Time has moved especially fast this year. It seemed like only a short while ago when I boarded a plane to Atlanta, GA, anxious about the Pre Service Orientation. Now, I look towards these last six weeks with a better sense of who I am. I call this year my personal Year Up.
I hit the ground running when I began serving at Year Up New York, a nonprofit organization dedicated to closing the Opportunity Divide among young adults ages 18-24. Within weeks, I built the tutoring program and secured several strong volunteers. Twice a week, I watched as students gathered in one of the classrooms and listened intently to each tutor. These students came from various backgrounds but all had one thing in common: incredible motivation. There were instances when I had students stop me in the hallway to thank me for everything. I could hardly believe that my little tutoring program made such a difference. I must admit, there were times when I even became emotional. Twenty weeks later, these students moved on to their internships. During this time, I focused on supporting the academic team. I tried to experiment with different techniques to improve the tutoring process. I did not anticipate a shift in my personal life.
I was also in graduate school full time while serving. I’m a workaholic by nature (I’m currently taking a summer class) so I figured I would be able to handle it with ease. WRONG. One area took up my time during the day while the other captured my evenings. It was not unusual for me to use my half hour of lunch to catch up on class readings. I would take the better part of my hour long commute to and from Year Up to read articles and start drafts of papers. While I swear by routines, my personal life took a major hit. Looking back, I suppose I had reached a plateau in my Year Up. The passion and energy that I brought with me in August had faded to a quiet resignation by February. The blistering cold did not help, either. My health began to suffer as I exercised and slept less (that whole “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” phrase is madness). The spring semester of graduate school made the previous semester look like a cakewalk as I struggled to understand economic concepts in public administration and technological advances in government. I became disconnected from the optimistic Adriana who started her service year. Instead, I was Adriana the graduate student of public administration and Adriana the AmeriCorps VISTA at Year Up. There was no in between.
In the midst of frustration and many sleepless nights, I recommitted myself to my purpose. Call it an epiphany, revelation, “aha” moment- it was enough. I realized that in order for me to better help someone in their Year Up, I need to acknowledge that everyone needs a break or a helping hand sometimes. How could I work to help a student academically, become frustrated if he or she refused the service, and then turn around and do the same thing? In order to give help, you must learn how to be helped. I have learned that it is in those moments of vulnerability when we learn the most about ourselves. Thanks to incredibly supportive staff and students, I was able to move forward. As this year comes to a close, I have learned far more than I anticipated. I thought that I would provide a service for a year and be done with it. Instead, I learned valuable lessons the way from the very people I was there to help. Go figure…
Adriana G. Crawford
Year Up – New York
9 Dekalb Ave., Fifth Floor
Brooklyn, NY 11201
347-296-0210 ext. 3128
When I made the decision to leave Vermont for an AmeriCorps VISTA position in central Iowa, I was thrilled about the opportunity to work with school gardens in a drastically different part of the country. I had just spent six months at a working educational farm, where I led field trips and did outreach with public schools. By the end of my apprenticeship, I was left with a sense of the enormous importance of connecting children to farming and food and a conviction that this cannot be achieved with simply an annual field trip. Having witnessed the value and magic of an outdoor classroom, I felt that every school and student should have access to one. Now, I would be involved in helping to make my new beliefs come to life half a continent away.
I came to Ames just three months after ground had been broken for the city’s second elementary school garden. The garden had taken off beautifully with the help of a committed group of parent volunteers, and everything was fruiting in time for the first day of school. Now would begin the equally vital work of connecting the garden to the school—its curriculum, staff, students and community. I was surprised to learn that despite industrial agriculture’s ubiquity in Ames, many of my students had not set foot on a farm or even in a garden. In a city whose agricultural products are exported around the nation and the world, I would be encouraging the community to become more involved in the production of their own food. And this is what excited me most—facilitating that soul-stirring connection to the soil, to nature, to seeds and to that first bite of a pea or tomato you’ve grown yourself.
The community embraced the new garden at our first major event of the year: a student-run farmers market. The evening showcased the garden’s suitability as a space for community building and education: the produce sold had been nurtured by our summertime volunteers, and the students selling the veggies and giving garden tours were using skills learned in the classroom in a real life setting. Since the success of that event, my co-VISTA and I have had the chance to coordinate many other volunteer-led programming at the two elementary school gardens in Ames. (Both were founded by a partnership including my host site, the Volunteer Center of Story County.) We have held weekly garden clubs after school, at recess and during the summer, an after-school cooking club, taste-testing events, and an Earth Day celebration. We’ve hosted volunteer groups from local businesses, 4-H, the juvenile courts system, Iowa State University, international exchange programs and Ames High School. As garden coordinators, we have also supported teacher use of the outdoor classroom by identifying the possibilities for authentic learning in the garden and leading garden-based lessons. Finally, we helped set up a new middle school garden with assistance from faculty volunteers and summer camp students.
