Thursday, July 31, 2008

[August] is just a day away...

Tomorrow is August 1st. It's slightly daunting. I really need to acquire new employment so I can switch right over and not have any downtime. I had a first interview with the NH Chapter of the March Of Dimes to be a community director (one of two) this past Monday. I think it went well but I'm not sure if I'd be excited enough to commit to the amount of development work they need. As the community director I would be in charge of specific events in certain portions of the state. It would be my duty to recruit event chairs and committees to do the work acquiring all the necessary supplies and spaces for the events and to gather up the people who would raise the money for the event. Meanwhile, I'd be going to businesses and corporations with specific proposals attempting to get funds to pay for the events . The director said that I would be flown out to regional conferences for mandatory trainings on the events, which could clearly be awesome, but I wonder if I would crack under some sort of pressure. However, the position could be quite simple. Just get out there, talk to people, build relationships, have great events. Though "Bikers for Babies" makes me laugh every time I say it.

The Manchester 21st CCLC, the program with which I currently work, has managed to get a position cleared that is basically what I do now. A portion of me would really hate to see all the work I've put into getting sustainability subcommittees together, sitting on community committees, and attempting to build general capacity lose any momentum I may have helped create. I'm certainly applying for the position but it could potentially, like the program as a whole, exist for only one year unless the program is successful in acquiring the 65% grant from the DOE.

Aside from those two options I don't have much else. I've applied for a Federal position in Manchester through (VISTA grants you non-competitive eligibility for 1 year after successful completion of your one year of service), and sent out my resume to a couple other places but so far... I'm just finishing the sustainability plan for the program.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Drawing to a close...

The afterschool program is done for this (fiscal) year. Summer programming starts July 7th and goes to August 1st but that's on the next fiscal calendar. Site Coordinators aren't working and here I am sitting in my cubicle. My cube, by the way, has steadily been filled with more and more stuff throughout the year. When I started I had a desk (that I had to build) a chair, a laptop and a phone. Now I have a 4 drawer, professional filing cabinet, a white board on an easel, a second chair, a storage cabinet, 2 broken printers, a little zen camping thing (like those zen gardens except more NH forest based) and a little 2 drawer filing cabinet that doesn't have a top. Oh, I also have the "Community Relations Office" sign David Scannell used to have, but never used. It's odd that just when you actually have all the makings of a real office/cubicle/work space you can only think about what your next one will look like.

2 months and 5 days from now I will no longer be an A*VISTA member. I'll have to be something else. What that is, I have no idea. I realized, this morning, that my year of service has given me a strong basis of experience in everything administrator related except for HR and Budgeting. However, I'm 22 and my degree is in music performance and philosophy. I'd be a more likely candidate as an Administrative Assistant than as an Administrator. I should probably put the feelers out for teaching clarinet wherever I can.

My problem - I may have waited too long to find a good position that is something I would WANT to do rather than simply can do. Right now I'm also up against all of the 2008 graduates desperately trying to find a job and move out. My best bet would have been to try and find something once the new year started, or at least before all the spring breaks. However, I think the real issue is I'm not sure what I really want to do. My experience as a VISTA have showed me a lot but due to my needing to do so much nothing has really jumped out as me as "Hey! I wanna do that!" I did just write an article for Parenting NH and I am currently writing a multi-year sustainability plan for the program but I'm not sure how to start down that road. I already write a column for the American Record Guide and I love reviewing the newest CDs but maybe that means I should be moving back towards grad school.

In less rambling matters, PlusTime NH is currently having a promotional video created for it by Heartwood Media in Manchester, NH. The video will pretty much be used for recruitment/youtube kind of stuff. I was one of the people they wanted interviewed and I really feel that the media company went about things the wrong way. If the intention is going to be a youtube video you have to know about that scene. I asked them, jokingly, if they had ever seen youtube content and one responded with "no, I only watch animal videos." Everyone who was interviewed was standing up, that creates a bit on an uncomfortable situation. The real issue here was that they had called all the people to be interviewed and asked us questions. I could hear typing happening as I talked. I imagined that I would show up and they would have taken the things I said and narrowed down what they wanted to fit a certain storyboard they had envisioned... no such luck here. I was asked a bunch of questions again and, since my dad just told me that I owed him $830 to get my car fixed I wasn't in the best of moods. I had also just realized that my family, and probably most of my friends, had absolutely no idea what kinds of stuff I had been doing for the past 8 months.

If you are ever going to make a video, map it out. Pre-screen people and take that info and tell them to repeat certain things when you film. Remember your audience and tailor it to them. Make sure people are comfortable when they talk. Have familiar people talk to them while filming. Lastly, The Flip Ultra retails for less than $180 and is outstanding for creating the next viral video. Point, record, flip out the usb plug, download to your computer, upload to YouTube. BAM, video diary. The possibilities are many if the nonprofit world can start entertaining the ideal of using the internet to its advantage.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The weekends need to evolve...

and evolve so thoroughly that they completely over take the work week. Sitting in my cubicle for more hours than I care to admit every day has several ramifications. The least of which being that I get tired from just plain sitting and wheeling around. On a more serious note, I don't really talk to anybody... at all. So if someone calls me or a coworker says "hello" I tend to respond in a very small voice. People don't always hear this voice produced by prolonged periods of silence so I've actually had several coworkers come up to me asking if they had done anything wrong. If my friends or my family call me at work they always ask if I am hiding or if I just woke up. I reply that no, I'm not sleeping and that I'm just at work doing work stuff. Thankfully, only 1 of the 3 fluorescent bulbs above me works so I don't feel as oppressed as I would were they all to be functioning. A maintenance working came in one day and asked me if I wanted them replaced. I responded abruptly with "oh hell no, man. but thanks" and he chuckled to himself, picked up his ladder, and wandered to the next bulbs.

