Tag Archive | "Volunteer"

Joining the Corps

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As any frat boy will tell you, there are a number of ways to do penance for a debauched life. Catholic frat boys can go talk it out in a confessional. Pagan frat boys can sacrifice their firstborn on a cairn. Other frat denominations do community service, and lots of it. However, the odd stint in the local soup kitchen bears little comparison with what we’re talking about here. Soup kitchen work will only purge the soul of whatever happened last Saturday night. Full-fledged career volunteers purify the souls of their families for up to three generations of decadent sloth, lust and usury.

However, not every graduate is a frat boy. Those who have always followed the straight and narrow might consider volunteering even without the overriding need to repair the damage they wrought on the world. And if you fear for the resilience of your straight and narrow in a world of vile indecency, a volunteer career keeps you in touch with your karma for a few more ascetic years.

For Americans, the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps are the two main venues for long-term public service opportunities, although smaller-time opportunities exist. Some of the more interesting ones are for archaeological digs and summers fire watching at a state or national park. Many others, however, are dull-sounding jobs in out-of-the-way places. And keep in mind that not all of them necessarily provide adequate food and housing.

Peace Corps

Traditionally, the Peace Corps volunteer efforts focus on increasing food production and sanitary water supply in developing communities, as well as teaching English, math, science, and health practices. There are also opportunities in forestry and the creation of national parks, as well as wildlife management and sanitation engineering; a relatively new environmental workforce operates in 47 countries. Also new are the volunteers in business education, who travel to areas with budding market economies and assist in the creation of private businesses. You can visit the Peace Corps Web page to learn more about specific opportunities and to get an online application.

For those interested in teaching English, the Peace Corps TEFL (Teaching English As a Foreign Language) program is the largest organization of American English teachers to operate overseas. Choosing the Peace Corps TEFL program over others will require that you serve a longer term of service in a less-developed region, but all Peace Corps members benefit from the U.S. government’s in-country support network (that Corps veterans say is excellent).

It’s well known that volunteering for the Peace Corps is no walk in the park – aside from being the “toughest job you’ll ever love” it might just be one of the toughest you’ll ever apply for. The Peace Corps looks for people who are strong and healthy and who possess the ability to be alone, both in terms of living conditions and decision-making skills. You must be able to cope with great responsibility and potentially great boredom with equal aptitude. Apply at least nine months before you want to start your tour of duty. During service the program will take care of all your basic needs, including housing and health care. Upon completion of your two years of service, you’ll receive a $5,400 “readjustment” stipend.

AmeriCorps

Last year AmeriCorps volunteers distributed 15 million pounds of food and clothing, built and renovated 5,000 houses and housing units, and taught more than half a million children. Volunteers serve for 10 to 12 months; they receive a “modest living allowance” while serving, and at the completion of their term of service, they are awarded an Education Award in the amount of $4,725 for current educational expenses or the repayment of existing loans. The organization is divided into three main venues for service: the Volunteers in Service to America program, the National Civilian Community Corps program, and the State and National Direct programs.

  • VISTA members live and work for one year in a low-income community in one of four disciplines: education, human needs, public safety, or environmental concerns.
  • NCCC is a 10-month service program that focuses on environmental concerns. The program is limited to volunteers aged 18 to 24 and resembles a college environment in its living arrangements.
  • The State and National Direct program is AmeriCorps’ claim to decentralization – existing national and local nonprofits (many of them founded by VISTA members) are awarded grants directly from the AmeriCorps National Office, which are used, in turn, to subsidize the addition of one or more AmeriCorps volunteers to the organization’s staff. Volunteers in this program apply directly to an AmeriCorps-sponsored organization and are accepted at their organization’s discretion. The AmeriCorps office will provide you with a list of sponsored programs in your area of choice.

To get more information about AmeriCorps, call (800) 942-2677 or visit their Web site.

How to Get Good Karma

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In this age of secularism and pragmatism, there’s not much room left for belief in the supernatural. In spite of society’s skepticism and my own tendency to err on the side of realism, there is one unexplainable force in the universe I’m still willing to take stock in – karma. I’m a strong believer in the notion that I got pulled over on my way home from work because I lied to my boss about why I had to leave early, or that I found ten dollars under the sofa because I helped my neighbor climb the steps with her groceries.

So when I was thinking about the ways I could spend my first year out of college, I considered the goals most people consider standard: monetary rewards, social status, and comfortable life-style. In the end, however, clinging hard to the theory that what goes around comes around, I chose to spend my first year out of school as a volunteer English teacher in a developing country. In the process, I acquired something that really matters: major karmic pay back.

