Monday, August 19, 2013

AmeriCorps: my take on what it is and why you should support it

... regardless of your political leanings.

First I will say, I am somewhat ignorant when it comes to politics, I know enough to know I am not democrat or republican, because both sides support things I do not really support and/or ignore things that I think should not be ignored. I say this as kind a scapegoat, because I do not identify with a particular party, and am a little ignorant when it comes to things political, I am not aware of or do not notice any political issues attached to the thing which is AmeriCorps. From my perspective, because of the wind array of programs and non-profits AmeriCorps is involved in, it transcends party lines. This is not to say certain programs and non-profits which have AmeriCorps volunteers are not political or are not “left” or “right,” some programs are very much those things, but there are “left” programs as well as “right” ones and ones that may identify mostly with republican ideals and those who identify with the ideals of the democrat.

Alright, enough of political mumblings. My “credentials” as someone whom can speak of AmeriCorps, I was a part of the Emergency Response Team at AmeriCorps Saint Louis for an 11 month term starting in September of 2010. In this program I served over 2000 hours of national service doing conservation work, wildfire fighting, and disaster relief. Since then, I have periodically researched many AmeriCorps programs, because I wanted to serve another year, and have almost served a second term twice. I was unable to serve with both because the non-profits had funding issues which caused them no longer be able to have AmeriCorps volunteers.

People oftentimes most simply explain what AmeriCorps is by saying “It's like a domestic Peace Corps,” and sometimes if I know the people asking are not that interested, I will say this, too. But, honestly, I don't know enough about the Peace Corps to really compare the two. I think the most clear, yet simple, explanation is: AmeriCorps is a program which essentially provides modestly paid internships working with non-profits and public agencies, which, in turn, provides those non-profits and agencies with much needed free or partially free labor. I will go into more detail about what AmeriCorps is about in the following paragraphs and, while doing that, tried to convey why I think AmeriCorps is important to all of us.

This is very much as outsiders view, but from what I have learned from public school teachers and researching various teaching techniques, our public schools are less and less providing opportunities for experiential learning; which is one reason I think AmeriCorps is becoming increasingly important, because many of the programs are essentially one long hands-on learning experience consisting of structured training and direct application of learned skills and ideas. Through the program you choose, you can also gain exposure to a wide variety of fields to see if you are interested in pursuing them as a career, they allow you to make connections in those fields, and gain valuable experience, which can then help you break into the workforce in those areas. The program I was a part of granted me exposure to three career paths I thought I may be interested in pursuing, and allowed me to rule them out for various reasons without first having gone to school for a number of years specifically for those paths, only to find I could not or did not want to pursue them.

For those who are opposed to illegal immigrants receiving so many of the same advantages citizens receive, AmeriCorps will appeal to you in that it requires that you are a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or lawful permanent resident to join. At the same time, for those who love the fact that America is a mixing pot of different nationalities, it also fosters diversity and understanding. The program I was with had a few first generation Americans and people with many different cultural heritages and backgrounds.

I know some people feel that the government gives too many “hand-outs” while others feel our government isn't doing enough to help those in need. This is yet another area where both types should feel they can support AmeriCorps, because though it does provide many goods and services through the programs it is associated with, many programs are also very focused on educating those who are largely dependent. Some programs strive to teach healthy eating (so they better use the food benefits they have) and try to develop and encourage community gardens so people can grow some of their own food. Other programs teach literacy, life skills, and many other things. In other words, though some programs are giving hand-outs, they or others are also striving to give the dependent the skills they need to be less dependent, or at least to be more responsible with that they are receiving.

AmeriCorps is also about developing leaders. I earlier compared service with AmeriCorps to an internship, but do not get the idea that they are just gophers doing mundane tasks. Within my program, at the Joplin, MO tornado we had a couple members who were put in charge with developing a missing persons' database, one put in charge of the volunteer reception center that dealt with thousands of volunteers, another who was largely in charge of coordinating the fieldwork of many of those volunteers, and other members deeply involved with key components of disaster relief. When our crew was on a wildfire in MO or IL, we were treated much the same as the other wildfire fighters and had as much responsibility in controlling the blaze as others. I do have to admit, MO and IL fires are not as intense or vast as Western fires, but we were considered a national resource that could respond to those fires as well, if need be.