Some days I think that working is really just the best way to keep VISTA members from spending money they don't have. If you have to work full-time then there's about 40 hours (not including any travel, prep, work you take home, events, etc) where you can't really spend money - except possibly for lunch.

I've taken up running as a hobby and, once I purchased some shoes for $72 I haven't had to spend any more besides registration fees for 5k races. However, a 5k race still gets you some bottled water, maybe some yogurt or fruit, most likely a shirt, and a chance to get out there with a bunch of other people. My first 5k was on the last Sunday in April and I ran that in 32:14. Certainly not a blistering pace but, considering it was the first time I ever ran an entire 5k without walking, I felt really good about it. May 21st is the "Rock'n Race" in Concord and I've heard that it's the largest sanctioned 5k race in the Northeast. I'm pretty excited. Apparently there are live bands just about every quarter mile along the course or something.

The $50 registration fee I spent on joining the kickball league in manchester, the NHSSC, has been well spent also. Two games down and our team is 0-2 having scored a total of 1 run. That run was me and I'm currently 3 for 3 at the plate. Yet, while we may have lost on the field, we certainly win in the bar where domestic drafts flow for $1.50 and other people on the team always seem to buy the rounds. If only I could find a cheap baseball glove now so that I could carry around 2 with me at all times then I would just be completely ready for the summer. My trunk already contains a whiffle ball and whiffle ball bat, a 4square/kickball, a (deflated) football, and 3 baseballs. Were I to find a heavy frisbee my car could be the supply closet for a recreational afterschool program.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

It's not like plopping a fish into a nice, clean bowl...

It's more like tossing a tiny fish into a mired swamp. When people talk about bringing issues to the fore of key stakeholders and the general public they tend to address the situation as if the issue, a nice goldfish, or beta since they are still all the rage right now, can be dropped directly into the mind, the clean bowl, of the populace as if there is nothing already there. In reality, a person's mind is a quagmire of issues and responsibilities and being ignorant of that fact will do little to help you. Marketing is key - you have a target audience so how do you best contact them? Well, you have to know what other things they might like besides your issue/cause/whatever and use those things as some sort of leverage if your initiative is very new or little known.

In the afterschool realm it isn't quite as hard. People can be parents. Parents have kids and tend to care about them. Parents have to work so their kids can eat and have clothes and whatnot. Kids might not have anything productive or constructive to do after school. The problem is there and if your afterschool program has a good relationship (best option is clearly to be in the school) with the school and school district then it isn't hard to get parents to put the kids in the program.

However, what about the important people who aren't parents? Or who used to have school-age children and might want to get involved? What about the business community? All these potential stakeholders probably, especially in the Northeast of the United States, do some sort of volunteering, sponsorship, donating, etc. for at least one organization or cause. That does not mean, however, that people are maxed out at one cause. Gathering support is not about finding the Monopoly guy and asking him to give you enough money to be sustainable. It's about being the fish in the swamp that doesn't get lost amongst the reeds and using the momentum you gain to build relationships. These relationships can turn into life-long volunteers, donors, suppliers of in-kind goods, and general visibility expanders.

Turning to a highly specific example, my program, the 21st CCLC is part of the Manchester School District. Currently, budget season is upon us and things are especially brutal this year. With the downturn in the economy caused by the sub-prime mortgage crunch and the extreme weakness of the dollar causing higher prices for gas and food added to the inflated revenue expectations and one of the snowiest winters in history, the City of Manchester is in dire straights. Either everybody needs to cut everything under the sun or taxes will go up... a lot (by the way, the state of NH has also been adversely affected by these things and is also in the hole monetarily). Last night over 2,000 people went to Memorial High School for a chance to appear before the Board of Mayor and Alderman and be heard. All talk was about the school district's budget. Currently set at $147 million for this year, the Board of School Committee requested a proposed $153 million for next year. The Mayor returned with a budget of $140 million which, along with the rest of the city, would result in the absence of a tax increase. Of course, cutting $7 million dollars is a lot so, obviously, teachers fear for their jobs. The Mayor has repeated said that if administration is trimmed the school district should be able to figure it out but the number of people who work in the administrative offices where I reside is nowhere near enough for that to happen.

Now, with people wondering if athletics and arts&music will be disappearing from classrooms, and it is a big possibility that happens much more, nationally, than anyone would care to admit, and how many, it isn't a matter of 'if', teachers will be pink slipped, how the HELL am I supposed to get support for an afterschool program????

Monday, April 14, 2008

VISTA and fun are not mutually exclusive...

I know there are VISTAs out there who sit at home all day and night, in the dark, shivering, eating only ramen noodles in front of a candle by which they read. This is entirely unnecessary. Just because you survive on a living stipend doesn't mean you have to go without heat, electricity, or food that may actually nourish you. More importantly, there's no need to sit around doing nothing all the time bemoaning how you can't ever have any fun. Effective fiscal management, combined with some wheelin' and dealin' maybe, can create a situation where you can go out and do things and not absolutely hemorrhage funds.

Case in point - this coming Friday is the party for one of my oldest friends. Taner is turning 23 and, since we rarely get to see him since he's pursuing a doctorate of pharmacology, we usually go all out we usually go all out for his birthday. They key here is the sheer number of people involved. We found a band made out of guys we know who will play for free. I found a company that makes ice luges for a mere $35. Finally, a half keg is setting us back, not counting the deposit, about $130. Now, if I had to pay for all this stuff by myself... it would be the only thing I could do all month (but that would probably be worth it). However, charge $5 for admission and I'm pretty sure I can cover any expenses now... except for maybe the 6-foot party sub.

