Farming for Hunger

Our guest blogger is Rubab Azeem! Rubab is the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator for the Maryland Food Bank of the Eastern Shore. She works with the Farm to Food Bank Program to recruit and manage volunteers who participate in a process called gleaning, which involves collecting produce that is left in the field after a farm’s harvest.

Normally, rain on the Eastern Shore of Maryland is unpredictable and is something one just has to adapt to. But this spring, it has frustrated many for multiple reasons, mainly farmers who tend to plant around this time of the year. In the past few weeks, continuous rain has prevented farmers from properly planting crops that

Variety of produced gleaned during harvest season.
Variety of produced gleaned during harvest season.

will most likely delay harvest season. The consequences of this delay are unclear, as of now. However, for the Maryland Food Bank’s Farm to Food Bank Program, it’s a major concern as it works closely with farmers to feed the hungry.

The Farm to Food Bank Program

The Farm to Food Bank Program partners with a network of farms across the state to provide hungry Marylanders with fresh, local produce. Through a combination of field gleanings, donations and contract growing, these farms help the Maryland Food Bank supply good, nutritious food to food-insecure communities across the state. Since the program’s inception, in 2010, it has procured close to 5 million pounds of produce to feed the hungry. It is one of the fastest growing programs of the food bank.

Hunger in Maryland

A long line of food insecure individuals patiently waiting on a hot day to get food at a MD Food Bank’s partner agency in Denton
A long line of food insecure individuals patiently waiting on a hot day to get food at a MD Food Bank’s partner agency in Denton

Despite continued efforts, hunger continues to persist in the state. According to the Feeding America’s 2016 Map the Meal Gap Report, more than 750,000 Marylanders do not have enough to eat. It’s estimated that 1 in 8 Marylander is food insecure. These Marylanders needing food assistance are the homeless, seniors, children, and working families. Given today’s stagnate wages and rising cost of living, some individuals working full-time are struggling to put food on the table. Some don’t qualify for federal or state assistance as they earn too much leaving them to rely solely on the food bank and other hunger-relief agencies as they struggle to meet their basic needs.
The Farm to Food Bank Impact

The Farm to Food Bank Program provides locally grown fresh and nutritious produce for the food insecure. It gives the hungry access to fresh produce that otherwise would be too expensive for them to purchase. Last year, the program procured 1 million pounds of various produce to help feed the hungry. This would not have been possible without partner farmers and volunteers who helped glean various produce. However, this year’s delayed crop planting makes feeding the hungry a little more difficult. Usually, the food bank has fresh strawberries for partner agencies to distribute at the end of May. That has not been the case, this season. Apparently, strawberries are very delicate and require constant care. They don’t like too much sun and rain.

In unpredictable times like these, the food bank relies on donated non-perishable food items to feed the hungry. Though these items get the food-insecure through tough times. They don’t necessarily provide the most balanced meal. It is frightening to think what these individuals would resort to if the food bank and other hunger-relief agencies did not exist. What’s more frightening is how unaware the public is about the extent of hunger in this country. Many have a misconception of hunger only existing in Third World countries. While hunger does persist in those countries, it also exists in the developed world. The only difference is that in the developed world, individuals going hungry are very difficult to spot unless they live in extreme poverty. In the United States, there was a significant increase in hunger as a result of the financial and economic crisis of 2008. Since then, many individuals have struggled to provide for their basic needs.

Amazing young volunteers of the Farm to Food Bank Program
Amazing young volunteers of the Farm to Food Bank Program

Food insecurity is a multifaceted problem that requires multifaceted solutions. One of the multifaceted solutions to this problem is the Maryland Food bank with programs like the Farm to Food Bank Program that works toward providing nutritious food for individuals struggling to meet their basic needs.

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.

My National Volunteer Week

Some weeks epitomize the word “eventful” in the best possible way, and National Volunteer Week 2013 has been that kind of week for me.  Here are a few highlights:

On Monday morning, the Volunteer Maryland Support Team celebrated Earth Day by spending the morning doing trail maintenance at Quiet Waters Park.  (Thanks goes to VM24 alum Nicki Fiocco for hooking us up!).  We worked on ridding the wooded area near the trail of rose and grapevines that threatened to kill the trees.  It was a wonderful change of pace and a great team-building experience.  A highlight was learning that grapevine sap turns into an awesomely icky, gelatinous goo if it is exposed to the elements.

