To Boldly Go

By Kerry Ose and Bilqis Rock

As a Volunteer Maryland Peer Leader, I have been impressed by the way that many of the VMCs in my group are blazing a new trail.  They are coordinator volunteer programs that do not exist yet, or, as one VMC put it, “advocating for volunteers before they are here.”

The stories I am hearing from these VMCs are inspiring.  They are meeting with program directors, assessing needs, creating volunteer position descriptions, writing manuals and just generally developing a whole new arm of their organizations.  But it isn’t easy.  The origins of volunteer programs are a bit like creation myths — they involve obstacles, conflict, perseverance and lessons learned.

Bilqis Rock, one of my fellow VMCs from VM24, has always been particularly good at telling the story of her nascent volunteer program at Health Care for the Homeless (HCH), so I thought I would invite her to co-write this blog.  She writes:

For a nonprofit, working with volunteers is a no-brainer. Volunteers are passionate about the cause, give your organization great PR, and best of all, they’re free! What’s not to love? This is what I thought entering Health Care for the Homeless last Fall as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator. Turned out, volunteers were a tougher sell.

From the get-go, my supervisor told me that the challenge to developing a volunteer program at HCH would not lie in volunteer recruitment; there are many people requesting to volunteer with HCH every day. The more difficult part would be the internal work of establishing systems and expectations among staff members in order to create meaningful, sustainable and useful opportunities to engage community members.

I thought, pssht, people just need to hear the volunteer gospel, and they’ll get it. I’ll be able to put volunteers in action in no time.

During my HCH orientation, I asked a variety of team leaders, what ideas do you have for volunteer involvement with your team? In what ways can your staff and clients be supported? Some people told me how volunteers had not been useful in the past. Some came up with a few trivial tasks. Most often, I was met with a blank look.

Soon I realized that putting volunteers to work right away was not going to be my job. My job was going to be about building relationships with people across the HCH community to find out the answers to the question, “where do the needs, interests and abilities of HCH clients, staff and community intersect?”  Creatively finding those intersections is the key to building a volunteer program at HCH.

These beautifully came together on a couple of occasions—when a barber provided haircuts for the men’s group, when physical therapy students provided otherwise inaccessible PT services, when public health and nursing students completed research projects and service efforts—but the process continues to be a work in progress.

Staff members are not inherently resistant the volunteers; I’ve found it is often rooted in a lack of vision for how volunteers should be appropriately incorporated into HCH’s work, and a lack of support for staff members throughout the volunteer process. These are areas that need to change to develop the volunteer program. This work takes time, and it’s a constantly moving target.

My training as a social worker comes in handy. I try to meet staff members where they are in terms of working with volunteers. I seek to understand their working environments and their motivations for resistance to change. Eventually, being able to acknowledge their perspectives, I ask them to form new ways of thinking and try new ways of operating.

What I know now is that deciding to engage volunteers in a nonprofit’s work is a no-brainer. Figuring out how to make that happen is a different story.

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A Beautiful Friendship

About  a year ago, my daughter and I joined Volunteer Maryland Coordinator Abby Becker and several other volunteers to help with fall cleaning at The St. Francis Neighborhood Center (SFNC) in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood in Baltimore.  Though we were there for only a few hours, there was no doubt in my mind that this was an extraordinary place.

Founded in 1963 by a group of priests, seminarians and community members, SFNC is, according to its mission statement, “committed to breaking the cycles of poverty through education, inspiring self-esteem, self-improvement, and strengthening connections to the community.  SFNC strives to give people hope for a better tomorrow by providing them with the tools they need for a better today.”

SFNC provides a wide range of programs and services, including Peace Patrol WalksCommunity Mediation, and the Power Project, which is a multi-faceted youth development program.

Three years ago, SFNC began partnering with Volunteer Maryland, welcoming their first Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, Corrine Handy.  At that time, the SFNC staff had virtually no staff, and the Power Project hadn’t even started yet.  Today, SFNC has a staff of four, including Corrine and two subsequent VMCs, Sara Sullivan and Abby Becker.  That’s right — SFNC built its stellar staff and strong programming in large part by partnering with Volunteer Maryland three years in a row.

VM doesn’t deserve all the credit, of course.  SFNC staff have an amazing aptitude for building partnerships and leveraging community resources.  Reflecting on her year as a VMC, Abby Becker writes, ” I am proud to have cultivated wonderful volunteers who are reliable and dedicated to our programs in the long-term, particularly to working with The Power Project.  Each day, we now have at least one person who is truly tied to our mission and deeply connected to the young people.”