Building community with people of all ages while volunteering outside and connecting with nature has been rewarding, but my time spent with children has been the most inspiring. There is nothing like the light in their eyes when they realize that carrots grow underground or that tomatoes come in different colors, that kale and beets taste good when you know how to prepare them. Not to mention the squeals of delight when a shovelful of soil reveals wriggling earthworms! It was a good decision after all…
This was a year filled with experiments. As a pilot program, nothing was in place for the development of a Community School at Enka Middle except for a newly-established partnership between school administrators and the YMCA, United Way and HandsOn Asheville-Buncombe.
I was warned that my work as Parent Engagement Coordinator would be an uphill battle – history had shown little parent involvement among this isolated rural community, with its vein-like road system scattering families throughout the surrounding mountains. In these circumstances, a person can feel immobilized by the certainty of defeat or see it as an opportunity to conduct community-building experiments with nowhere to go but up. I choose the latter. And so the lab coat goes on…
The first class was an easy sell. A monthly series, “Healthy Cooking on a Budget,” invited participants to help prepare a meal that meets federal nutrition guidelines and feeds a family of four for under $20. Our parent volunteer facilitator (a trained chef) put together a cookbook filled with healthy, inexpensive, and easy recipes; this way, participants made some recipes during class but could try many more from home! Of course, they got to enjoy a free meal at the end. How could this not work? The first class quickly reached capacity and each one following was filled, or nearly so. Score!
As I put together other classes, I didn’t receive the same enthusiastic response. A “Becoming a Love and Logic Parent®” series garnered only nine individuals even after several marketing pushes. I wasn’t too discouraged though, because the time commitment was much greater – but the quality of conversation compensated for low numbers, and at the end they voiced a desire for more. So I continued on the parenting theme with a class called “Help Your Student Find Their Spark,” based on the Sparks curriculum. Crickets. Zero parents signed up.
So as in any experiment, I analyzed what went awry. I thought about our current model. Free food and child care was always a goal, but what made the cooking class so appealing? Perhaps it’s the obvious – cooking classes are far more “sexy” than parenting classes. But I had another thought… life is hectic! Maybe parents don’t want to give up an evening that takes away from their family’s limited time together. Rather, they want fun activities that they can enjoy as a family. Next, we applied this model to our final event.
My co-VISTA and I needed to plan a spring resource fair, so we decided to turn our resource fair into a fun, cookout-style community festival with lots of kids’ activities and giveaways. We invited exhibitors that offered free or low-cost summer opportunities for youth, community meals and other summer food sources, and ways to decrease household costs. But to get people there, we marketed the family-friendly fun. It worked!
That’s the beauty of a pilot project – your experiment feeds the next person’s success. And now I look forward to passing the torch to the next VISTA!
As the 2012-2013 VISTA year comes to a close, generationOn VISTAs are still plugging away at a seemingly insurmountable task- how to convince the dedicated education professionals at our school to take service-learning seriously. And although we feel strongly that “convince” is a term we should not have to employ, along with “coax,” “prove to,” and “demonstrate,” it has come to preempt our supposed job of “training” school staff to adopt this appropriate model for education in the modern world. Maybe we’re doing something wrong.
The toughest part of our job isn’t living on an outdated government allowance, and it isn’t commuting daily between our office and our school – where we don’t even have a desk of our own – while simultaneously working on directives from VISTA, POL, generationOn, and our school. No, sadly the toughest part of our job is working in a school environment that can’t seem to keep up with its own students or staff, let alone provide us with the support that we need to succeed in our duties.
We lament the fact that if only the administration saw our initiatives as ways to address the root causes of bad behavior, student disinterest, and teacher apathy, we would undoubtedly have a clear path to providing the kind of training laid out in our VADs. If only the administration would give us its full-throat support, backed in part by mandatory trials of service-learning intervention and sincere gratitude for all we are doing, we wouldn’t have to waste time proving service-learning’s value. As it is, we often operate under the radar without the authority to command anything but pitied cooperation from teachers and parents. Throughout the year, I would sometimes feel like a frustrated parent telling his child “one day when you’re older, you’ll understand.” Unfortunately, a parent’s wisdom is never cool. And while parents have the authority that comes with respect and age, many VISTAs do not hold these badges.