On Tuesday morning, it was my great privilege to accompany our director, Maureen Eccleston, on a visit to a potential Volunteer Maryland partner site, Charm City Clinic.  Executive Director Andrew Gladdis is doing extraordinary work in East Baltimore by working in close partnership with other community organizations to improve the health of local residents.  Charm City Clinic relies on a corps of dedicated, passionate and skilled volunteers who manage cases and provide healthcare.  It was exciting to imagine how a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator might be able to help this agency achieve its mission.

Charm City Clinic
Charm City Clinic

That evening, I celebrated World Book Day by attending HoCoPoLitSo’s Blackbird Poetry Festival, which is planned and staffed each year by an impressive group of volunteers.  This year, Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Rives shared their amazing poetry with a greatly appreciative audience at Howard Community College.

Baltimore CASH Campaign VMC Sharon Baldwin attends Volunteer Howard's National Volunteer Week celebration.
Baltimore CASH Campaign VMC Sharon Baldwin attends Volunteer Howard’s National Volunteer Week celebration.

And Wednesday night, the Volunteer Center Serving Howard County celebrated National Volunteer Week by welcoming eight local organizations to join us for “Words into Action: Spotlight on Poverty,” where they shared volunteer opportunities with Howard County residents.   The focus of the event was serving low-income clients, and several individuals signed up to volunteer at organizations such as the Howard County Food Bank and the Salvation Army.

That was my National Volunteer Week.  What were some of the highlights of yours?

Celebrating Earth Day

Happy Earth Day!  Earth Day, one of the many events of April as Kerry pointed out, is here today on April 22.  This day inspires a number of projects at our partner sites; let’s take a quick look at some of the volunteer projects that part of the celebration.

Some of our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators got an early start on their Earth Day events.  On April 13, Kara and Maryland Coastal Bays held their 4th annual Earth Day Clean Up.  Volunteers came out to clean up shoreline around Ocean City, improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay and giving us the added bonus of clean beaches.earthday2

The Dundalk Renaissance Corporation took part in Project Clean Stream 2013 on April 6, bringing out over 100 volunteers from the local community to do a massive trash clean up.  Jacqueline helped plan and lead this day’s efforts, resulting in a healthier watershed and a happy community.

The Accokeek Foundation hosted their first annual Earthfest to celebrate Earth Day and National Volunteer Week on April 21.  The Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, Casey, led volunteers on projects all over the farm, gardens, and education center; before spending the afternoon enjoying a picnic lunch.  They also included a recycling drive which raised money for the foundation!

Coming up, the Neighborhood Design Center is taking part in Baltimore’s Green Week with “Empowerment through Shared Community Spaces”.  You can learn about how to adopt a vacant lot, get community support, and recruit volunteers to improve the space.

And I am looking forward to joining the Volunteer Maryland staff today as we volunteer our time on Earth Day with a partner site of last year, Quiet Waters Park of Annapolis!

What exciting plans do you have for this Earth Day?

Small Changes, Big Results

It can be tough to remember the importance of visible results.  This applies especially to community-based programs that use volunteers, where there is an overarching mission of change that might take a lifetime to come about.  However, it’s important to set short term goals and achieve results that can be appreciated.

That’s not to say that the long term interest must be sacrificed – much the opposite; your short term results should build and combine into long term goals and results.  Short term results are key to keeping volunteers motivated and interested.  People want to know that their actions are important and are having an impact.  When you donate to a charitable organization, they often will send pictures, letters, or other information to show what difference your contribution is making.  The same goes for volunteer labor; at the end of a day of volunteering, you would like to see a difference.

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I am excited to see how much progress I can make in a day of volunteering, because I feel great when I can see the good I bring to the world.  On the average day, I hope that my work helps other people, but I can’t always see the direct results.  Volunteering with one of Volunteer Maryland’s service sites, Ardmore Enterprises, as Kerry wrote about recently, was a fun experience because it provides a tangible sense of accomplishment.  I may have not made a huge difference in one day, but now, feeling like a volunteer champ, I am ready to return again for future service projects.

