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.

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