her honesty and openness was admirable.  She helped paint the rest of the AmeriCorps picture for current and prospective members by giving personal examples of how living on the allowance is a definite challenge, but possible.

Here is my take on it.  Am I rich after two years with Volunteer Maryland, no.  Was it worth it, yes!  Being able to give back to Maryland communities has been remarkable.  I have gained valuable knowledge about the nonprofit sector, national service, and myself!  Not every job offers and delivers those opportunities.  Before making the AmeriCorps pledge, I recommend you asking yourself “What am I hoping to gain from this experience?”  Most likely you will receive more than expected (which is a good thing), but it is important to know what you want in the beginning to keep you motivated to achieve that goal.

If you are interested in learning more about Volunteer Maryland (VM) and what it is like to be a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator and AmeriCorps member with this program, visit VM’s web site.  Maureen’s post from this week is a great resource on what VM is looking for.  You will not be disappointed so why not check them out?  Where else can you build a human pyramid and work at the same time?! 

The Many Ways that AmeriCorps Works

It is with great pleasure that I say Happy AmeriCorps Week! Throughout this week (starting on Saturday, actually), we’re really happy to be able to share some of our stories of how AmeriCorps Works. We’re highlighting some Volunteer Maryland alums on our blog and will share some photos and VM AmeriCorps highlights on our facebook page and on twitter. We’re all pretty excited about celebrating AmeriCorps Week and hope you are, too.

This is the ID I was issued on my first day with NCCC.
It’s been almost thirteen years since I first became an AmeriCorps member. I don’t even remember how I first heard of AmeriCorps. I know I spent hours working on my application before I mailed it in. I remember sitting on the floor of my college bedroom on the phone as I interviewed. I remember packing my belongings in one large duffel bag and taking my first flight to my AmeriCorps*National Civilian Community Corpscampus in Washington, DC. I remember wondering if I was crazy to start this journey.

Little did I know then that AmeriCorps would become my life.

I didn’t know then that I’d go on to supervise an NCCC team in my first full-time nonprofit job. I didn’t know I’d go on to be a VISTA a few years later. I certainly didn’t know I’d end up back at that same DC campus as a staff member or that I’d have the incredible opportunity to have worked with programs like Experience Corps before landing my present and fantastic gig with Volunteer Maryland. How could I have known? I didn’t even really know what AmeriCorps was and I certainly didn’t know the impact it would have on my life – and the lives of so many others.

AmeriCorps works. Of that there is no question. AmeriCorps works by training people of all ages to engage in their community, by giving them the skills to succeed in nonprofit and for-profit work, by helping them see the power and responsibility each individual member of our society has to make it better.

AmeriCorps works. AmeriCorps works by building the capacity of nonprofit organizations so they can be more effective and more efficient. AmeriCorps works by supporting our schools and helping our students succeed. AmeriCorps works by enabling seniors and those with disabilities to live independently. AmeriCorps works by cleaning up our lands and streams and by teaching others about the impact one can have on our natural environment. AmeriCorps works by providing housing services and emergency meals and job skills training. AmeriCorps works in times of disaster – and stays for years after those disasters leave the news and the minds of the general public.

AmeriCorps works by taking a small investment and matching it with resources from states, cities, towns, counties, parishes, private foundations, public universities, volunteers, and more. AmeriCorps works by multiplying a small amount of resources so there can be a big impact.

AmeriCorps works by pushing every one of us to work harder, to think smarter, to empathize more, to get things done.

Thirteen years ago, I realized quickly that I needed AmeriCorps. Those ten months in NCCC pushed me harder than I had ever been pushed. I learned more, gained more, and accomplished more than I could have hoped. But that’s not what it’s all about. It’s not just that I needed AmeriCorps – and it’s not just that I love it now – it’s that our country needs AmeriCorps.

We need AmeriCorps so we can have more people that work hard, think smart, empathize more, and get things done.

We need AmeriCorps so we can consistently make a real and necessary impact on our communities.

We need AmeriCorps to help us build the capacity of our nonprofit organizations so they can get closer to meeting their missions and our country’s greatest challenges.

We need AmeriCorps to be the jobs and the job training programs that are in desperately short supply.

And so I will celebrate AmeriCorps Week now – and I will continue to celebrate how AmeriCorps works every day of the year. I will celebrate AmeriCorps until we no longer have these needs. And when that day comes, I will sit back, take a deep breath, and say “I told you so. AmeriCorps Works.”

Happy AmeriCorps Week to all those who serve, who have served, and who have supported our service.