Always remember the importance of short term, tangible success to people.  Success will motivate and encourage them, and remind them why they do what they do.

What projects do you have that are frustrating you right now because you can’t see results?  Or on the flip side, have you ever had a really great day because you were able to see your efforts come to fruition?  I’d love to hear your stories!

Before and After

One of the great joys of completing a service project is looking at before and after pictures.  On Wednesday, four of us from Volunteer Maryland served at Armdore Enterprises by cleaning out the garages of some of the individuals who receive services from Ardmore.  Established in 1963, Ardmore Enterprises supports over 200 adults with developmental disabilities in the metropolitan Washington area.  One of the many services Ardmore provides is residential services.  Kat Patterson, who is the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator at Ardmore, has been working with Krista Gronlund, who is the Director of the Facilities and Maintenance Department, to design various maintenance projects for volunteers to complete in homes that are managed by Ardmore.

The first of many such projects,  our garage clean out on Wednesday was a big success.  Krista, Kat, Kelly, Rebecca and I, along with an amazing young man who just stopped by to see if we needed help, cleared out the first garage in under 15 minutes!  While the second garage took a bit longer, we were still able to get the seemingly unpleasant job of carrying all manner of household items to the curb for bulk trash pick up done quickly and with pleasure.  And really, the pics tell the whole story.

BEFORE:

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AFTER:

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Describe It to Me

“We need volunteers!”   Who hasn’t heard that refrain before?  Just about every organization out there could use some help.  But a general call for volunteers tell us very little.  What will the volunteer do?  How does that task relate to the mission of the organization?  What community need will the volunteer meet?  How?  What are the requirements of the position — is there a big time commitment?  Is prior experience necessary?   What are the benefits of the position?  Sure, volunteers don’t get paid, but there is plenty they can get out of it:  professional experience, an opportunity to socialize with others, and the satisfaction of addressing a compelling need, just to name a few.

A good position description begins with a great title.  Ironically, volunteer positions should not have the word “volunteer” in the title.  For example, when people volunteer at Paul’s Place, a nonprofit that serves the community in Pigtown and Washington Village in Baltimore, they have the opportunity to help give clothing to guests.  Rather than fall back on boring descriptions of clothing distribution and a clothing bank, Paul’s Place recruits “Personal Shoppers” and “Organizing Pros”  to help guests choose items from a room that is set up like a regular clothing store.  

These fantastic job titles already do a lot of the work when it comes to explaining the purpose and requirements of the position.  The rest of the description is really just an elaboration.  In the case of Personal Shoppers at Paul’s Place, it looks like this:

Purpose: Provide personal support and foster a sense of dignity to guests while choosing outfits.

Description of Duties: Assist guests, one-on-one, with picking out clothing in the department store designed shopping room.

Qualifications: Interest in shopping and picking out matching outfits with a cheerful and caring attitude.

Benefits:  Offers hands-on experience with one of the community needs AmeriCorps addresses.  allows participants to to connect with other volunteers, and learn about poverty and its effect on a neighborhood. 

A strong volunteer position description attracts the best volunteers and allows those who are not a good fit to self-screen.  It is also a great marketing tool, in that it does a great job explaining the mission of an organization.  

So the next time you want to sell people on volunteering for you, remember:  Describe it to them.  

Cat Cuddler, Level 1

The title of Cat Cuddler is a real thing in the world of volunteering. I had just signed up to volunteer with Baltimore-based animal shelter Maryland SPCA a few months ago when I made this exciting discovery. I started volunteering with homeless animals because I miss having pets, but I wasn’t expecting to find out there were volunteer positions dedicated to spending quality time with the furry beneficiaries!

The shelter maintains numerous volunteers to keep the cats and dogs socialized and happy during their stay.  As a Cat Cuddler (the dogs get Dog Deputies), I spend time with each cat in the shelter once a week, petting or playing with them.  As I gain experience with handling the cats, I can move up to taking on more responsibility and become a Level 2 Cat Cuddler.  For the Maryland SPCA, this frees their staff to take care of the many other daily tasks, and keeps the animals in a happier and healthier mental state.  What I get out of it is the warm fuzzies and the chance to meet some engaging characters, like these guys.