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photo credit: Ran Zeimer

Now that Abby (pictured above with the rest of the SFNC staff at the Reservoir Hill Festival) is a permanent staff member, she continues to be enthusiastic about the many opportunities SFNC has to offer. “We have many fall community programs, including Free Job Readiness Workshops, Free Personal Finance Workshops, and the continued Free Community Yoga classes, all of which are open to the public.

In the Power Project, students have loved our fall enrichment activities:  printing press workshops, African Drumming and Dancing with Zebra Kids, and a special arts series in partnership with the Walters Art Museum, focusing on Black Renaissance Art.  The students’ artwork will be featured in an exhibition this weekend at the Walters Free Renaissance Family Festival.  And don’t forget:  the Reservoir Hill Festival was September 15th – our most successful yet!  It featured 10 live bands, a community resource fair, and The Gathering – Baltimore’s premier food trucks.”

Suffice it to say, SFNC is a happening place, and one of the most beautiful examples of what a long, fruitful partnership with Volunteer Maryland can yield.

Thank You to VM24!

One week ago tomorrow we celebrated the end of another term of AmeriCorps service.  Volunteer Maryland’s 24th class completed their time with us and went out with a bang.  There are the statistics: 3,432 volunteers engaged in service; 31,764 community members served; 22 volunteer programs created or improved.

But this class represents so much more than numbers.  As I said to them in my final remarks, they did something all year long that is remarkable; they collaborated.  That’s right!  They shared ideas and resources, asked questions, networked, and volunteered at each other’s sites.  I watched this collaboration from the middle of September through the end of July and wondered if they knew how unusual it was.  Collaboration is a word often thrown around, but not seen nearly enough.

Class 24 collaborated and, through their collaboration, everyone benefited.  I’m confident that they learned more than they could have done by going alone.  I think their Service Sites benefited by learning from others’ trials, errors, and successes.  I’m sure the volunteers benefited from the recognition ideas that were swapped.  And, ideally, all of these benefits have enabled community members to be better served.

I know I benefited from their collaboration.  The energy when we all got together was incredible.  The stories from the field were filled with passionate ideas and a great dose of humor.  The sense of community that grew over this service year energized me to continue our work together.

And I know I wasn’t the only one who noticed how great they are.  Nine Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are continuing with their Service Sites beyond their VMC terms.  That’s 41 percent of the VMCs who completed the year successfully.  That’s a large and impressive number – and I’m sure it would be larger if more Service Sites had the ability to hire additional staff.

So I’ll say it one more time before I finally and thoroughly shift gears into Class 25: Thank You.  Thank you to the 22 Volunteer Maryland Coordinators, 2 Peer Leaders, and 21 Site Supervisors that helped make this year amazing.  Thank you for your partnership, your dedication to strengthening our communities, and your collaboration.  I’m honored to have worked alongside you this year and I look forward to learning of your continued work in the years to come.

VM24 members and Site Supervisors
VM24 AmeriCorps members, Site Supervisors, and staff celebrate the Class Finale on July 31, 2012.

Time Management: Plan Time to Have a Dance Break…seriously

On Monday, I traveled to my primary office in Baltimore (Volunteer Maryland’s headquarters) to attend our scheduled Support Team meeting.   You may recall that I also have a Host Site on the Eastern Shore so I do not have to make the two hour commute to Baltimore on a daily basis.  It was my turn to put the agenda together and for the opener I chose one of Volunteer Maryland’s traditions, a dance break.  You read correctly, a dance break!

For as long as I have known about Volunteer Maryland, taking five minutes to dance in the middle of the day has been event the Support Team has looked forward to.  Since Barb and I are not in the office on Fridays, the normal day for a dance break, we have not participated in many this service year.  This Monday I chose a Just Dance Wii game routine to Shakira’s World Cup song, “Waka Waka.”  We probably looked ridiculous to those passing by our hallway, but it was fun and that’s what really mattered.

A few months ago I wrote about the importance of planning time to plan and now I am encouraging you to plan time to dance (or for another office tradition).  Why?  I’m glad you asked.  It is my firm belief that a company or department of any size should have office traditions because they are essential to having a healthy work environment.  Who wants to have the office blues all the time?  Office traditions boost morale amongst staff members, strengthen camraderie, and can decrease the amount times a person is feeling like the woman below.

