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.

VISTA Service Ticker