One Weird Work Day

I came back to work for one day in between the Christmas holiday and the New Year's holiday and it's an odd day to be at work, for sure.

The Starfish Christmas Tree met its end today, or at least, got reacquainted with the box it came in. Since I decorated it, I figured I should undecorate it. Not as much fun of course, but we don't want to be that office with the tree up until Valentine's Day.

I've written a couple gift in-kind donation receipts and managed to secure another donation for our mentor event in January. We're trying to get cool little giftbags together for all of our mentors and so I'm trying to convince some businesses that they want to give us things.

Tomorrow we're having a Christmas party event for the Scholars. We're playing laser tag and I've once again been entrusted with the digital camera. No, I doubt there will be any laser tag action shots; I will be participating in said game myself and trying to play and take photos in the dark is just way too complicated. I will post some photos next week, I hope.

Next week, it will be back to work on the grant writing stuff. January's still a big month for proposals and I've got several that have to be started, finished and submitted in the next few weeks.


Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas!

May you have a wonderful holiday.


More good updates

I got to work this morning to discover an email from a foundation telling me that Starfish had been approved to submit a full grant proposal.

This email thrilled me to no end because it was in response to the first ever preliminary proposal I wrote, back oh about 8 weeks ago, when I really had no idea how to do this grantwriting thing. As always, this e-mail saying a full proposal can be submitted contains the boilerplate language about how this doesn't guarantee funding. But still, I'm pretty excited to start to see some results from my earlier work.

Also, the end-of-the-year appeal letter I wrote has been delivered to mailboxes all around. It's about the second such appeal letter Starfish has ever sent, but we think the letter looks great and we're just waiting for the check to start arriving.


Some Updates

Just in case you were wondering, I did finish the grant for the funder I was whining about last week. All in all, I think the proposal turned out pretty good. Look for an update sometime in late spring, most likely, on whether they gave us the $$ we were asking for or not.

Also, our first end of the year donation appeal letter should be going out soon. Depending on the success of this mailing, it may or may not be a portfolio piece for me. The letter, with the help of our graphic design guy, looks great. But looking great and being effective at tugging on donor heartstrings have the potential to be two very different things here.

You might think that this is a slower time of year for grantwriting with the holidays, but that is not true. I have been writing up a storm lately, getting things lined up to meet a rash of early January deadlines. I've got two fairly major proposals that are both due in about the second week of January. With the holidays and being out of the office next week, I need to keep working now.


Wonderful News

We just got word today at Starfish that we were accepted to be a United Way Partner Agency.

I wasn't here when the application process for that was going on, but from what I've heard, it's pretty rigorous stuff.

There's some lag time before we qualify for United Way funding (we can't get that until 2009, is my understanding), but the designation of being a partner agency is huge.

Just had to share the good news.


Assigned Reading

It's been a while since I've been assigned a book to read. (Outside of the montly titles for book club, that is.)

As a staff here at Starfish, we are reading Ruby K. Payne's "A Framework for Understanding Poverty." The plan is to discuss the book in January, which meant I really did need to start reading it soon. Since I had some time yesterday, I picked it up and was really impressed by the first few chapters.

I'd heard of Ruby Payne during my time as an education reporter in my past life in Oshkosh WI. The schools up there had read the book and I believe some of the staff had attended some of her workshops in an effort to better understand how poverty affected learning. So, going in, I expected good things.

The premise of the book is that there are hidden rules for conduct and behavior at each socio-economic class and when people are moving between classes, they bring the rules of their former class with them. For people trying to move out of poverty this can mean that they need to learn the hidden set of middle class rules (by which schools and business are run) to succeed.

For example, Payne says, a hidden rule of poverty is that food is equated with love, because food keeps people alive. A hidden rule of the middle class is that time is valued for the future and decisions are weighted against future consequences. A hidden rule of the wealthy class is possessions should be one-of-a-kind pedigrees.

Payne gives an interesting quiz about what knowledge the reader has that could help you survive in the different classes.

In the poverty class quiz, I could check off about 3.5 boxes. In the middle class list, I checked off all 15 boxes. In the wealthy class I checked off about 3.5 boxes too. It was really amazing to see it so clearly, that I am so familiar with the cultural expectations I grew up with and so unfamiliar with the others. I'd like to think I would know what to do if I moved either up or down in categories, but honestly, I don't. (Really, I don't know how to find the best rummage sales or navigate the politics of Junior League...)

