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.