Siblings, Penny and Felix
Siblings, Felix and Penny

 What I love about this volunteer position (besides the kitties) is how I can see that it is one that enriches everyone; the client, the volunteer, and the organization.  I would have also been happy to help by washing dishes and cleaning litter boxes, but by giving me what I think the most fun job in the organization, the Maryland SPCA has created a volunteer who will gush about how great volunteering there is to anyone who will listen.  Deliberate planning on their part lead to volunteers who feel rewarded while at the shelter, and then go home as advocates for the mission; a win-win situation.  This is what I look forward to seeing in more volunteer partnerships!

United in Service

This Saturday I took part in one of the largest volunteer events that I have seen.  Bringing together almost 10,000 volunteers, Unite America in Service created the opportunity for people to serve in Washington, D.C. on our National Day of Service in a big way.  I’m used to events with 10, 20, or maybe even 100 volunteers present, but the sheer number of volunteers made this day a whole new experience with service for me.

Over the course of the day, I had a chance to see what kinds of groups came out.  There were youth groups, college students, service fraternities and sororities, political leaders, and lots and lots of AmeriCorps members!  AmeriCorps members from all branches were there serving in force; I spoke to one member who said that he and a friend had arrived by car just that afternoon all the way from Tallahassee, Florida.  And everywhere I looked, there were men and women sporting the National Civilian Conservation Corps (NCCC) shirt, hard at work.   Even former members of AmeriCorps were out in strength; over a hundred AmeriCorps Alums from D.C. and Baltimore contributed their time that day.

MLK Day
Packing up the finished care packages.

Together, we packed 100,000 care packages and wrote reams of personal thank you letters  to be sent to members of the armed forces, disabled veterans, and first responders through Operation Gratitude.  It was amazing to see at the end of the day the result of our efforts filling a semi-truck.

What this undertaking made me think about that day was the strength of people’s desire to serve their community.  I had thought that convincing a few dozen volunteers to come and give their time as volunteers sounded like a challenge, but this project demonstrated that there must be several thousand people in this area who were just waiting for an opportunity to volunteer.

One of the key goals our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators have is getting potential volunteers engaged and passionate.  You might have a cause that people like, but getting them to give their time and effort to it, to endorse it to others and to commit themselves to it’s success, can be a major hurdle.   But if this past Saturday showed me anything, it’s that people really care and want to get involved – they might just be waiting for you to show them the right opportunity.

A New Year of Volunteering

Using the start of a new year, I am pushing myself to try brand new volunteering experiences.  I will be starting to volunteer regularly with the Maryland SPCA and the Pratt Library, along with one-time opportunities as they arise with other organizations.  Why am I so eager to start the year off with plans to volunteer regularly?  Read on to learn about the benefits of volunteering!

Whether you have recently moved to an area or are a longtime resident, volunteering gives you a way to find a new community to belong to.  Volunteering with a nonprofit  can give you a window into concerns you may have not known existed in your own community. Connecting to, supporting, and giving  time to a cause you care about can give you a sense of purpose and a new sense of connection with others.

If you are hoping to gain some experience to use in a job search, volunteering can be a friendly, non-competitive way to start. Many of the organizations that Volunteer Maryland partners with offer their volunteers specialized experience that could boost a resume, or let you try out a possible new career option you’d been thinking about.

And from VolunteerMatch, research shows that there are even health benefits to volunteering!

  • More than 68% of those who volunteered in the past year report that volunteering made them feel physically healthier.
  • 29% of volunteers who suffer from a chronic condition say that volunteering has helped them manage their chronic illness.
  • 89% of volunteers agree that volunteering improved their sense of well-being.
  • 73% of volunteers feel that volunteering lowered their stress levels.
  • 92% of volunteers agree that volunteering enriches their sense of purpose in life. [read the full report]

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Start volunteering and see what you can learn about yourself.  Our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are exemplifying this as they choose where they will volunteer: facilitating financial literacy workshops, working with therapy horses, and starting a weekly game night at a shelter are among the volunteer activities they have picked up so far.  Compared to them, I could be doing a lot more, and I take that as a challenge to push myself further in the coming months.