In other situations, it's all about managing... everything. You don't want to spend more than your allotment of food stamps for food so you need to manage what you eat. Exercise is a great, low cost way to not only help make your food go farther, but also give you something to do. I used google maps to figure out a loop that's 3.2 miles which exits where I live by turning right and eventually comes all the way around to me entering where I live by turning right. Other low cost fun could include getting to know your local high school or AAA sports instead of shelling out the mondo bucks for, in my case, the Red Sox or the Celtics or the Patriots. I'm attending a Fisher Cats game tomorrow night, minor league Baseball team for... somebody, for a mere 10 bucks. In May I'll be attending an arena football game for a discounted price.

On the more artsy side, the Currier Gallery of Art just reopened and, in order to have a really big grand opening, offered free admission to everybody the first week. Lots of towns organize gallery nights as the weather gets nicer where a number of small galleries will be open to the public in efforts to get people walking the downtown strip and such. Movies can get pricey if you like to go to those but your local library probably shows at least a couple movies every week for free. Obviously, matinées are the best bang for your buck at the local cineplex - however, the theater can also be your best friend. You can watch sporting events on certain nights on the giant screen with a bunch of your friends. At certain theaters you can even watch the Metropolitan Opera or the San Francisco Opera perform for much less than the price of admission to a traveling troupe going through your town.

Recently I joined the NH Sports and Social Club or... whatever it's called. I'm on a team to play kickball with a bunch of my friends. Basically, we get shirts and we go hang out Thursday nights and play kickball with other teams. Afterwards, we go to Murphy's Taproom and drinks are only like $1.50 or something. It may have cost me $50 to join - but I get a shirt and that's basically a wearable coupon for cheap drinks from this Thursday to the end of June so that seemed like a sound investment to me.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Wonderful and Frightening World of Grants...

Grants are a big deal in the non-profit realm these days. Many organizations rely entirely on corporations/foundations/trusts to maintain sustainability. This helps create the environment in which non-profits are currently mired and out of which they must climb if they ever hope to really achieve their vision. Too often non-profits feel that they need to beg and barter for every cent because nobody out in the community cares or wants to donate. Harboring this attitude reflects the belief that you don't really think your cause is worthwhile because, if it were, wouldn't people want to jump on board and help?

I tend to think that this situation happens because non-profits are under staffed and this leads to initiative leaders losing sight of the passion that once brought them into the field. Administrators and capacity builders lose touch with the real effects of what they help build while direct service providers get jaded from the constant inundation of the same problems and issues. This creates an atmosphere thick with a lack of ingenuity and an inability to creativity problem solve. By reuniting members of your non-profit with what made them enter the field in the first place, productivity should rise and a happier workplace is the biggest benefit. This is especially important with direct service providers to youth.

Anyways, grant research isn't always fun. Searching google or or the foundation center online is no more exciting than hitting up the nearest library with a funding consortium subscription. However, I have found that writing and editing grants is quite enjoyable - but just for me really. Many people around me find the task boring and very bang-my-head-against-the-wall kind of infuriating. These people probably never enjoy writing anything, may not know how to write effectively or concisely, or feel that, in the end, what was once lost does not equal what you could possibly gain. You are rarely ever assured receipt of a grant. The time you spend on it may not end up paying off with dividends. Though, I would posit that every time you do apply you should at least try to learn something. The more you write the better you get and the more (intelligent) things you read the better you'll write (you can't read romance novels all day and expect to get a grant because you used victorian language and the word 'member' a lot).

I've helped my program apply for two, $1,000 grants so far this year. We received the first one and now the high school dance team has cool uniforms, a foldable storage unit, and another music program to help them create mixes. I have yet to hear back about the second grant, but it could turn into funding for a guitar, bass, and drum set, with all the necessary cords, sticks, and even a microphone, to continue the School of Rock program at McLaughlin Middle School. Yesterday I started working on a Citizen's Bank Champions in Action grant that would actually be quite substantial. If awarded, your non-profit receives $25,000 in unrestricted funding, press coverage, and volunteer support. The deadline is next Friday... oof! The good thing, though, is that I plowed through half of the application yesterday and my boss was pretty amazed. The mere fact that I had answered almost three of the response questions was fantastic to her. I didn't think anything of it because, as a philosophy major, I had to write papers about any number of topics at the drop of a hat. Later today, after one my sustainability subcommittee meetings, I'm meeting with the district's grant writer to go over demographic information that should be included.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Moving around and looking towards August...

When I first took the VISTA position I had recently received my undergrad degree and had moved back in with my parents. I was living no more than 5 miles from my place of work and giving my dad about $500 a month. I basically had the upstairs of the house to myself though living with your parents can always be odd and awkward. However, at the end of January I moved to Concord into a condo/apartment thing with my friend Grant. Now I commute to work, about 22 miles I think, have a much smaller room, and pay only $300 a month. I also gained a community building with an exercise room and an indoor pool. Because of the car accident in December, I have a more fuel efficient car which helps keep me close to staying within my allotted $75 gas card. However, it's really the $200 savings from the rent differential that makes the move worth it (besides being able to sit and drink on the couch without my dad asking me if I'm "making the right decisions" with my life). Even with the extra gas cost and food cost I'm not hemorrhaging any money and my bank account is holding pretty steady. I do have to say that tax returns are awesome though.

Since it is now April and I have to do my third quarter report this week it is once again that time of year where you are somewhat allowed to seriously question every major decision you've ever made and become flat-out frightened of the future... especially if you have a liberal arts degree. Grad schools are increasingly hard, and costly, to break into and once you've gone through the undergrad loan situation I feel most people get jaded by it, to put it lightly. Personally, I am amongst those with the highest percentage of unmanageable school debt, meaning that I went to school in NH - a state which, if it increased its higher education aid by 50%, would still be last out of all 50 states. So, since I'm not going to grad school and I cannot reasonably afford to live at VISTA level again, nor at the level of the coveted VISTA "Leader" position, I must use this resume building experience to 1) build an effective resume that fully captures my year of service and 2) get a job that doesn't pay me with dangling carrots and food stamps.