What inspires someone to choose service as a career?

Each week at VM, we have a Support Team Meeting, 90 minutes where staff and Peer Leaders come together to share news, update each other on projects, plan for future trainings and events, and – equally important as all of this business – get to know each other and strengthen our team.  Each meeting is facilitated by a different team member and each brings her own flare to the meeting.

At last week’s meeting, Patrice asked each of us to share a service story: a crazy thing that happened to us during an AmeriCorps service year, a memory of our first experience volunteering, the reason we became involved in service, or any variation on that theme.

Now, I’ve been involved in the service field for quite some time and started volunteering with my family when I was in elementary school, so you’d think this would be an easy assignment for me.  I have lots of stories, but what did I want to share?  I thought about when I was a VISTA and had to cancel my big event because of a hurricane.  I thought about all of the adventures I experienced as an NCCC member.  I thought about volunteering with my Dad at the nursing home where he worked when I was a kid.  I though and I thought, then I asked myself a question: When did I realize I wanted to stay in service professionally?  So, after some reflection, that’s the story I told.

I’ve shared before that I was a member of AmeriCorps*NCCC right after college.  In some ways, my real love of service began then.  But I hadn’t decided on service as a career quite yet.  After my NCCC term, I went to work for a nonprofit, a nonprofit that I loved then and love to this day.  It wasn’t a great fit, though and I left after just a year, despite my intentions to stay there a lifetime.  After that, I spent about two years wandering around.  In New York, I worked in television and tried out teaching; I moved to New Orleans and sold kitchenware at a shop in the French Quarter; I moved to Philadelphia and learned to drive a forklift while working at PetSmart.  I was in my twenties and the economy was good, so I enjoyed knowing that I could pack my car and get a job wherever I landed.  (I wish today’s twenty-somethings had the same sense of security, but that’s another story altogether.)

After two years of this, I realized I wanted to get back in the nonprofit sector.  I wanted to get back to where I had started, youth development.  So I applied around and – shock! No one was interested in the girl who couldn’t stay in one place for more than a few months!

Remembering back to my NCCC experience, I decided to look into AmeriCorps*VISTA positions.  I though this could be a good way to re-enter the nonprofit field and get some newer, more relevant experience.  So I did my research and applied to about four different positions around the country.  I interviewed with three, was offered two, and accepted one in Florida.

My VISTA position was with the Florida Community Higher Education School Partnership, a statewide service-learning program that was part of the Florida Alliance for Student Service.  To be honest, I didn’t fully understand the position when I accepted it, but I really connected with my supervisor, and thought I’d be working to support an after-school program, which was right up my youth development alley.  Moving to Florida in January didn’t hurt, either.

What I found is that I was supporting an after-school program, as well as over a dozen more service-learning programs and initiatives throughout the state.  I can’t say I was in love with every aspect of being a VISTA member, but there was a lot I did love about it.  The piece I loved the most was witnessing the real power of service learning – for students in elementary schools all the way up through college.  Service learning made the classroom come alive!  It connected students to their communities!  It helped develop leaders!  I was sold.

I was sold on the idea of service learning and on the idea of a career in service. What I learned is that enabling others to serve was my thing.  Years later, I’m lucky to say that it’s still my thing.  I’ve worked with a small handful of service programs since being a VISTA, but they’ve all had that in common; they all allowed me to help others serve.

It’s Halloween and later today people will dress up as scary things.  I love this holiday, but with my service story on my brain, I find myself thinking about a different kind of scary.  First, selfishly, it’s scary to think that maybe I wouldn’t have found my way into this career.  Without NCCC, without wandering around, without my VISTA experience, maybe I wouldn’t have realized that enabling others to serve is the one thing that really fires me up.  Scarier, still, is thinking about a world without service.  A world without service learning in our schools and community-based organizations.  A world without opportunities for individuals of all ages to serve.  That’s a scary thought –and one I hope I’ll never have to see.

Not all stories have a happy ending.  Not all characters find their way.  As long as there’s service, though, we have hope for plenty of good stories.

Our VISTA members: Their passion inspires me

On Friday, Megan shared some of the results from this year’s group of VISTA members.  We had a great time celebrating with them last week, as we’ve had great times with them all year.  This group of VISTA members has continually inspired and energized me throughout the year.  I’ve seen them struggle and come out better for it.  I’ve seen them network and share resources like the true professionals they are.  I’ve seen them scared and saddened by the proposed elimination of AmeriCorps in federal budget debates earlier this year.  I’ve seen them lean on each other and use every ounce of energy available so they could make a positive impact in their communities.  It’s been quite a year.