As you’re about to find out – or may have already learned – the first year after graduation is one of much doubt and much learning. One way many recent graduates are choosing to face these doubts and engage in learning is by doing a year of community service. The opportunities for this kind of service are extensive.

I chose to spend my year of service with a program called WorldTeach, which places college graduates as English teachers in schools around the world. While I joke that my objective for moving to Ecuador was the hope that the universe would smile on me, the rewards were far more concrete. I came away from that year with experience as an English teacher, a comfort level with speaking Spanish, new friends, albums full of photos of Incan ruins, and the rare opportunity to shock my friends with the fact that I had eaten guinea pig.

Blair Sachs, a graduate of Duke University, also chose to do year of service after graduating in 1997. As a volunteer for Visions in Action, Blair worked with a women’s collective in Tanzania, Africa to raise funds for a birthing clinic. She learned Swahili and got hands-on experience in grant writing and fund raising. In addition, she figured out what she wanted to do with her life and is now pursuing a master’s degree in international public health. “I learned much more from the women I met in Tanzania than they learned from me, but we both had strengths that contributed to the success of our project,” says Sachs. “I will always strive to recreate that atmosphere of determined collaboration.”

However, one doesn’t have to go so far a field to be part of this trend of volunteering. Karen Ertel, Georgetown ’99, spent her first year after graduation in Somerville, MA. “I felt pretty lucky in the opportunities I had been given in my life, and I felt like I needed to give something back,” she says. She worked as a VISTA volunteer for Peace Games, a non-profit dedicated to teaching conflict resolution and peace making skills to students in grades K-8. Her year of service in this youth-centered organization gave her the skills she needed to get a job with an Internet company that produces online services for children.

Another option for people looking for ways to serve within the United States is Teach for America. This program trains its corps members in a five-week course in Houston, TX, and then sends them to urban and rural schools around the country. This program is unique in that the teachers in this corps do not work as unpaid volunteers, but instead earn the starting teacher salary for their school district. So far Lindsay Clark, a 2000 graduate, has only seen three days of classroom experience as a second grade teacher in Newark, NJ, but she has already learned how to handle a mouse in the classroom, as well as how to identify a student who struggles with math. For Clark this is a chance to clarify her career goals. She says, “I’ve always known I wanted to teach for at least some part of my career, but by doing Teach for America I will have a chance to find out how large a part teaching will play.”

While these recent grads have various reasons for making the choice to dedicate a year to helping others, the result for each is very much the same: a feeling of having made a difference, a clearer view of what their professional goals are, and new job skills and life experiences. So, though I am not certain that I have in fact earned good karma and that my next life will be brighter for having done a year of service, I am sure that, in this life anyway, the rewards are great and lasting.

A Year of Service

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Unlike most people, I’ve had my life planned out since high school: go to college, volunteer for a year or two and then go to law school. Although I had volunteered in high school and in college, I wanted to devote a full year volunteering for the poor.

Right after graduation seemed like the perfect time for several reasons. First, I wanted to take a year off before law school, and volunteering seemed to fit perfectly into that plan. Second, I wished to see life through a different perspective before becoming tainted by the law, widely known as a cynical profession. I also knew that if I began to work, I would almost certainly not want to forgo a year of earnings to volunteer. Lastly, right after college was the perfect time, because I was idealistic, eager to see the world and accustomed to living off of little. I was also aware of the practical benefits of volunteer work – it helps in terms of setting yourself apart from other applicants when looking for a job or applying to graduate school.

So I knew I wanted to volunteer – but I had no idea of how to go about doing it. I spent days on the Internet, searching for the perfect program, which for me was simply one that paid for all of my living expenses, was a year in duration and provided housing.

By chance, I heard about the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and then discovered the Lutheran Volunteer Corps through a college guidance counselor. Both are premised on the same principles – work for social justice, simplify lifestyles and live in a community with other volunteers. I was not too keen on the religious aspect, but the programs made volunteering easy, which after all the research I had done, was very much welcome. As a Catholic having just graduated from a Catholic college, I wanted a change, so the Lutheran Volunteer Corps seemed the right choice.

I applied to LVC and was accepted. Once accepted, LVC provided me with a list of possible placements for the year at varying nonprofit agencies. The placements ranged from hands-on work with battered women, to legislative advocacy for the homeless, to working at an AIDS hospice, to legal assistance, to environmental clean-up programs. I decided I only wanted to be in Baltimore or Washington, D.C., so my choices of the type of work were limited. I thought about legal assistance programs because I was planning on law school, but also thought that something completely unrelated to my future career would be gratifying as well.