As a VISTA, if you do your job at all, you will have met many people from several organizations that work with yours, regardless of what your work plan says. I think the time has come for me to really plant some seeds that may germinate into real positions. Currently, I work with the Manchester 21st CCLC afterschool program and PlusTime NH. It makes sense that, since they know me the best, I attempt to find a full-time position in those organizations. However, this can be tough as workers in the nonprofit realm understand that they are probably tasked with the work of what would be at least two positions in the private sector. Therefore, even though a new position may be clearly necessary to all involved it does not mean that it will become a reality. The normal option, of course, is to see if somebody leaves his or her position and snatch that up but I'm not really sure if I have the desire to be a full-time site coordinator. Sometimes it's tough to decide between trying to find something you really want to do and taking that which is readily available - especially when lots of kids are involved.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

7 months in...

and I'm still going strong as a VISTA. A couple days ago the realization hit me in the face like that time I threw a piece of white bread at a friend during a party. I've been collecting a living stipend, paying for food with an EBT card, and limiting fun outings that cost money to no more than 2 a month for over half a year. To me, this means that I'm almost done - which is fantastic until I realized that it means I'm almost done.

It was about this time last year when, as a graduating senior at UNH, my friends and I all freaked out about our future. Letters from grad schools were opened with cautious care like that of a bomb squad and internet job searching took the place of Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Well, it may be time for me to do that again. My few applications to rejoin academia resulted in denials so becoming a full time student clearly isn't an option once I get to late August. My living arrangements have changed and I have been living with a friend of mine in Concord since late January. I have a small commute to work, but I also have a more fuel efficient car and I pay Grant less than my dad so it is working out well. However, our agreement is only until August, at which point I need to make more money than I am currently. Of course, this isn't hard since any job you take after being in AmeriCorps translates into an automatic raise in your eyes. So now I am attempting to plant the seeds of a paying position in one of the organizations for which I work or with which I work. The good thing about being a VISTA is that over the course of a year I have engaged many businesses and non-profit organizations. Sure, I can't apply for a position with them all but I can probably get some key references depending on what I do apply for.

On Friday I will be attending a training day held at UNH-Manchester by entitled "Life After AmeriCorps Day". I'm not really sure what I will get out of it but I signed up for job searching, grant writing, and the resume workshop creatively titled "how to capture your year of service on paper".

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Meetings, meetings, all the time and not a... drop to drink?

Meetings, meetings, all the time and not enough time to think. Right now I'm on several committees. In fact, a good number of committees - some on which I just sit and give my input on occasion and some on which I must have a much more active role. Today at 3:30 the Advisory Committee for the program is scheduled to meet. I have serious doubts about the number of members who will be attending since the committee has utterly no power, means very little, and, it seems to me, was more useless in its current instantiation at the inception of the program. Basically, the only people on it are the principals of the schools in which the program resides. The meeting is at 3:30 in the afternoon so they seldom come. Sometimes a school board member would show up (I've been told), and a couple parents are in attendance per their availability, but I'm not really a big fan of this committee.

Generally, a nonprofit has a board of directors who either work directly in the program or have other jobs and bring their expertise to the table, from various fields, in order to better serve the program given that it is, believed to be, benefiting the community in some way. Such a board has powers over certain things, defined in some charter or something, and they meet regularly to vote on things and make sure the program is running as it should. In the case of the Manchester School District's 21st CCLC... there's basically none of that. The group only meets 4 times a year and I have to make name tags for some reason that people don't want to wear (that's my perception) and that you can't even see anyways once people sit down at the board room table. However, I do think there is some hope for this group if it can be revitalized and new members are taken on and the group actually has some sort of tangible purpose.

The other 21st CCLC committees that I'm on are basically ones for which I recruited all the members. There's the Results committee (which has met 3 times I believe now), the Finance committee (which has met once), the Community Engagement committee (first meeting on Valentine's Day), and the Operations and Management Committee (first meeting scheduled for early March). Generally, the "hey, let's create a legitimate sustainability plan for this program that reflects the conditions and causes inherent in the community that we are looking to address in thoughtful and intentional ways" process would happen with the nonprofit's board. But, since Manchester is out of control crazy and nobody really has time to do much, it was decided, by the Advisory Committee I believe, that there would be separate committees to tackle the varied parts of the path to a plan.

Aside from these I enter into the community and sit on the Weed&Seed Steering Committee, weed and seed is a department of justice, block grant that allows for the increased availability of resources for residents in low-income, high-crime areas (service providers and police). There's also the Violence Prevention Committee which, I believe, has just turned its focus over to bullying as a specific issue to approach. The Makin' It Happen Coalition runs the Dropout Prevention Workgroup that attempts to address issues related to the high dropout rate in Manchester. Apparently the most telling factor of whether or not a student will dropout of high school is whether or not the student passes freshman year. Any student forced to repeat 9th grade has a significantly higher chance of not achieving a high school diploma. I've been to the school district's Multicultural/Diversity Committee once, but I don't think the assistant principal who runs it really liked me being there seeing how he never responded to any of my emails, seemed to fear, with a possibility for a good reason, that I would be reporting confidential information to the greater community, and I've never been placed on the email list for the group.

As a VISTA, I feel, there are some battles you just can't win and it might not serve your greater purpose to really stir the pot as much as would be needed. However, credibility has come at a price for me and there are still several people with whom I interact that I feel do not respect me and perhaps, most humiliatingly, attempt to appease me out of pity or something.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Personal obstacles...

I've only had to deal with two personal problems during my stint as a VISTA so far. These two issues were quite large, however, and make me realize how quickly being a VISTA can be entirely unsustainable (hmmm... that strikes me as funny) once certain events take place. Also, they occurred within very close proximity to one another and happened in the 2 weeks prior to Christmas.