It's pretty eye-opening to think about these core values and assumptions that really aren't the same across socioeconomic lines.

I'm sure I'll have more thoughts about this book as I continue to read it.


What the funder wants

All the grant-writing books and grant-writing workshop coaches tell you the same thing: Organize your proposal the way the funder wants.

Use their words for your headings. Put them in the order they request the sections.

Makes sense, right, to do everything in your power to make it easy for the funder to find the parts of your proposal that they are really interested in. Sure, ok, I buy that.

Except for right now. That advice makes me want to scream. I'm in the middle of a grant application -- nevermind for whom --- and their sections seem completely illogical to me. Illogical. (If you hear Leonard Nimoy in your head when you read "illogical" that's exactly the tone I'm going for here.)

Why do I put the goals section before describing the project and the needs? And why do they ask for goals and objectives? (If anybody can clue me into the difference with goals and objectives, I will be very grateful).

Obviously, the proposal will get done in the order the funder wants it, but I just needed to vent.


What I've been up to

So, the blog has been neglected for a few days because this has been a crazy week. Tuesday we had a holiday fundraiser reception for the board and their special invited guests and there's some photographic proof of that event below.

Then, Wednesday and Thursday, the whole Starfish staff was at the Indiana Youth Institute Youth Workers Rock conference. The conference was great, learned a ton and heard a keynote address by Marie Osmond. There are no photos of her because the program specifically said no photography of her was permitted.

Today is digging out day and figuring out a plan of attack for next week's work.

But first, some photos.

This is the space where we held the fundraiser reception. It's a way cool room and we appreciate the owners being so gracious to let us use it for our event.

We had several Scholars at the event, taking part in greeting guests, playing background music and helping with clean-up. Here are Keith, Monroe, Deidre and Serene, four of our great Scholars.

And yes, me. I was all over at the event, helping with food and sound system stuff and overseeing our student greeters. But fellow VISTA Deandra caught me for a photo.

We did have a successful event which brought in enough funding to make having the reception worth it. And I think there are mini-quiches leftover in the office fridge...

The tree

As promised, here is the Starfish Christmas tree.

Yes, that is an actual starfish on the top of the tree.


Nothing to do with $

This morning, I spent my time decorating the office Christmas tree.

I'm pretty sure that's not in my VISTA work plan, but the job needed to get done. The tree probably won't bring in any more funds to support the agency, though I suppose it could impress somebody who comes here.

As soon as I can retrieve the digital camera from a colleague, I will snap some photos to post.


The Ticker

At the bottom of this page, you will notice a countdown ticker.

I'll wait while you go look.


Now, you might say, "Bethany, why do you have a countdown ticker? Does this mean you want your year of service to be over already?"

No. It doesn't mean anything of the sort. Maybe this logic is strange, but the ticker is to remind me how little time I'm really here for.

Tomorrow will be the end of my fifth week of service. Yes, I have done a lot in that amount of time, but still, five weeks are gone already. That leaves only 47 more weeks in which to change the world.

Ah, you say. You're setting your goals to high, changing the world in only 47 more weeks.

("Changing the world" here is an example of hyperbole. Dust off those English books if you forget this term.)

Still, there's a lot that can be done in the next 47 weeks. There's a lot that needs and should be done in the next 47 weeks. So much sometimes that it feels overwhelming. I only have to raise enough money to not only keep the building we have, pay salaries, fund events, and continue the program for the students we have, but raise enough to get more space, hire more staff and expand to serve more kids.

You know, no pressure or anything. It just feels like if I can't raise the money, more kids are doomed to be a high school dropout statistic. Again, a bit of hyperbole. But with a hefty dose of truth.

So the ticker. Just to keep me on my toes, really, and keep in mind what I'm here for. Even if it is short.


Editing and the Word Wall

If I thought this grant-writing stuff was easy, let me tell you four weeks in to this position, it's not. Not that it's hard to come up with ways to spend the money - no, that part's relatively easy. No, what's hard is making the proposal polished.

Yesterday I wrote the first draft of a proposal that's due at the end of December (I'm not a believer in procrastination, but that's a topic for another time.) Now, that draft is covered in my own green-ink edits. Bleeding green, even. Cross-outs and deletions. Notes to myself on verbiage, notes to myself on formatting and layout. Notes on word choices. Notes that I did things like use the word "success" nine times in a 3.5 page document. In one place, I use the word "success" and "successful" in the same sentence. (If nothing else, let this serve as a reminder for why we write rough drafts that nobody sees except us, the writers.)