Now, before you get all depressed, I should probably talk about all the good times. I remember the days when our program was full of possibility, because I still have these days. We connected with local organizations, planting the seeds of partnership; we provided teachers with curriculum to do service-learning; we planned and executed a holiday campaign that included 40/41 classrooms in service; we created a two-year framework for curriculum, professional development, and parent involvement in service-learning; we ran generationOn’s largest ever MLK Day of Service with 8 brand new projects and over 900 volunteer leaders and family members; we initiated and campaigned for $450,000 in new technology for nine District 11 schools, including 30 new Macbooks for our own school; we created our school’s first Student Council, as a precursor to the Community Advisory Council; we initiated the school’s first Day of Service around recycling and school beautification, complete with classroom service projects and curriculum, student leadership, community partners, and parent volunteers; and we are currently building a toolkit for school-wide service-learning implementation based on our experience in a “receptive” school environment. Not to mention various other tasks we have done for our host site.
All of what we have accomplished is not for nothing. Some of our work may not be replicated by next year’s VISTAs, but much of it will carry over into year two. We are already planning with the school’s Principal to make improvements to our major successes, like professional development, school-wide service days/campaigns, and student leadership. The obstacle to which we keep returning, however, is how to pass on the responsibilities of three full-time VISTAs to a school already flush with programming, and seemingly unwilling to consider service-learning as the panacea that we imagine it as. So I ask again- even in light of our successes, are we doing something wrong?
I have made the “yes” argument. We should not be coercing a school, however gently, just because we have a relationship with them. We should not engage in piloting a program before we have accrued raw data from willing and complicit focus groups, classes, teachers, administrators, etc. Especially as comparatively inexperienced workers in the fields of public education and program management, we should not be going for such a momentous project.
I have made the “no” argument. We are not, in fact, implementing something so far-fetched. Some teachers, students, administrators, parents, and community agents have taken to our program. We have had incredible success, despite the low levels of buy-in from our school. This year has served as experience for us as individuals, and for our organization in their bid to effect policy on a small scale, not to mention the year’s service as a solid “foot in the door.” There is potential for giant growth next year, and it will be on our shoulders.
Which statement is truer?
I think every VISTA grapples with this conundrum, and probably multiple times throughout the year. I am proud of our (and my own) accomplishments, but I have by no means reached a point of comfort with my service, and I’m nervous about how I can possibly feel good walking away from this position. Will I have left enough, and will it be up to par? Will anything have mattered by the end of year two? (Oh and by the way, will I have a job come August 24th?) To be sure, there are a lot of open-ended questions.
When I try to boil all of this down into a single, coherent, snugly, smile-inducing thought about how we all tried our best, and how we made a difference in the lives of many, I can’t. I can’t definitively answer my own questions. I can’t pat myself on the back, and I shouldn’t. And you shouldn’t either. The blunt fact is that none of us have done nearly enough. And what we have done, we can do better. I am not happy with my work, and I’m certainly not going to walk away from this desk feeling good about the world I live in. The reason is scale.
One year of fighting the good fight isn’t a cure-all. It is a crumb, a penny on the ground. One year of 110% poverty-level wages is unarguably a difficult and worthy sacrifice. But one year of pushing yourself to improve your community isn’t a gold medal. It isn’t a prize. It isn’t a solution- it isn’t even a band-aid on the problem, whatever the problem is that you are addressing. The pennies add up slowly.
The problems we all face are still to come, and the horizon they are on is approaching with increasing pace. If this year was anything for me, it was a lesson on how to wake up and face the next day. I choose to view my work as a question, the answer to which is “yes, and…” I learned this from an improv class I took in college where the strategy was to accept whatever idea was presented to you and to run with it. I know, it doesn’t seem relevant, but if you want to see communities improve and grow, I suggest adopting this view. It doesn’t minimize the value of our successes; it heightens awareness, and extends possibility. Our work may have astonishing impact one day, and fall flat the next. But is it our own faults, the faults of our constituents, or the fault of the system within which we work? And now back to the real question: are we doing something wrong? Yes, and…
HandsOn Northeast Ohio has been a unique organization, offering citizen-managed volunteer opportunities for individuals and organizations in the Greater Cleveland area. For the Martin Luther King Day of Service, the HandsOn Kids Care Club completed winter warmth bags for families and children at Laura’s Home, a homeless shelter for adults with young children, and families in the Kinsman neighborhood served a healthy brunch to 30 adult seniors.
