Peer Leader X 2: Four Tips for Successful Collaboration

When I accepted Volunteer Maryland’s offer to become a Peer Leader, I was keenly aware of the fact that I would be one of two people working to support the next class of Volunteer Maryland Coordinators. Chelsea had already signed on for VM 28, and I had briefly emailed with her, but I still had no sense of how we would work together. I remember the trepidation I felt my first day. It was a new office with a new staff and a very new learning curve, all things most people are anxious about on their first days, but I was also going to meet Chelsea, and we were going to have to figure out how we would be working together for the next 11 months.

Chelsea and Amelia
Chelsea (left) and I giving conflicting messages at the Governor’s Service Awards.

It turns out, we work well together. See, Chelsea is an incredibly powerful, passionate, and knowledgeable person. She is committed to making the AmeriCorps experience as great as it can possibly be for VM. She has a constantly expanding library of thoughtful ideas (often indispensable when we’re problem solving at VM HQ or with VMCs). She is constantly exuding an immense amount of positive energy that she puts towards helping others. Chelsea exemplifies the greatness of Volunteer Maryland, AmeriCorps, and humanity in general, and she inspires me to be great all the time.

The collaborative relationship that I have with Chelsea has been something that I have been grateful for everyday I come into the office. We work together closely on many things whether it’s planning a statewide networking event for AmeriCorps members or drawing up a little graphic for our newsletter. In working with Chelsea, I have learned some important lessons about collaboration and teamwork that I want to share.

Keep an open mind and really listen

Open mind gif“Keep an open mind” is a phrase that crops up in every “how to teamwork” manual that has ever existed, but I think it’s important to reiterate, because it’s something that doesn’t come easily to everyone. I also added “really listen,” because collaboration is not just about sharing ideas, but also about working hard to understand another person’s ideas. In brainstorming sessions, Chelsea and I will often come together with preconceived notions of how we want a project to go. I will insist on fajitas and Chelsea will insist on sushi platters.  I’ll be thinking panel presentation and she’ll be thinking hands-on workshop. When we work together, we don’t just announce our ideas and then butt heads until the winner comes out on top (mostly because Chelsea’s scrappy, and I don’t think I’d win). Rather, Chelsea and I go into conversations looking for a couple of things: (1) to learn from one another about each other’s ideas and (2) to work with one another to create a dynamic, creative, thoughtful thing. To do this, we are always ready to keep an open mind and to really listen to what we each have to say.

Challenge is productive

Gollum conflicted gifThis can probably be intuited from the above, but Chelsea and I often challenge each other with different ideas. Although it can be frustrating for both of us in the moment, I find that the project we’re working on can grow more from our differing ideas. It’s also a good way for Chelsea and I to grow as a team and as individuals. In working collaboratively, I’ve learned how to effectively take in feedback, how to explain my ideas in concise ways, and how to compromise. Getting into challenging conversations with another person can be nerve-wracking in the moment, but, ultimately, it’s good to have your ideas challenged, because challenges can sometimes create opportunities for growth.

Balance and accountability are crucial

Hercules balance gifAnother rather obvious part of collaboration is the idea of balance or mutuality. Chelsea and I share many responsibilities and projects. Because of this, we often have to delegate tasks to each other in a balanced manner. When we’re planning out the cohort meetings, for example, one of us will create the handouts and materials, and the other will do the actual presenting. One of us will reserve the space, and the other will work on informing the VM 28 cohort. We divvy up these tasks as we see fit, and most of the time it goes well. But sometimes we each have a lapse in productivity and more work can shift to another person. Hey, it happens. What’s important in these moments, is that we hold each other accountable and ensure that we work to either restore balance or make sure we’re each okay.

Fun is nurturing, fun is productive

Steven Universe go have fun gifOne of the biggest benefits of working with VM is the amount of fun you have, and Chelsea and I have really embraced that. I’m often guffawing embarrassingly at my desk because of the funny stories Chelsea is retelling. One time soup came out of my nose (the sign of a TRULY fun atmosphere). Although fun can seem like a distraction from your work, it doesn’t have to be. Fun rejuvenates us and gets us energized for the next thing on the to-do list. Fun makes coming into work easier and… well… fun. Working on a team can get tense, working in an office can get dull, but when you have fun–the state cafeteria food tastes a little better and the sun shines into your office cubicle a little brighter.

Collaboration is Hard. Capital “H,” Hard. It involves a lot of trusting, a lot of flexibility, and a lot of communication, and it looks different for everyone. But once you’re able to get it going, collaboration is a beautiful thing that helps us learn and create better. Thanks for being in this collaborative relationship with me, Chelsea!