It's that last one (the overuse of the word success) that's got me frustrated today. Maybe the grant-readers don't notice that sort of thing, I have no idea honestly. But my internal editor won't let that stand in the final copy.

The problem is what words to use instead. Dictionary.com lists "hat trick" as a synonym for "success" but I don't think that's an appropriate substitution. ...mastery of these core classes is essential for college hat trick... See what I mean?

What I have decided to do is, on the dry erase board next to my desk, I am going to keep of list of overused words like "success" and a list of synonyms. The idea is, if the words are handy, I won't have an excuse to not use a better word. I can just look to my right and PRESTO! Synonym!

Just be clear, "hat trick" is not going on the word wall.


A late introduction

I realized that now that I've been here over a month and blogging for most of that time, that while I explained what AmeriCorps*VISTA is, I never explained what Starfish Initiative is. So, today, a remedy for that.

Starfish is a nonprofit in Indianapolis, founded in 2003. Starfish, is at its core, a mentoring program. We pair academically promising high school students who are living in poverty with a college-educated mentor. The mentor becomes their "college coach," another adult in their lives dedicated to their academic success.

All of the students we serve are income eligible to qualify for one of the State of Indiana's 21st Century Scholars Scholarships. That guarantees that if students complete high school with a good GPA and stayed out of trouble, the state will pay for eight semesters at a state university.

The problem is, in Indianapolis Public Schools, the graduation rates are abysmal. Students who qualify for the scholarship can't take advantage of it because they aren't graduating.

This is where Starfish comes in. The mentors can help students stay on track to graduating high school by helping them solve problems that arise in their education -- like getting a needed graphing calculator -- and helping to expose students to the world and possible future career fields.

Starfish also works with the students to provide leadership and community service opportunities that they may not be able to take part in at their high schools, in order to help students have experiences that will make them competitive in college.


Orange Dot shout out

This is photographic proof that I was at PSO in Chicago for three days.

This is the self-named "rowdy table" of orange dots. (We all have orange dots on our name tags... it's how they divided us into breakout session groups.)

The rowdy orange dots are (L-R) Fred, Angela, your faithful blogger, Paula, Stephen, Renee (aka Eener), Val and Justin. Photo courtesy of Renee.

This is also a good luck wish for them as they start their placements.


Post PSO

First things first. And this is not whining. It's a statement of fact. Three-and-a-half days of training in an O'Hare airport hotel is a lot. It's a lot of sitting and a lot of hotel food and just over all, a lot.

It's also a lot of fellow VISTAs, which is really pretty inspiring.

Apparently, there were 120-plus of us new-ish VISTAs at this training, all getting to ready to return to, or start, our placings throughout the Midwest. These are people all dedicated to fighting in the war on poverty, working in areas from fair housing to closing the digital divide to disaster preparedness.

I obviously didn't get to know everyone in my VISTA PSO class, but of those I did, we were a pretty eclectic group though we now all have this common goal. There were retirees and people barely done with college, single parents, young marrieds, writing majors, psychology majors, liberals and conservatives. There was the rest of my group at the "rowdy table" (you know who you are... )

It really was pretty neat to see all of us from so many different places and backgrounds and lifestyles all agreeing to do one thing for the next year -- fight poverty.

We can change the world. I'm sure of it.


Hi-ho, hi-ho, to PSO we go

I'll be in Chicago for the next few days at my official AmeriCorps*VISTA Pre-Service Orientation Training.

I'm sure there will be lots to report once I'm back and have learned lots of things there.


Paging Roget. Or Merriam Webster. I'm not picky.

Somebody bring me a thesaurus. Stat.

And maybe a device from Ghostbusters or MIB. I'm on the hunt for a phrase and what to replace it with instead.

The offending words? "Make a difference."

Could there be a more over-used, trite and vapid phrase in all of the nonprofit world? Really. I want some sleek sci-fi gadget that will obliterate it as a phrase forever from the English language.

I've only been here three weeks now, but I'm determined to never use the phrase "make a difference" in any of my writing. Grant proposals. Donor letters. Thank you's. They shall not be saddled with those three words.

One of my journalism profs in college cautioned against using that phrase. It's one of the things I remember most clearly from my writing classes with him. Avoid cliches, sure. Avoid that cliche like the plague.