The leadership structure in my program was particularly designed to develop leaders; we had groups of 5 or 10 which would go out for a week or two at a time to do conservation work and, once us “first-years” were established, different ones of us were given the responsibility of leading these groups. This gave us the unique opportunity to be lead by some of our teammates and then later lead those same teammates, giving us a chance to see different group dynamics, to learn about ourselves and each other. I learned about myself that I do not really like to be the leader, but I do like to be in an advisory role close to the leader, calling their attention to areas or factors they may not have noticed and helping them to work through problems.

From looking at the position descriptions of other programs and talking to various non-profits about those programs, I know many others, besides the program I was a part of, also have a focus on developing leaders.

Finally, AmeriCorps is about making responsible, service minded, citizens who are involved in the welfare of their community, their environment, and their world. Many AmeriCorps alumni go into public service jobs and continue to volunteer in their communities.

I will finish by saying, it is true I was only a part of one AmeriCorps program, so I am taking liberties talking about the good of the others. I know there is probably waste, that some programs do not use their volunteers well, and that some people who volunteer to do AmeriCorps may not be serious about it and so waste resources. But I will also say, during my time of service, I came in contact with quite a few other AmeriCorps programs and, while some individuals were not hardworking, many of them were. Also, since my term of service, I have researched quite a few non-profits and something I repeatedly come across is that some of their staff inevitably were a part of AmeriCorps in the past.

What do I want you to do with this information? I'm not sure. I just want you to have it and, if you ever hear that the program is being done away with, keep in mind that in its 20 years of existence “more than 800,000 AmeriCorps members have contributed more than 1 billion hours in service across America.”* This is service to non-profits, schools, public agencies, community and faith-based groups; this is service to our citizens; this is service to our future.

I will end with the AmeriCorps pledge:

I will get things done for America - to make our people safer, smarter, and healthier.
I will bring Americans together to strengthen our communities.
Faced with apathy, I will take action.
Faced with conflict, I will seek common ground.
Faced with adversity, I will persevere.
I will carry this commitment with me this year and beyond.
I am an AmeriCorps member, and I will get things done.

*Taken from the AmeriCorps website.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Harry Potter, adults, and love

I definitely don't want to just wrote one book review for the whole Harry Potter series, because I feel they deserve more than that, so I'll just write about a particular thing relating to the series having to do with one of the reasons I enjoy it so much. Actually, a couple things, another thing just occurred to me.

I enjoy reading/listening to young adults books, I really do, but one thing I don't like about most of them is the fact that they almost always make out adults to be dumb or to be mistrusted. I suppose this is just catering to the fact that most of the audience are teenagers, so maybe this is how they feel toward/about adults, but you don't have to do so much to reinforce these feelings.

In contrast, though in the Harry Potter series there are a lot of awful adults (Voldemort, Harry's aunt and uncle, Bellatrix, etc., etc.), there's also Mr. and Mrs. Weasley (with their fierce love for a boy not their own), Mrs. McGonnegel (with her strict but loyal heart), Dumbeldore (with his trust and belief in Harry and his abilities), Haggrid (with, well everything that makes up Haggrid), Professor Lupin (with his patient wisdom), and some others as well. Harry sneaks around, gets into trouble, goes where he shouldn't go, and sometimes the adults don't trust him with as much information as they should, but there are adults that he can depend on, that he can ask advice to (if he's willing to ask), people who are proud of him, and want what's best for him. There are adults who love him and he loves them back.

The other thing I love about the series is that, as much as it promotes Harry being an independent and strong person, it also very deeply promotes friendship, companionship and love and, also, being willing to accept help from friends. As much as Harry so often wants to go out on his own, he has friends who are determined that he shouldn't have to face those trials by himself. That's one of the biggest differences between Voldemort and Harry, Harry has the ability to have loving connections with people. Ruthless people always seem to think (at least in fiction) love makes you weak, it is true that it gives you some weaknesses, some new ways in which others (those loved and enemies) can hurt you, but it can also give and lend strength. Love can give you allies whom you can trust far more than the trust you can have with allies who are ruled by fear.