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How to Deal With a Hard Headed Three Year Old

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Have you ever tried to rationalize with a three-year-old?  Apparently, this is something my mother had to do on a regular basis.  According to her, the stubbornness started when I was born, 10 days after my due date! I was born in May, so the Taurus bull in me reared its head often. When I was three years old and trying to learn a backward somersault for gymnastics, my mom tells me I would practice over and over again.  She said I had bruises on the back of my head because the floor in our house was so hard.  She remembers continually asking me to stop and that my answer to her was always, “Just one more”.  After two hours of banging my head on the floor, I had the backward somersault!  You might be thinking: this does not sound like a difficult child.  However,  I also insisted on having my mom watch me.  I wanted to make sure that once I mastered the backward somersault, she would see it.

I slowly learned to use my bull-like powers for good and not evil! We rarely ate fast food, but once in awhile my Pop would cave and take me to McDonald’s.  We were taking a ride through town on our way to get a burger when I saw a woman with two young children sitting on the side of the road holding a sign that said, “Please help, homeless & hungry”.   I remember feeling confused.  I am sure I saw homeless and hungry people before, but for some reason, she stuck out in my head.  She had two girls with her and it made me think – what if those two girls were my sister and I – what if that woman was my mom.  I internalized their situation and I had to do something about it.  I asked Pop if he would buy three extra hamburgers.  He asked me why I needed three more hamburgers if I had just finished eating!  I described what I had seen and pleaded for him to buy the hamburgers for the lady.  Pop did not like to waste money, but he hated disappointing me more – and I knew that!  I got my way, we gave the hamburgers to the family, and every weekend for about five months, we drove around our town handing out anything I could squander from the cupboards in our house.  I think my mom was actually planting extra canned goods and boxed food in order to boost my enthusiasm.

Whether you call it being hard headed, stubborn, or persistent, this Nicki With Oystersattitude has helped me in so many aspects.  As a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator in the Class of VM 24, this resolve helped me to accomplish many difficult or challenging volunteer projects. As a VMC at Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis, I called on my bullish nature to do anything from get trees planted to train Girl Scouts about oyster restoration.  Through the many projects and programs we were able to accomplish many meaningful volunteer experiences.  I am looking forward to being part of so many more!

Rural Routes

I grew up in Central Illinois, a few miles outside the small, industrial City of Galesburg. My home was quite literally surrounded by corn and soybeans, and I probably counted more cows and pigs than actual people among my immediate neighbors. We Midwest transplants are good at finding each other here in Maryland, and my radar recently picked up on someone who grew up in Indiana. As we compared and contrasted the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic, we realized that we had both discovered one thing pretty soon after moving here: if we want a taste of home, all we have to do is head to the Eastern Shore. Rural? Check. Agricultural? Check. Peaceful? You get the picture.

When I travel to the Eastern Shore and other rural parts of the State on behalf of Volunteer Maryland, I am reminded not just of home, but of all the rich community resources Maryland has to offer. Like other Statewide organizations, Volunteer Maryland strives to connect with communities in every region of Maryland. This has always been an exciting part of our work, and for the past year, we have been lucky enough to share it with the Rural Maryland Council, an independent state agency that “brings together citizens, community-based organizations, federal, state, county and municipal government officials as well as representatives of the for-profit and nonprofit sectors to collectively address the needs of Rural Maryland communities.” Our shared outreach has enabled Volunteer Maryland to develop even deeper connections in many rural areas of the State, and this year we are proud to continue in our tradition of great partnerships in rural communities, with organizations such as Crossroads Community, Inc., Patuxent Riverkeeper, Maryland Food Bank Eastern Shore, and Steppingstone Farm Museum.

Maryland’s strength is undoubtedly in its diversity. Each part of our State has its own unique history, industries, challenges and points of pride. Watermen, poultry farmers, military members and many, many others contribute to Maryland’s distinct mosaic.

At the same time, every community has, at its core, the same aspirations: good education, economic opportunity, access to health care, and environmental stewardship. Not only that, but every Maryland community I have encountered endeavors to realize these aspirations through homegrown, grassroots efforts. That fact makes me very proud of Volunteer Maryland’s multiplier model. When we partner with organizations, we make sure to understand how they meet community needs, and then we strive to leverage the work of one Volunteer Maryland Coordinator to engage a corps of local volunteers who address needs in their own way, in their own community.

Recently, the Rural Maryland Council and the Rural Maryland Foundation, asked people in rural communities in Maryland what they aspire for. The video below more than answers the question, and is a wonderful reminder of the passion Marylanders have for community, service and shared prosperity.

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.

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.