Practicality overcame me, and I chose to work to for a legal assistance agency. I went to prisons for both men and women, and educated inmates about their legal rights in the area of family law. I was so scared the first time I entered a prison; I wasn’t sure if I’d be safe. But everything worked out fine, and the inmates were, for the most part, very respectful to me. In the office, I drew up legal documents and called courthouses about cases. I was surprised at how much responsibility I was actually given.

The work did, however, become draining after several months. The same problems always seemed to surface – the drug-addicted mother losing custody of her children and wanting them back, the abused woman wanting a divorce, the neglectful father who couldn’t afford child support while in prison.

There were times I just wanted to scream; there were too many problems and way too few resources available to help. But I learned a lot about people with whom I had never before interacted, and I realized a great deal about myself – my capabilities and my limitations.

In hindsight, the experience was wonderful. I viewed it as a unique way to give all of myself before entering the world of corporate law, where my future contributions to society would be limited to some pro bono work and donations. For others, however, the experience was just the beginning of a life committed to helping those less fortunate. Regardless of the motivation for volunteering, one thing remains constant: There are always those in need of assistance, and whatever services are provided and for however long, they are appreciated.

Volunteer for A Day

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My friend, Doug, calls to say he’s back from Costa Rica for a month and then off to revitalize the Ukraine for 27 months with the Peace Corps. My friend Tara will be spending spring break in war-torn Bosnia because, “They could really use some help putting things back together.” Diana implores me to volunteer for Boston City Year’s Annual Servathon. I buckle under my generation’s crusader image and say yes, knowing that I’ll regret it later.

I do. Crack babies, AIDS, homelessness, racism, deforestation, national debt, illiteracy, nuclear contamination, ethnic cleansing, teen pregnancies, ozone depletion, acid rain, poverty, mass starvation. In the midst of all this, I apply one coat of paint to one shutter and one railing at the Huntington Avenue YMCA. Out of hundreds of YMCAs that need restoration. Out of thousands of organizations that are trying to help millions and millions of people who need help – and it wasn’t even a smooth coat of paint.

Don’t worry. I’m over it. I’m already engrossed in navigating through the crowd of volunteers to one of the complimentary post-Servathon sandwiches. It’s just easier not to obsess, not to internalize the monumental human needs facing the world today. Gutless, but easier.

I used to think politics was the only elixir big enough to solve the world’s problems. Having grown up in historic Lexington, Massachusetts (shot heard ’round the world, etc.), I can’t help but appreciate the power of the people and the sacrifices made to uphold that empowerment. Politics could mobilize the leaders and resources of an entire country and even the world.

But today, the political process just seems like one big melodramatic mire. I just can’t get through all the hoopla to the mini-success stories that must exist out there.

And without faith in political mobilization, the bonus falls back on the individual, which has driven the individual young people comprising my generation to the highest rate of volunteerism in history – but which still brings this individual right back to being overwhelmed with the responsibility of fixing the world. It just seems beyond me in my lifetime. I could quit my job, sell my belongings, and devote the rest of my life to volunteering for one cause – and still not put a teeny dent in the dire need of that cause.

So I meekly retreat to contributions within my daily routine. Recycle. Shut off lights. Hold doors. Always say “please” and “thank you.” Never cut someone in line – unless they’re about to grab the last complimentary post-Servathon sandwich.

I weave forward through the teeming masses of hungry but patient volunteers when it hits me. Teeming. Masses. I’m suddenly emphatically aware of the vast number of fellow volunteers, legions, most of whom are in front of me in line.

“How many people did the Servathon serve today?” I ask one of the official City Year volunteers who’s vying for line position, a beaming woman in her official uniform of bright red jacket with City Year insignia, faded khakis and rugged work boots.

“The final count was about 12,000,” she says, and then shimmies ahead of me in line.

Wow. Epiphany #1: There’s no way I’m going to get one of those savory sandwiches. Epiphany #2: 12,000 is a lot of people. Even if everyone is as inept a painter as I am, that’s at least 12,000 painted shutters and railings. And City Year has taken root nationwide. So we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of new coats of paint, possibly being seen and appreciated and enjoyed by millions of people. People who, at the very least, will get a good laugh at all the clumps in the paint.

For more information about City Year’s Annual Servathon, call the Servathon hotline at 617.927.2500 or log on to their Web site.