Over the past year, we have engaged an additional 100 family and youth volunteers and had one of our biggest National Days of Service on Global Youth Service Day with 34 volunteers serving over 80 hours. Volunteers completed can gardens for kindergarten and first grade students at Anton Grdina Elementary School, no-sew bags for adult seniors at Burten, Bell, Carr Development Center, and birdhouses for Garfield Heights Nature Center. Their hard work and determination served 90 community members and made me quite proud to continue planning and implementing service projects for our Kids Care Club and Ward 5 residents.
As the Parent and Community Support VISTA, I’ve also managed our 10 mobile tax sites that offered free tax preparation services for low-income residents earning less than $50,000 per year. Managing 5 trained community volunteers was great and we also provided a great service for 107 clients. We even returned $100,233 and $14,133 in federal and state tax dollars back to Cuyahoga County residents! Our work would not have been possible without the help of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) Coalition of Cuyahoga County and providing excellent technical support (at times I was stumped trying to figure out rejected or incomplete returns). Still, I learned valuable information about tax preparation and how to ask our clients pertinent questions to secure the right tax documentation and supporting documents. Since managing the mobile tax sites, I’ve also been heavily involved in parent engagement at Anton Grdina, setting up resident circles at Rainbow Terrace and building community relationships with other agency partners.
Parent engagement at Anton Grdina Elementary School has been challenging, but rewarding. HandsOn partnered with Greater Cleveland Congregations to host several school events, and HandsOn NEO independently held a career and job fair for 50 community members last December. The successes of uniting parents and students in friendly family events have far outweighed the challenges of low parent turnout at formal School Parent Organization meetings or parents disillusioned by the terse school-parent relationship.
I’ve been excited during my time as a VISTA and have been rewarded by the wonderful parents and youth who’ve attended out afterschool programs at Anton Grdina and have helped us serve the Greater Cleveland community through the HandsOn Kids Care Club.
Yours in Service
People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered.
Love them anyway!
If you do good, people will accuse you
of selfish, ulterior motives.
Do good anyway!
If you are successful, you will win
false friends and enemies.
The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway!
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway!
Many of the programs we offer match wonderful volunteers with students in need of academic help. As the Academic Success VISTA with HandsOn Suburban Chicago (HOSC) I am charged with having a positive impact on student’s academic achievement by building programs and matching caring adults to various tutoring task. As a former tutor you never forget the feelings of personal success when the student finally grasps the concept of fractions and how to manipulate them. They would bring tests and report cards so you could see their achievements and know that they were accomplishing set goals. It’s important that all involved feel a sense of accomplishment.
As such, my role is to secure supportive after-school tutoring/homework help in multiple schools in two adjoining districts. Students and tutors mostly focus on homework help during sessions. Because of this it is often harder to see the direct influence that a volunteer might be having on a student’s success. A rise in student grades may be impacted by a number of factors both in-school and after-school. As such it can often be discouraging to tutors, who do not have access to student grades, to be unsure if they are making a direct and positive impact.
To that end our volunteer training is on going and interactive. We remind tutors that academic success is more than just grades and test results. We train tutors to work on study skills, something that is often not taught in schools, with their students and to find alternative ways to gauge improvement. Our tutors take time at the beginning of each session to go through the student’s folders and recycle old papers that they do not need anymore, make sure they have all their tools prior to sessionsand finally ensure that all distractions, phones specifically are stored away until completion.Our tutors are trained on the PQRST (preview, question, read, summary, and test) method; a method that prioritizes information in a way that correlates with how they will be utilizing that information on a test or paper. Together after subject matter is probed, flashcards are created along with other visuals are cued up like, around prioritizing assignments then highlight them green, yellow, and red to ensure that time is taken to complete and return for grading purposes.
By focusing on variables that you can directly influence, you will be able to get a better return on your impact. Students who worked on study skills with their mentors began attending the program ready to work. Their volunteers noticed (slowly but surely) that students began bringing in their materials without needing to be reminded, became less disruptive to others, and began to complete their homework within the allotted amount of time. The volunteers felt more confident in themselves and had a stronger relationship with their students. Once the students and volunteers felt more successful in their roles, the program itself became more successful. It was an honor to be a part of such an endeavor over the 2012-2013 service year.
HandsOn Suburban Chicago (HOSC)