The first event to transpire was a death in the family. My grandfather died. I was very close to my grandfather when he was alive so this was a pretty traumatic event. I had never really even had a family member die that I knew. He lived in North Carolina and since I live in New Hampshire travel plans that needed to be made were a bit costly. He died on a Friday so I was unable to contact my site director or the VISTA director at PlusTime, the sponsoring organization, directly. I managed to email them that I would be flying out on Sunday and returning the following Friday. Luckily, I knew that in the event of a death in the family, AmeriCorps allows VISTA members (and possibly volunteers and others) up to one week of Bereavement. Now, I don't know if "one week" is 7 work days or merely a 5 day work week, so I assumed the smaller of the two and kept my plans appropriate to that.

That whole situation affected me, as a VISTA, in much more than an emotional capacity. I now had much less money because of the plane tickets, with which my dad helped, I was, in all likelihood, way behind with respect to the tasks I was completing and who knows what could have happened just in the program itself in the time I was gone. As it turned out, I was lucky and the world hadn't fallen apart in my absence - though nothing I was doing was moved forward at all. No biggie, sometimes a VISTA doesn't always have a ton of busy time so getting behind a little can, when appropriate, help keep you busy.

The second thing that happened to me was that I was in a car accident. My poor 98 Dodge Neon crumpled all to hell and I was viciously assaulted by the driver side air bag - which then made me think my car was on fire because of all the particles it released in the air that I took to be smoke. Basically, when I left my home in the morning there were 4 stop signs at an intersection and when I came home in the evening there were only 2. There were also no signs to state anything had changed and motorists were still acting as if all 4 signs existed. Of course, lucky me, I still had a stop sign and when it was my turn to go, assuming it was still a 4-way stop, I went and was hit by a driver, my age, from out of town. Legally, I was at fault though the city, as I was told by the police officer, had no record of the intersection being changed. I have yet to hear anything from my insurance company.

Regardless... I was left without a vehicle in a town with less than stellar public transportation (and only in the form of buses). Luckily (or perhaps more unluckily), the collision happened the Wednesday before Christmas Break - a week that I didn't have to work. Of course, nobody else really works either so it wasn't really a blessing. I was unharmed in the accident though my travel plans all had to be scrapped. I was in no shape, financially, to purchase a car and really wasn't sure how I was going to deal with the whole situation. I did, however, have a week to think about it and I even had my laptop so I could work from home as well. Furthermore, since it was the holiday break, my friends who were still in college, either undergrad or grad, were all home so I could get around with the help of my friends. One of my friends could even bring me to work each morning since he lived about a mile away from me and works in the building next to me. In the afternoon I got my ex-girlfriend to pick me up and my friends all knew that they'd have to pick me up if we wanted to do anything at night.

Of course, I needed to get a car before some of these friends returned to school so I turned to my dad. I really could have dealt with the latter half of December, 2007, had I not been living with him. I think that I have been fortunate to be a VISTA in an understanding site and have family and friends that also support me - though sometimes I do get the "well... you should probably stop this whole VISTA thing and get a real job" at which point I kind of get upset due to all the good work I am doing. Just because I don't get paid or have a "career" doesn't mean that what I do doesn't have more worth than another person. Plus, I'm a firm believer that the word "career" was created by business majors, investment bankers, finance people, and doctors - since you are pretty limited, though not always, in what you can do with those and you've already used up a lot of your life just to get there.

In the end, I managed to get a 2000 Saturn SL2 with a mileage under 90k that runs well and gets higher gas mileage than my Neon for $3,000. Of course, I didn't have 3 grand, to be eligible for foodstamps you need to have less than $2,000 combined (checking/savings), so I gave what I could and my family scrapped together the rest for me. I suppose I need to make it clear that I am not in a position where my family can merely buy me out of jams, though I will admit that were they not there and willing to help me, I may not have been able to continue my year of service. Many AmeriCorps members drop out and after going through the month of December, 2007, I think I came face to face with the final set of issues that can cause that.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


What's a program without cool events? Well, not a very cool program - at least to the outside community. The Manchester 21st CCLC is quite aware of this fact and has created some cool events to highlight itself and its students in the community.

The first event of the school year (that I can remember) was Lights On! Afterschool Programs, which is a nationwide celebration of afterschool programs in the United States. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the national chair and the Afterschool Alliance is the biggest proponent of it, being the nation's largest afterschool advocate. The idea is to have afterschool programs across the country hold special events/fundraisers/something related to their program on or around a specific day. Even the Empire State Building was lit up in observance of it this year. The Manchester 21st CCLC worked together with PlusTime NH, some outside providers, the Boys and Girls Club, Nellie Mae, and the NH Department of Education (I believe). PlusTime and the program orchestrated a really cool sampling of arts and crafts events with demonstrations, karaoke, LEGO sets, and Dance Dance Revolution stations as well as some nutritious food for the kids. Since the afterschool program is in 11 schools in Manchester, we actually had to hold this event twice. So for two consecutive Mondays I moved cafeteria tables, set up banners, set up an 8 foot inflatable light bulb, watched kids, handled some logistical situations, coordinated demonstration times, and then helped break everything down. There were members of the PlusTime board of directors, the Mayor (and the proclamation he brought), the Governor's proclamation was also on hand, DoE people were there, and of course hundreds of kids and some of their parents. It was quite good.

The second event I had to deal with was the Harlem Rockets. They are basically a comedy basketball team that shows up, wheels and deals and all around pwns the team you assemble to face them while delivering positive messages to kids infused with humor. It's fantastic for kids, middle school down to elementary, and can potentially be a great fundraiser if you can get a lot of people to show up and buy tickets. There's a 7 foot tall guy, some acrobatic dunks, and kids get to take home tons of autographed stuff while watching, in my case, their teachers and principles get trounced in a game of b-ball. The Harlem Rockets event happened on October 30th. The following night I went down to Boston to see a show at downstairs at the middle east. it was a fantastic time but then Boston closed all of the routes to 93 north for some reason so I had to drive around into Cambridge until I found the way out so I didn't get home until 3 am. but man was that fun.