Over the past week, I’ve been reviewing their exit portfolios, the final documentation of each one’s service year.  The very first one to arrive was hand-delivered by Lauren Stoler, who served with Project PLASE in Baltimore.  Lauren has a quiet strength about her and that was reflected in her portfolio as she talked about what she’s learned this year as she worked with individuals who are homeless.

“As the year progressed,” Lauren wrote, “I began to see homelessness in a new light.  I no longer saw it as a problem that only affected ‘those people’ or as a problem that ‘others’ were taking care of.  Homelessness affects people, people with aspirations, people who are worthy of more, and people I know.”

Lauren came into her VISTA year with an interest in community organizing, event planning, and working with volunteers.  She is leaving with a deep passion for helping the most vulnerable and most misunderstood.  I have no doubt that her passion will continue to grow as she continues to serve others.

AmeriCorps calls for all of us to make service part of our everyday life, to continue to serve beyond the AmeriCorps year.  With members like Lauren and the 11 other VISTA members completing their AmeriCorps year this Friday, I know that call will be answered.  We will serve because no matter our interests when the year began, service itself becomes a passion.

Congratulations to our VISTA members Andrea, Ashley, Elanor, Emily, Heather, Jordan, Kate, Katie, Kelly, Lauren, Lisa, and Warren.  Thank you for serving, for giving of yourselves, and for allowing me to be a small part of your year.  I can’t wait to see where you go from here!

Why We Do What We Do

I’ve been thinking about AmeriCorps quite a lot lately.  Not just Volunteer Maryland, but the many kinds of AmeriCorps programs and opportunities.  It’s really an amazing world that I get to live in, this AmeriWorld.  (Yes, we have our own language!)

I first became an AmeriCorps member in 1999.  Back then, no one I knew had been an AmeriCorps member or even knew what it was.  I was just out of college and, while I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up, I knew I wanted to do something “good.”  I thought a year as an AmeriCorps member would help me get a little more specific.

So I became a member with AmeriCorps*National Civilian Community Corps.  I spent ten months traveling around in a fifteen-passenger van with twelve other people performing a variety of service projects that lasted anywhere from two to eight weeks.  I built and rehabbed homes, tutored in GED classes, created a children’s museum for the nature conservancy in Virginia, provided disaster relief after a hurricane hit North Carolina and again with home fires in Washington, DC.  It was the most incredible ten months.

I was so proud to be an AmeriCorps member – and I remain proud of the work I did that year.

A few years later, looking for a different experience in service, I became an AmeriCorps VISTA member in Tallahassee, Florida.  Being a VISTA member allowed me to experience indirect service and see how I liked office life.  I spent that year working to strengthen service-learning programs throughout the state.  I provided training and written resources to teachers and nonprofit leaders who were engaging young people in service-learning.

Over the last several years, I’ve worked with AmeriCorps NCCC, National Direct and State programs, and Learn and Serve.  It’s so amazing to be a part of AmeriCorps.  Every time I see a member on the news or hear someone mention AmeriCorps I’m proud.   When I joined Volunteer Maryland three years ago, my pride only increased.  I get to work with the most amazing people and, even more importantly, I see the results of AmeriCorps service every day.

The thing is, that doesn’t mean it’s easy or that I walk around glowing.  This is really, really hard work.  There are days when I’m so frustrated I don’t know what to do with myself.  There are moments when all I think about is how I need a break.  And then I remember – the people we serve don’t get a break.  Individuals suffering from homelessness don’t go on vacation.  Families scraping together to make a meal don’t get to treat themselves to a night out.  Children who can’t read will have fewer opportunities for the rest of their lives if someone doesn’t step in and help them out.  Our land and waterways can’t just clean themselves.

That’s why I do this work.  That’s why I deal with the frustrating days.  That’s why I’m so proud to be a part of the AmeriCorps network.  It’s also why I’m so proud of VM’s AmeriCorps members.  When you’re in this work all of the time, it can be easy to forget that it takes someone really special to accept the challenge of an AmeriCorps year.

A few months ago, I wrote about the reality of recognizing that an AmeriCorps year is hard.  Well, we’re now at the half-way point of the service year.  And, yes, for many of our members, it’s been hard.  But they are soldiering on, doing the work that most people won’t do, so that less people are homeless or hungry, more children have opportunity, and neighborhoods are healthier.

And that, without question, calls for some AmeriPride.