What kind of traditions does your office have?  If you don’t have a tradition, maybe you can create one.  It doesn’t hurt to throw out a new idea that would benefit the entire office.  Share with us!!

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.

Carving Out My Niche: How AmeriCorps Works for Me

It is hard to believe I am more than half way through my second year of service with Volunteer Maryland.  I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed up to be an AmeriCorps member, but without a doubt it has been one of the best decisions I ever made.  While in college, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Egypt.  That experience planted the “law-as-a-career seed” and AmeriCorps has watered it.  I did not know that serving as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator at the Banneker-Douglass Museum and now as a Volunteer Maryland (VM) Peer Leader would prepare me for a career in the law field, but I believe that it has.  Since joining the VM family, I have improved and discovered skills that will only help me in the long run as an attorney.  It was difficult, but I narrowed down my list to my top three skills:

1.  Clear and effective communication really is key.  I never had a fear of public speaking, but I was not the most comfortable with it either.  AmeriCorps has allowed me to practice speaking to various groups and learn how I need to readjust how I give out and receive verbal information.  There really is no point in me talking if people are not understanding what I am saying.  That also applies to written communication.  In today’s social media and electronic advancing age, it is easy for emails, messages, documents, etc. to be misinterpreted, so I have learned how to be clear and concise; even in my writing, so that my main points are not lost in translation.  Pretty important for when I’ll be preparing briefs and appearing in court.

2.  Time management is a skill, not a natural talent.  Like communication, managing my time has been another area where I have grown.  Since being a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator,  I have learned more about my work ethic, how to balance short and long term projects, and (most importantly) my limits.  I now have a system on how I prioritize to make sure I follow through with any task I am given.  Being a lawyer will require a lot of juggling, so I am glad I have a time management system in place.

3.  The beauty of relationships may not always be easy, but it is necessary.  Establishing a rapport with the VM Support Team, Volunteer Maryland Coordinators, volunteers, clients, and all persons really, is essential for work to get done.  I have learned to work with a variety of communities ranging in age, race, gender, interests, needs, and professions.  I never understood the importance and value of building relationships in the work place until I joined Volunteer Maryland.

I thought I had AmeriCorps all figured out, but I have gained more than I thought I would!  I have gained so many great experiences, and I am eager to expand upon them in law school this fall.  I do not know many jobs that would have enhanced the skills of their employees in this way, which is why I will be forever grateful for Volunteer Maryland and AmeriCorps!

Your Mountain is Waiting

One of the perks of being a Peer Leader is being able to perform direct service across the state of Maryland.  During Pre-Service Training (PST), I joined the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators (VMCs) of VM24 and VM Support Team for a day of service at Moveable Feast in Baltimore.  As a resident of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, I don’t always get the chance to serve in Baltimore, so I was looking forward to exploring new territory.

Moveable Feast is a multifaceted organization, that has a mission of providing nutritious meal and services in order to preserve the quality of life of people living with HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening conditions, such as breast cancer and diabetes.  Our volunteer responsibilities varied from being in the kitchen to prepare ingredients for chicken pot pies, surveying clients via telephone, filing important paperwork, and decorating delivery bags for clients.  I was given the task of decorating plastic bags, and I enjoyed every minute of it.  Three VMCs and I let our creative juices flow as we designed bag after bag, some promoting healthy eating, a few with outdoor themes, and others with inspirational quotes.  By no means am I a professional artist, but those bags were some of my best work, because I was committed to brightening someone’s day when they received their delivered meals.  My interaction with the clients served by Moveable Feast was indirect, and yet still important.  Another testament of how a person can give back to his/her community in more ways than one.

As an AmeriCorps member this year, I foresee many adventures similar to that at Moveable Feast, because I plan to serve at a variety of non profits.  Dr. Seuss was correct when he wrote, “Oh, the places you’ll go.  There is fun to be done!  There are points to be scored.  There are games to be won.  And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all.”  For me, that “ball” is volunteerism.  Being a Peer Leader grants me the opportunity to serve on both shores of Maryland (and beyond), which is a ton of fun and a win for organizations and community members.

The great thing about service is that anyone can volunteer!  Whether you want to destroy the “mountain” of poverty or clean the mountain with environmental education, there is a volunteer position out there with your name on it.  All you have to do is start looking.  As you embark on your journey of service, remember the words of Dr. Seuss, “Today is your day!  Your mountain is waiting.  So…get on your way!”