When the holiday season was approaching I took the initiative and got the program involved with the Manchester Christmas Parade... err, now called the Christmas on Elm St. Parade - because the city no longer runs it, rather Intown Manchester, a nonprofit charged with keeping the central downtown area of Manchester vibrant, runs it. I filled out some forms, had some meetings with the site coordinators and BAM! we were in a parade. Of course, it wasn't exactly that easy. You have to be all decorated and we didn't have the time (read: desire/want) to do a float so we told kids to make themselves look like presents. Kids showed up all bundled up with their parents and we shoved some wrapped boxes around them and walked along the road giving out candy canes and waving to people beside my site director's car - a mini cooper, for which she made a gigantic bow and attached it to the top. Kids loved it, so did parents, and it was a real good way to reinvigorate some of the people that don't often get to see the children they serve. The only bad thing about the parade was that it was originally postponed. This meant that my site director and I had to show up to the school district and call every person who had expressed interest and get a general idea if people wanted to go through with it. Turns out they did - so we made it happen. I mean, I had just purchased burton mittens and a winter hat for cheap at snowboard jones and I had organized the whole event so there was no way I was not walking in that parade.

The showcase even is coming up soon...

Monday, January 7, 2008

Living on the living stipend...

Everything I do is classified as volunteering. Because of this I do not receive a working wage. However, the CNCS, and the US government, realizes that they can't expect a person to volunteer for a year while being unable to hold any other position without garnering some sort of income. Enter the living stipend.

The VISTA handbook states that CNCS determines the living allowance rate, which varies according to the local cost of living. Furthermore, it says that the rate is based on the poverty level for a single individual in the area. Originally, I always thought that I was to receive 105-110% of the poverty line for my area. That seems to be in accordance with the latter statement, though not so clearly with the former. The cost of living is related to the poverty line but, recently, after doing some reading at the US Health and Human Services site, it doesn't make total sense to me. HHS says that CNCS only uses the poverty line for "foster grandparent" and "senior companion" programs. What? Where the hell is the rest of VISTA? Furthermore, America uses an absolute measure of poverty for the whole nation and not just sections of the country (it's because of this that the average person under the poverty line can own his/her home which has 3 bedrooms and 1 and a half bath). So even if CNCS uses it, a number, which is updated each year, based on a study in the 60s that states households spend 1/3 of the household income on food, it wouldn't appear to be relative to my local cost of living.

However, maybe that is just the case and I am hoping ever so much that is, otherwise it doesn't really make any sense. If CNCS doesn't use the national poverty line for VISTA, only for what I assume is SeniorCorps, but does use the local number derived utilizing the local cost of living then this situation disappears. So I'm hoping for that.

Anyways, I receive $412.83 biweekly deposited directly into my checking account. Direct deposit is apparently an absolute must in AmeriCorps, which I actually love since direct deposit keeps that loose cash out of my pocket and I don't have to do anything for it to end up in my account. Since there are generally 4 weeks in each month that means I make $825.66 a month. Oof! Time to start rattling off those expenses. I pay $400 a month for my rent and $100 for utilities. I rent the upstairs of the house in which my dad lives. Technically, I am living at home. But I pay my way. Now I've only got 325.66 left. Doesn't seem like a lot given how I have to pay my car insurance which was $72, but I was recently in an accident and that's for another post, and now may be around $108 since I will have more than just liability on it. $217.66 is all I'm making a month now but there are still more expenses. My cell phone bill, which is actually quite recent since I had been on my family's plan for the past two years, will be a little under $50 (because I get a discount with Verizon for working at a school district). So now what am I left with, just over $167.66 and I can still think of some other expenses. Gas is a pretty big deal these days and could easily sink my ship if PlusTime NH didn't kick so much ass and give me $75 in gas cards each month - which is clearly awesome. So I don't have to spend any money there.

What about food? Food must totally be kicking me into the red zone, monetarily speaking. Nope. As a VISTA with less than 2,000 in the bank (combined checking and savings) I am more than eligible for government foodstamps. And to apply for them, in NH, at least, is incredibly easy. step 1 - find your local Department of Health and Human Services
step 2 - go there and fill out the generic form to apply for benefits and give it to a DHHS worker
step 3 - go to your interview with bank statements, a couple paycheck stubs/VISTA letter/Sponsor letter detailing pay rate, forms stating residency and how much you pay for rent, and a form of identification
step 4 - get foodstamps - which now come in the form of a debit card (EBT).
alternately, I think some states allow you to apply online.

So now I'm left with just over $167.66 for the month. I can pay a little bit on my non-deferred student loans, since not all loans are able to be deferred, to keep those down and I can still go the movies or go have a couple drinks with my friends. However, I clearly don't have the cash for spontaneous trips or ritzy indulgences though I am still capable of having a good time. I just have to weigh what I want to do with how much I have to pay for it and how many other things I won't be able to do because of it. Prime example - yesterday I went snowboarding. Lift ticket cost me like $40 and I had to get a wax/grind for my board since I hadn't used it in at least a year. Bam! There goes $70. But, I hadn't really been outside in the snow and the mountains in a while and the exercise and fresh air was fantastic for me - even though all my muscle groups are oh so sore right now. It's all about budgeting.

Friday, January 4, 2008


During my time here as a VISTA I have taken part in at least 8 trainings (and I mean full-on, entire day, trainings and not just one team building exercise or something). I've been lectured by many, excited by few, and consumed lots and lots of free sandwiches and tea (I don't drink coffee). That is not to say, however, that I haven't learned anything useful. I have utilized many tools, from specific word choices in meetings to organizational concepts, in an attempt to better serve my program.