On a side note, I wish the friendship trio would have been better friends with Luna Lovegood. I love her and wish I could have her as one of my friends, oddball though she is, or maybe mostly because she's such an oddball...but she's so loyal and wise (when she's not completely mad). I also would have liked to get to know Ginny and Neville better, especially since Neville comes close to being one of my very favorite male characters in literature. I love how he grows and changes.

I will end by saying, I know because they have been out for so long there's really no need to write reviews on any of them, but I still think I want to the next time I read the series. If you haven't read them, I encourage you to do so. I mentioned this in another review but, for the most part, the series gets better and better as it goes along. If you read the first one and think it's too amateurish and beneath your “reading level,” keep in mind the series kind of grows up as Harry does. This is also something to keep in mind when you recommend these to a kid/teen, too. When the series was first written, it was perfect, the kids who read and loved the first book developed as the series developed/was published but now, well, even though the first one is okay for a 10-year-old to read, it may not be okay for them to read the last few. The last few get into some pretty heavy stuff, have more detailed violence and death, and are just a little more “grown-up.”

Sunday, August 4, 2013

To the Mothers of Superheroes

I know it's difficult to be any type of mom, so it must be super difficult to be a mother of a superhero because they have superpowers and, as is unfortunately always paired with superpowers, they have super obstacles and supervillains they must face and overcome. Some of these children have the potential to someday become supervillains themselves, if they store up bitterness and hate, but from what I have seen of you, dear mothers, you are raising them in such a way that goodness and greatness are, by far, the most likely outcome.

I know oftentimes you don't want your kid to be different, to stand out, to draw eyes and attention, but you see, that's part of their superpowers. Other kids may occasionally attract attention, but in a crowd most kids go unnoticed and, because of this, most kids have to wait until they're grown up before they make a big impact. Most kids yell, “Look at me and what I can do with my superpower” and, even if they actually have one, not many people see. But your kids, your superheroes, almost from the moment they were born have inspired and impacted.

I know you already know your children's superpowers, but in case you forgot or in case some who read this don't know what they are, I'll just share a few. Because of the many eyes on them, your child's smile has incredible power. Your child's smile also has incredible power because of the many obstacles they face, when they smile people know it is genuine. Whether the challenges your little superhero face are mental or physical, partly because of how you are shaping your child and partly because of how God is shaping them, that little superhero has a superpower's worth of empathy and compassion. I think this can arise from their deep awareness and understanding of their own trials or their innocence or both (or you may have better answers of which I am unaware). Because of the hurdles they face, they have more wisdom than many of us will ever gain. It seems oftentimes your little hero or heroine has an ability to reach through armor no others can breach, to touch the heart and soul that lies hidden beneath, to make a hard and harsh person gentle, to draw out the warmth in a cold person, and to make a friend of the seemingly unloveable. Because your child leaps tall buildings by climbing the four steps to the library, plays a solo concerto by learning to sing “Jesus Loves Me,” and builds the highest skyscraper by tying their shoes, they inspire great acts in others and teach them that they too can fly.*

I know I have only begun to tell of the superpowers some of these little ones possess so, if your are a superhero's mom or, even better, know a superhero, be sure to leave a comment (without identifying details where the superhero may wish to remain anonymous) and, also, be sure to tell them and their parents that you've noticed their superpower and that you think it's pretty cool.

I will end by saying, I didn't know how to fully convey in words what I was feeling and wanted to share through this, it turned out more simple than I would have it to be, but I hope it is enough. Enough to let you know that your child is special, that you are special and that both of you are powerful.

I know I am an outsider, that I can't really I am sorry if I said something wrong, if I somehow hurt your feelings. Also, I'm not trying to make you feel guilty, that you should feel okay with all of the people who stare because you should be “an inspiration,” some people just stare because they're rude, uninspired people...well, let's not dwell on them. My intention is to uplift and encourage you and to show that I admire you and the hero you are raising.

* In case that was confusing to some: Stairs are Kyptonite to some little superheroes, learning the mentioned song can comparatively be as big an accomplishment as learning to play a solo concerto, and, well, everyone knows that for some of us, tying our shoes can be as difficult as building a skyscraper.

P.S. This, of course, all goes for the dads of superheroes, too, but I know a few superhero moms better than I know the dads, so I addressed it to them.