So here's where I need Roget or Merriam Webster or maybe just my own thinking cap. It's so easy to start a sentence... "It's your support that will make a difference to the Starfish students..."

ACK. NO. Red pen. Strike through. Delete. Back space, back space, back space.

I'm constantly trying to find other ways to write that sentence, or ones similar to it. "Your support will impact," "your support will improve," "your support will provide." Personally, if I were the donor getting that letter, I'd rather see these more concrete words that give me a better, clearer picture of just what my money is going to do, instead of the nebulous and overused "make a difference."

But just how many synonyms/replacement phrases are there? Am I in danger of overusing "impact" or "improve" in my quest to stamp out "make a difference?" Maybe I'll notice how much I'm using those words, but I have to believe that getting rid of "make a difference" as a pitch in proposals will (argh) improve/bolster/shore up/impact the chances that my proposals will get noticed.


Does Hallmark take requests?

The project on my desk for today is this -- rewrite the thank you letter we send to donors. (OK, technically, it's not the only project on my desk today, just to be clear. They are keeping me far busier than that.)

I went yesterday to a brown bag lunch round table for small nonprofits and the topic du jour was thanking donors. According to the presenter at lunch, Ann Updegraff Spleth, VP for Seminary Advancement at Christian Theological Seminary, a good thank you letter should use the word "you" more times than you use the word "we." If the "yours" in "yours truly" counts as a "you," our letter is even on "we's" and "you's."

The other problem with it, in my mind, is that it's too long. So, today the letter gets a make-over.

Anybody have any good synonyms for "thanks?"


What is this AmeriCorps*VISTA thing?

At the start of this third week of my AmeriCorps*VISTA service, I thought it would be a good time to step back and explain what VISTA is.

VISTA stands for Volunteers in Service to America and first began in 1965. VISTAs work with nonprofit agencies to help expand programming and build the agency's capacity to help more low-income individuals get out of poverty. VISTA projects can encompass lots of areas from homelessness to community/neighborhood revitalization, literacy programs, education and youth development. All of the VISTA projects are about fighting poverty.

There are other branches of AmeriCorps that do other types of projects like getting involved in forestry or working with kids in school.

VISTAs don't provide direct service to the people our agencies serve. We're not here to tutor kids or plant trees -- and technically, we're not allowed to do direct service. VISTAs have professional-level jobs, but not a professional level salary.

Since we're volunteers, VISTAs get a living stipend that's intended to cover just the basic necessities, rent, groceries, etc. We also get minimal health coverage. Many VISTAs end up qualifying for food stamps because we live below the poverty line. (Just to be clear, I'm not writing this to get pity or care packages... It's just part of the deal.) The reason for the low income is that VISTAs are supposed to get a taste of the lifestyle that the people we serve live in all the time. And even still, I know that with my small little stipend, I'm living far more comfortably than many people truly in poverty because I have resources and parents I can fall back on to help if times are really tight or an unexpected expense comes up.

Next week I go for my official VISTA training (I started my placement early after a crash-course in the VISTA regulations and getting sworn before the full training.) I'm guessing I'll learn more there about VISTA and hopefully have some more tidbits to share.


Halloween Success

The Halloween party on Wednesday was a great event. It went off without too many hiccups (a few are inevitable for holding a big event) and the students really looked like they were having fun.

The party was "Trick or Treat so Others can Eat." Our students went trick-or-treating with their mentors and in addition to collecting candy, collected canned goods to donate to the Holy Family Shelter. Having our students involved in community service projects is one of the things we encourage at Starfish. Our students may live at or just above the poverty level themselves, but part of the work we do at Starfish is leadership training to help these students understand that they can give back to their own community.

The food drive collected more than 1,000 items to donate to the shelter!

And here's some photographic proof of the fun that was had by all.


Photographic Proof

One of my unofficial jobs here at Starfish is event photographer. It's another throwback to the reporting career when I'd have to grab a digital camera and go take crowd shots of football games or overturned semitrailers on the sides of highways.

Actually, neither of these is photo I took (since I'm in them) but these are some shots from my first week of being a VISTA.

This is me (on the left) and fellow new AmeriCorps*VISTA member at Starfish Lauren Hunter being sworn in to our year of service by Louis Lopez, the Indiana state director for the Corporation for National & Community Service. (If you're curious, VISTAs take the a very similar oath of service that people enlisting in the military do to uphold the Constitution of the United States and defend the country from all enemies, both foreign and domestic.)