I learned the power of youth volunteers in a program as well as effective methods to reward and retain employees/volunteers. I was actually surprised by the number of high school students who volunteer these days, though they are certainly not among the most reliable. I was even more surprised by the astoundingly simple methods of retention that, once I thought on them further, made perfect sense (I have actually received a plastic bag filled filled with nuts and m&ms with a little tag that said "we'd be nuts without you!"). I must have at least 10 sheets just filled with simple ways to recognize people within your organization.

I actually marveled at one talk all about creating a culture in your organization of constant forward motion (it's not my fault he was a great speaker). The talk was a bit about employee retention, but really spoke more to the philosophies or successful programs. Vision should really drive you and your passion should keep you moving towards that vision. I've seen more people than I'd like to admit in the Manchester school system who are simply jaded. Teachers and administration alike suffer the same symptoms, though for separate reasons. Administrators never see the kids their work touches and teachers get desensitized to them from constant exposure. By consistently turning to the vision for the program you can reignite the passion that originally got you there which fuels you to move toward that vision (yeah, it's a bit of a Cartesian Circle but it makes much more sense). In this way your organization can accomplish goals but never stops moving to the next goal. Recognize people for what they did but always bring it back to the future.

Of course, I've been forced to sit through those "mediating tough situations" lectures where you learn how not to yell at your boss and compose yourself. I practically fell asleep during the discussion of "I" statements and preparing yourself mentally for potentially confrontational conversations. I understood the relevance could have for some people, but I was just plain bored.

I've sat through several sustainability lectures, and hell, I've given a couple to some people since sustainability pretty much has to be my middle name right now. Sustainability, really, is simply what happens when a community realizes it can't live without a program. The process of creating a plan is all about developing champions, assessing programming, deciding what you are willing to sustain, finding funding sources, engaging the community, but really you need only make an affective (yes affective) case that is logically sound to enough people to keep your program going.

In a somewhat related note, I hate doing skits. I mean, seriously, I'd rather do partner work on a high wire while a Reiki Master (yeah, that's a real thing...) throws pies at me. A further note on this, don't ever choose to attend what you think will be the "easy" part of the training and attempt to get those people who set up the trainings (and therefore who book the speakers/presenters) to make sure they get people who represent real and actual disciplines that may have bearing to your program... at least in some way.

My most rewarding "training" was when I chatted for several minutes with a keynote speaker from Frameworks, I believe, about effective marketing strategies for afterschool programs. She stated, and I completely agreed with her, that the old style of getting out the message was (and is) entirely detrimental to the afterschool community as a whole - regardless of how much good work you may actually do. Think about, what are the most common things used to "sell" afterschool programs to communities? What, I will venture to guess, most people hear is about how the hours between 3 and 6 are the most dangerous times for kids. It's the timespan where kids commit the riskiest acts of drug use, gang violence, and sex. What is the real message behind that though? Basically it says that kids are bad and if you leave them alone they will do drugs, commit crimes, and get wasted. That message, in turn, causes afterschool programs to be mere warehousing of youth. That, then, entails that nobody will care about the quality of the program or see it as enriching or co-curricular because it is mere childcare. What other message is usually put forth? Depending on your area, definitely the one about how the schools are failing and kids need the time afterschool to get back to where they should be. Translation - teachers aren't doing their jobs and the school system just isn't effective anymore. That may be your stance but it certainly can't always be the case, nor will it get you any friends in the school district.

Afterschool programs, then, need to reframe their arguments to be about the values and desired results that should be guiding the program. Talk about success, hope, and community before anything else. Then drop down a level and discuss family, future opportunity, and growing up as healthy decision makers. Finally, relate how your program speaks to that. If you have a quality program it shouldn't be hard.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The first sign of trouble...

Being a VISTA member, in some respects, is really giving yourself up to some degree of chance. I had been lucky enough to find an assignment that interested me in my home town (thus allowing me to live with my dad - though detailing how I actually survive on the living stipend should be a different post), and it seemed as if I could actually affect some change in a measurable manner.

However, I never really knew into what I was throwing myself. Yeah, something about "eradicating poverty" and "domestic peace corps" this and "getting things done" that but those don't necessarily speak to a person's individual work plan. Many of the students that take part in the Manchester 21st CCLC are poor - the most basic requirement for a school to have a 21st CCLC program is that the school needs to be at least 30% free and reduced lunch - but I barely ever see these kids and I only interact with them during events or when I visit one of the programs. Furthermore, my program isn't about eradicating poverty. A quality afterschool program can hope for nothing better than to, perhaps, alleviate the negative effects impoverished environments have on the school lives of a child by fostering positive self image, enabling a stronger social net, and the ability to have that ever important, positive relationship with a non parental adult. In a way, I see it as being all about relationship building, which also seems to be what I am really supposed to be doing.

Subsequently, at my meetings I would tell people what I knew about the program and the 21st CCLC funding stream and ask them how they viewed afterschool programs. It seemed like a good thing to know if a person was on board with the co-curricular, enrichment bandwagon or the afterschool = childcare one. I will admit, however, that, at this point, I wasn't the most knowledgeable about the program specifics and at one point in a meeting I was asked how much money the program would require to be sustainable. Simply put, I didn't know and this person called my site director. Well this lead to my site director and I talking about this situation and she wanted to know what I was telling people and what I was asking them and what my intentions were with that knowledge. I didn't really know what to say to her and I probably wasn't the most articulate but the situation really left me feeling entirely untrusted. It seemed to me that my site director wanted me to go out and meet everybody that she can't, due to time constraints, but still be the one talking to these people.