Team Meeting- Chesapeake Natives

As a Peer Leader for Volunteer Maryland one of my roles is to hold monthly Team Meetings with the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  These meetings are meant to serve many purposes.  They are a chance for all of us to take a few hours out of our work week to do a little direct service and giving back.  They also offer a chance for the VMC’s to come together, find out what has been going on at each other’s sites and to get any updates from myself about aspects of Volunteer Maryland.  For this months Team Meeting Volunteer Maryland Coordinator Selwyn Ramp volunteered to have the meeting hosted at his site, Chesapeake Natives.  Chesapeake Natives is a nonprofit comprised of volunteers who are enthusiastic promoters of native plants.  They preserve, propagate and promote plants native to the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.  For our team meeting we decided to volunteer a few hours of our morning to the organization.  Image

When we arrived at the location we were greeted by Selwyn who led us through an orientation that included a brief history of the site.  We were then broken up into three groups and were assigned to various activities.  At  station one, a group worked on adding nutrients such as petrol to freshly acquired soil.  At station two, volunteers worked on taking the newly nutrient rich soil, placing it in planters and adding fresh seed to each planter. Lastly, at station three  volunteers worked on re-potting plants that had outgrown their previous pots.

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Each activity was both useful to the organization and informative for our group because each leader walked our team through not only the process itself but also the environmental and scientific components.  For instance, the group that worked with the fresh seeds not only planted them into the planters but also learned about what it takes for a seed to germinate.  We learned about how planting a seed at certain times of the year is necessary to their germination because they need specific weather in order to successfully germinate. Image

We engaged in our respective tasks for about an hour and half and then we started our debrief.  Debriefs are my favorite part of any direct service activity because it affords me the opportunity to really see what others got out of an experience, share what I gained, and really understand the importance of what we’ve accomplished.  During our debrief I asked each member of my team to describe how they were feeling in one word. Some of the words were as follows: giddy, accomplished, informed, productive, and happy.  Selwyn, our leader and fellow Volunteer Maryland  Coordinator, even  took a moment to express to us his appreciation for all that we had accomplished and to explain to us the environmental impact of what we had achieved.  This project was a great one for our first Team Meeting because it allowed everyone to see that Team Meetings are a great way to take a few hours and make a difference.Image

Getting it down on paper

Webster’s dictionary defines the term goal as, “Something that you are trying to do or achieve ,” (goal.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2013.Web. 23 Oct 2013) and we here at Volunteer Maryland would tend to agree with that definition. In fact, each service term we ask all of our members to draft a list of personal and professional goals that they hope to achieve, accomplish, or progress towards during their time with Volunteer Maryland. When you sit down and write-out goals at the beginning of a service year you are setting in place the tools needed to help you achieve those goals. First and foremost you are putting your thoughts down where they will not get lost in the millions of things that will occur in your life during the next eleven months. Personally I know that I have goals and ambitions that sometimes get pushed to the side by everything going on in my day to day life. Having my goals written out gives me a way of always being able to visually see what I am striving towards. Writing down goals also helps me monitor and keep track of my progress in attaining them. Goal setting for the sake of goal setting is great, but having a way to monitor the steps toward your goals is as important as the goal itself. I think it’s fair to say that most of us have used the term “I’ll do it tomorrow,” or “I’ll get to it next week,” and somehow tomorrow and next week seem to escape us. Well, taking the time to write out goals affords us all the opportunity to set-up timelines for different milestones that will occur in pursuit of those goals. Last, but certainly not least, turning in our goals to our fellow peers at the beginning of the year gives us the chance to serve as coaches, mentors, and accountability partners to one another. It has been my experience that most people need a little help in achieving their goals and this process gives us assistance that many people don’t get in life. We can serve as sounding boards for one another, as that nudge we might need to push forward when we face setbacks and as that congratulatory cheering section when things go well.

For me, I have countless goals that I will strive to actualize during my term of service. Some of those include working on my networking and leadership skills, learning more about social issues like domestic violence and sexual assault and further developing my language skills. I have written out each of those goals, what success will look like, and how my peers can help me in accomplishing them. Volunteer Maryland had me divide these goals into two categories: personal and professional. Putting goals into these two categories has helped remind me that I am someone who wants to succeed in more than just one area of my life and that finding a balance between personal and professional life is just as important as the goals that exist in each sphere. I have many things that I hope to accomplish during my year of service and I know that things may not always go according to plan but at the end of the day I also know that Volunteer Maryland has started me down the road to success.

Not just a job….