This is (L-R, front row) former VISTA Julie Taylor, Starfish Executive Director Joyce Johnson, Starfish Scholar Coordinator Beverly Ann Roche, Bethany -- your blogger, VISTA Deandre Thompson, VISTA Nora Stewart, VISTA Lauren Hunter (L-R back row) Indiana Youth Institute President Bill Stanczykiewicz, Starfish Administrative Assistant Dominique Duncan and Starfish Mentor Services Director Bob Goodrum with the big check from IYI. Starfish was a recipient of IYI's 2007 Youth Investment Award, which included a monetary reward of $5,000.

Tonight is Starfish's Halloween party for our students and their mentors, and I'll be there in costume and with camera to document the event. Check back to see photos of the scarily good time we will all have.


Waiting Game

I just submitted my first official grant proposal. From submitting a letter of inquiry last week to writing the proposal and then revising, the whole process took about five days, though I didn't work on just this proposal during that time.

Now that I have submitted this document, I have to wait. It will be December or early January before I hear if we have been chosen to submit a full, final proposal. If we are, it'll be June before we ever find out if we got the money.

This delayed timeline for feedback is going to be one aspect of this grant-writing that I really have to get used to. Working in journalism, the turn-around time was pretty fast. Write the story one day, it appears in the next day's paper. If people didn't like it, there was often voice-mails or e-mails waiting when I got to work telling me what was wrong with it.

While I've gotten some feedback from others in my office about the proposal I wrote, I won't know right away if it's impacting the people I'm writing to for several weeks.

What bugs me about this lag time is that it slows down my ability to improve what I'm working on. Tomorrow I get to keep working on another proposal, but with no idea if what I'm writing in proposals is effective.

I'll let you know come January. And again in June.


How I Became a VISTA

It all started on Feb. 25, 2007. I didn't know it at the time, but I was at the onset of a bout of appendicitis that would eventually cause my appendix to rupture and land me in the hospital a few days later for emergency surgery and a long recuperation period.

It's a strange start to a story, I know. But really, that's how it happened.

The surgery and the recovery time left me with little to do for a couple weeks. I was off work and too tired to do much other than think and have some conversations with both of my parents about what I was doing with my life. And I really started to think that continuing in journalism -- the field I thought I was going to spend my entire career in -- was maybe no longer really the way to go.

Don't get me wrong: being a reporter was lots of fun. The people I got to meet, the stories to tell, the heart-pounding deadlines. It was a rush. It also involved lots of sacrifice. Weekends. Evenings. I was constantly frustrated by feeling like I couldn't get involved in community activities, either because my schedule was preventing it, or there was a perceived conflict of interest. The illness and surgery gave me time to really think about whether I was willing to continue to make those kinds of sacrifices for the rest of my career.

And for a time, at least, I decided I wasn't.

So I made a different kind of sacrifice.

I resigned my position at the paper and signed up to spend the next year of my life working for a nonprofit agency through AmeriCorps*VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America.)


On Deadline. Still.

A quick bit of background: before joining AmeriCorps*VISTA, I was a journalist. You know... the we-have-ink-in-our-veins type. Scouring around city hall for stories. Thriving on the breaking news and the tight deadlines.

Maybe this is why when my executive director put a project on my desk this morning, a project we really could have used yesterday, I wasn't really phased by the tight turnaround time. We needed to get a specific set of information to a potential donor in a format that information wasn't currently in yet.

In a few hours, we should have a customized report for this potential donor. And this text is such that we should be able to use it again as the start for a possible new brochure.

Building off things that are already written is going to be key to this, I can tell. It's not just ripping-off text that's already done, but rephrasing general ideas to fit the current project. It actually makes the writing easier. Instead of reinventing every scrap of a document every time, using past writings gives you something to build on. And of course, anything written can always be improved on to bring more clarity to what you mean.

The grant writing I'm going to be doing on a regular basis is all based on deadlines, too. The deadlines may be a couple weeks away, but a proposal submitted late is a proposal that won't be considered.


Here goes...

Technically, it's day three here at the Starfish Initiative, day three of my year of AmeriCorps*VISTA service, even though it's day one on the blog.

This is really just a post to get something up on the site.

The coming days and the next 12 months will see much more as I chronicle what it's like to be a VISTA for a year and what I learn about my placement, my new city and myself.

Hope you'll stick around.

Coming soon: What is a VISTA and how I became one.

VISTA Service Ticker