This was my first experience with some troubled seas at my host site. I suddenly felt like I couldn't (rather shouldn't) go do anything out in the community. I stopped making appointments and tried to figure out what happened. Basically, what it sort of boils down to, is that I was not taking into consideration the political climate around me in my meetings with members of the community. This, in turn, caused my site director distress not only because she intensely feared anything coming back to her and creating more work in the form of needing to sort out situations or stopping misinformation, but because she also didn't feel that she had the time to really support me. Furthermore, she didn't want me to be talking to people who knew the program and who would possibly get involved in the sustainability process due to their prior participation. I was supposed to be out in the business world drumming up corporate sponsorship. Frankly, I didn't know how to do that... at all.

So to whom did I turn? PlusTimeNH, my sponsoring agency about a half hour away in Chichester NH. I emailed the person with whom I work closely, since he is directly involved in the sustainability process here at the program and he informed the person in charge of overseeing the VISTAs of PlusTime. We all sat down at a meeting and discussed the situation. When I originally interviewed with my site director, for the position, I was trying to make a good impression and be ready for questions. I had no real time to see what she was like and you can never figure a person out in a half hour anyways. This brings me back to chance. The outcome of the meeting was that my site director and I really get along well now. She respects me and my abilities and I know, more clearly, what is expected of me. Now, that isn't to say that I'm not allowed to do anything - and I think that may happen to many VISTAs. Site directors are busy, they don't have time to support you, and you have no idea what the hell you are supposed to do or from what direction you should attack even if you do. But because I used the resources available to me my work relationships are much improved and I'm also better at what I do.

There is, generally, always somebody to whom you can turn somewhere in this whole VISTA thing.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

No program is an island...

My forays out into the nonprofit and business world really taught me a lot very quickly. My program is in Manchester, NH. Basically, Manchester is an urban, immigrant resettlement city in a rural state. NH doesn't have the biggest population and I generally have to tell people in other parts of the country that I live an hour north of Boston for them to understand where I am.

I had been a resident of Manchester my whole life, barring my 4 years at college, and I had gone through the very school system which I am attempting to help. Those experiences gave me a certain credibility (Manchester, it seems to me, is a town where if you run for office and haven't lived in the city your entire life nobody will even notice you), however, I had only seen a small portion of the city. I had no idea that NH has over 7,000 nonprofit agencies, that the political sphere in Manchester was so far reaching and entangling, or that I would be seeing several people from the same organizations so much.

I took notes at every meeting and attempted to draw the links between all the city orgs, nonprofits, and businesses that somehow intersected with my afterschool program. I've met with members of the school district (Federal Projects Manager, Grant Writer, Principals, Fine Arts Director) and directors and employees of programs (Bedford Youth Performing Company, Office of Youth Services, Acting Loft, Makin' It Happen Coalition, Media Power Youth, Child Health Services, Manchester Health Department, Boys and Girls Club, Currier Art Center, the Fisher Cats, Manchester Housing and Redevelopment Authority, Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce). The oddest part, I thought, was that all these groups were already involved with my program in some way. I believe I've been very lucky at my site seeing how well the program director and I get along and the amount of community orgs that are somehow involved in the program. However, nobody outside those people directly involved with the program really know anything about it.

All and all, I've come to the conclusion that no organization in a community can
1) be a quality program and
2) be sustainable
without making a large splash in that community. It was then that I realized what sustainability really is - sustainability happens when a community realizes it can't live without something.

Getting to a meeting...

So before I could actually meet with people I had to contact them. And, as a lowly VISTA member, this gave me some trepidation. I really wasn't sure how people would receive me and I wasn't sure the best way to actually explain what I was doing (as in, what the hell is a VISTA?). Because of this I turned to the least frightening media outlet available to me - email. It doesn't work for everybody but given how most of the business world believes it is far too busy to do anything other than what is already in their day planner I find that it cuts down on the amount of phone tag. Most people tend to check their email quite regularly as well.

Two of my previous jobs were sales related and that experience has really aided me as a VISTA. I used to sell credit cards for MBNA America (now purchased by Bank of America) and then I sold Cutco Cutlery for Vector Marketing. Selling knives taught me the importance of face to face meetings, you only do demonstrations in the homes of the people to whom you are trying to sell knives, and selling credit cards really taught me how to deal with rejection and making the most of as little time and words as possible. Both professions rely heavily on both scripted material and the ability to personalize conversations and discussions. With all that in mind, I created a protocol for myself.

First I had to figure out what my ultimate goal was. I'm a firm believer that you can't tell a story unless you know where it's going. Starting at the end, then, can make perfect sense. My goal is to get people on my sustainability subcommittees. In order to do that I need to get a face to face meeting with the person - preferably at his or her place of work because the person will be more comfortable. I chose to contact the "soft hits" first - those people already familiar with the program. The following is what I came up with.

1) I got out my list and figured out who the partners of the program are – who provides programming/volunteers/space/food/in-kind donations of any kind on some sort of regular basis – could be a non-profit that teaches a class once a month or a company that donates free tee shirts for a specific event once a year. I had compiled this information with the help of my site director.

2) I then wrote up a form to use for the email which I've generalized here:

a. Hi, my name is (your name) and I’m the (position: for example “new AmeriCorps*VISTA member) for the (program/organization). I would like to schedule a meeting for (a span of time relatively soon, “the end of this week or next” or “within the next two weeks if possible” for those who might be really busy). Basically, I would like to discuss the relationship between (his/her/their service(s) or organization) and (your program/organization) as well as the sustainability plan. Thanks and I look forward to hearing from you.

3) I waited for a reply. It really shouldn’t be too hard to get to the meeting this way but I would sometimes encounter a question like “well what do you want to talk about?”

a. A good response could look like: “I would like to hear your perception of the program as a (whatever he/she/they are) and discuss the sustainability plan the program will be moving into. As a (something in the community) I feel it is important to get your feedback on things and include you as possible. (recommend a meeting time, day, or span – “is early next week good?”)

I've found that as long as I make things short and don't give too much information people don't really ask questions until the meeting - which is fine because that's what the meeting is about.