As an AmeriCorps*VISTA member I had to attend a Pre Service Orientation. Most VISTAs, and AmeriCorps Volunteers, attend regional events. Being a resident of NH I should have gone down to Maryland for mine. However, I had the unique experience of going to Maine's PSO. As far as I know, not many states have their own PSOs. Because Maine could garner the resources, and also because Maine is a state unto itself in some respects, it holds its own. Of course, why the hell was I, a PlusTime NH VISTA, there? Well... it just kind of worked out that way. The PlusTime VISTAs and I traveled up to Maine for August 21st through the 24th, 2007.
We stayed in a Holiday Inn, in Portland Maine, not far from the small University where the actual PSO was being held. Carpool groups were created and whoever drove back and forth could fill out reimbursement forms for the mileage. I traveled up to Maine with my college roommate Ross, who was also going to be a VISTA. By knowing someone who was not only going to be a VISTA, but also going to the same PSO as me, I think my experience was slightly atypical, though it was clear that people were finding it easy to make friends. All the PlusTime VISTAs got along great and, since we were kind of the black sheep, we had a very easy reason to gel together as a group different from "all those Mainers." Of course, conference things like this are always slightly unnerving. However, the feeling goes away once you realize that all you have to do is sit in a room, talk a little bit, eat free food, and stay in a free hotel. Ross and I even got to watch free movies and, since the hotel had a bunch of cable channels, we watched episodes of the O.C. on the Soap network.
So what happens at this PSO? Basically there is a gigantic binder that you get upon arrival and you are taught the roots of the AmeriCorps programs and the Corporation for National Community Service. But that really doesn't take very long. We watched a video that detailed it, though most all of the pictures shown were of Volunteers and not VISTAs - they are just more camera friendly because of the work they do. After that we started talking about poverty... and then had lunch... then talked about poverty... and more poverty.
I don't really want to seem jaded by my experiences with the whole "poverty insights, concepts, and strategies" sessions but they were quite long and, as I have found, not highly applicable to what I am actually doing... or the work plans of other VISTAs I know. However, it did seem to make sense with many of the other Maine programs, given the communities those VISTA members were going to enter and the goals they had. See, part of the PSO involves orienting people to new surroundings. My friend Anna is a VISTA in Concord, NH. She is from Buffalo, NY. There was a girl going to be a VISTA in northern Maine and she was from South Dakota. I was very surprised by the amount of travel some people did in order to do their year of service. All in all, the PSO was shaping up to be a history lesson with lots and lots of diversity awareness counseling focused on the impoverished. That was day 1... and about half of day 2.
The other pertinent events that occurred at the Maine PSO were the ones where we actually gained skills we would need in order to fulfill our varied work plans. We role-played as community organizations attempting to partner up for mutual benefit and pooled our "resources" to go after a federal grant. We performed light-hearted skits based on prompts dealing with communication techniques and understanding the hidden rules of social groups and classes. I also drank a lot of tea, ate more cookies than I would like to admit, and, honestly, drew a flip book using an entire post-it note pad. However, the tea, the cookies, and the silly post-it notes were really some of the things that brought the PlusTime NH VISTAs together. Lauren drew a dinosaur labeled the "AmeriSaur" which then mated with the "Ideal-a-saurus" and VISTA was born. I actually still have the post-it notes and, of course, that binder with all the resources it contains. If I've learned anything from conferences it is that you should really just keep everything you get and find a place for it somewhere. Even if it doesn't seem to make sense to you right now it may end up being beneficial at some point.
The last part of the PSO, besides the time spent drinking at the hotel before bed, was the swearing-in ceremony. Ross and I woke up late - on purpose though - and drove up to the state house in Augusta. See, Ross and I had the unique advantage that we had already met with our site directors and knew that they were not coming. None of the Maine people had had such an opportunity... which is why we went late. So we showed up and were sworn in by the Governor of Maine's wife. She seemed nice. We all pledged to "get things done" (the broad AmeriCorps pledge) and were quickly on our drive back down into NH. The PSO was over and Ross and I had reimbursement checks both in hand and in the mail. All in all, it was a good time.