So, I have only been in my Peer Leader position at Volunteer Maryland for a few weeks now and already I am aware of the fact that this years Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are a special group of people. They have just completed eleven days of Pre-Service Training and I think it’s safe to say that for me it was an experience that I won’t soon forget. Within minutes of the twenty-four of them entering the training room it was clear that they had joined the Volunteer Maryland because of their passion for service. They didn’t join because someone made them do it, or told them to do it, but rather because they wanted to do it. That’s what I find so unique about programs like Volunteer Maryland and AmeriCorps; people join because they really want to make a difference, give back, and affect change in their communities, and this group of people is no exception.

Each individual I talked to who shared their connection to service and how they got to this point in their life really touched me. During training I was super peppy and hyper and I’ll let you all in on a little secret….every morning knowing that I would be going to learn and grow with them and the Volunteer Maryland Staff put an instant smile on my face and kick in my step.  There is something about being surrounded by people who not only talk about change, but actively pursue it that does something amazing and nourishing to the soul.

Not-surprisingly, this group of individuals practice a sense of service to others not only in their basic 9:00-5:00 days but also in their personal lives. In the two weeks of training alone I have come across Volunteer Maryland Coordinator’s taking part in volunteer activities at book fairs, museums and farmer’s markets to name a few. It truly is inspiring to see their passion, dedication and commitment. I cannot express how excited I am to spend this year of my life doing service with such a phenomenal group of people.

11 Months

Hi Everyone,

My name is Taeketra Haynes and this is my  first blog post a a Volunteer Maryland Peer Leader. Now, you’re probably expecting me to introduce myself, give some background about my life and experiences, explain why I joined AmeriCorps, etc, etc, etc. Well surprise, I’m not going to do that. Nope, over the next few months you’ll get to know me in person or through this blog. So instead, I am going to chat about eleven months. Eleven months, twenty-six Volunteer Coordinator’s, three staff members, and two Peer leaders. Over the next 11 months each of us will encounter good times and rough times. We will learn valuable lessons and gain life experience. In the next 11 months we as a group will consume countless cups of coffee, work with hundreds of volunteers and put in countless hours of service to our communities (or at least 1700). Peer Leaders and Volunteer Maryland Coordinators each have 11 months as AmeriCorps members with Volunteer Maryland, and I for one am looking forward to all of the opportunities that will be available. After being an AmeriCorps Member for the past year the best advice I can give any member of any program is to seize the moment. Over the next 11 months each of us will be bombarded with opportunities outside of our regular 9-5 days. We will have the chance to attend events, hear speakers, take risks, learn from others, share skills and try new things. In my first few days as a Peer Leader I have tried to live by the idea of seizing the moment. I have learned many things from my fellow Volunteer Maryland Support Team members thus far and have attempted to take advantage of opportunities to ask questions, learn new things, and step-up to volunteer assistance. In the next few weeks as Volunteer Maryland prepares for pre-service training and the start of the Service Year I find myself wondering what these next 11 months will bring and what type of experiences I will have.  Now, I don’t know what those 11 months will look like or what they will have in store for me, but I do know that I will do my best to seize the moment. I will do my best to help empower other to do the same, and I will get things done for America.

-Cheers to the next 11 months with all of you

On Balance, Busyness, and Saying Goodbye

I began this service year with a blog post about time management and that age-old dilemma we like to call “work/life balance.” I knew my Volunteer Maryland Peer Leader service year would be busy, that each day would come with its own surprises, and that I would grow.

Indeed, all those predictions came to pass. There were days, many in fact, when my to-do list was so long and unwieldy, I had to laugh. Major events took place right before big reports were due. Three amazing opportunities to train AmeriCorps members all came up during the same week. And an extraordinary opportunity to serve at my host site had to be balanced with my Peer Leader responsibilities.

And, as my office mate at Volunteer Howard likes to say, we don’t work in a vacuum. Life happens as we juggle these rewarding, challenging work responsibilities. For me, that meant evenings full of homework help and weekends spent at youth swim meets. For many of our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators, that meant applying for graduate school, looking for work to do after the service year, and honoring family commitments very much like my own.

Tomorrow, we will all meet one last time for our Volunteer Maryland Class 25 Finale. We’ll be joined by Site Supervisors and others who have made our work possible.  We will celebrate our successes and marvel at how the service experience has changed us.  There will be speeches, food, silly photos and perhaps even a few tears as we say goodbye for now.

Speaking of goodbye for now, this will be my last blog post as a Volunteer Maryland Peer Leader. It has been a delight to share stories, ideas, information and even the occasional quandary on this blog. My hope is that like the many amazing Volunteer Maryland alums who supported my work, and even guest blogged, I will remain a part of the Volunteer Maryland world. It is a remarkable world, and it is hard to express how much richer I am for having become part of it.