To be brutally honest AmeriCorps was not something I had strong, if any, feelings about until this past weekend. Though Ian and I have been working for the organization since September, I merely saw it as a way to make living and working at the Big Laurel Learning Center economically feasible for us. The day to day impact of being part of the entity that is AmeriCorps rarely seemed to extend beyond biweekly meetings and lots of paperwork. The four hour drive between us and our team members in Cincinnati prevented us from seeing much of them, making it easy to forget we are part of an organization bigger than southern West Virginia. But this perspective has changed dramatically for me after a four day Notre Dame AmeriCorps midyear conference in Baltimore, Maryland.
AmeriCorps is an enormous entity, and Notre Dame Mission Volunteers AmeriCorps (NDMVA) is just one piece of the whole. Officially connecting with AmeriCorps in 1995, Notre Dame Mission Volunteers was started by the the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur as a way to place people in organizations around the nation where they could serve disadvantaged populations by promoting and encouraging education, empowering communities, and developing leadership and multicultural harmony. Over 400 NDMVA volunteers are serving around the country in a wide variety of organizations that relate to education. A traditional service term of 11 months begins in late August, making the middle of February the service midpoint.
It is an annual tradition for every NDMVA worker to be flown to Baltimore for a weekend conference filled with inspirational speakers and engaging workshops. This is an opportunity to be refreshed and and reignited with passion for the service that you give and is an opportunity to connect with other volunteers from around the country. Because our normal life is literally on top of a mountain, Ian and I were almost giddy about the prospect of spending a few days in a hotel room with a thermostat instead of a wood stove.
We flew into Baltimore on Friday afternoon and took advantage of the free day before the conference began to explore downtown Baltimore and the National Aquarium.
After the fun of exploring bits of Baltimore, Ian and I settled into the rhythms of the conference. Because of the deteriorating outside weather conditions and the fact that the entire conference took place in the ramblingly massive Hunt Hotel far from the Baltimore city center, participants were given the impression of being locked into an airtight earthship that provided for our every need. Most of us barely left the building for three days.
Thankfully the conference was an engaging, busy event that never left us with time to be bored. The first (and my favorite) keynote speaker of the event was Reverend Dr. Heber Brown III, a man introduced as the senior Pastor at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church and a clergy activist who travels the nation speaking about the issues of poverty, racism, worker’s rights, and environmental and global justice. A boisterous and eloquent speaker, Dr. Heber is one of the few baptist preachers I have heard speak that managed to tie all his tangents back to one main point. His talk went in many directions, yet it never strayed far from his deep-felt passion that we should be expecting more from ourselves than just fulfilling our job description during our time of service in AmeriCorps. Aiming higher would have to be a necessity. He declared that the young people in front of him needed to become “agitators” that create friction and shake out the deep set problems in society much in the way the agitator in a washing machine removes the dirt from the clothing.
Peace should never be confused for order, he declared, because true peace taking root will be preceded by discomfort and reordering. The protests in Baltimore over police brutality one year ago are a poignant example he gave of uncomfortable reordering. If our end goal is to bring peace, he continued, we must work for justice, being mindful that bringing about justice is anything but peaceful. Heber challenged us to be more courageous with our service, to be willing to take risks that could get us fired. As agents of renewal working in a broken world, we must be ready to “critique what is and create what should be.” I was left in awe of Heber’s charisma and passion, and eager to read the book he highly recommended, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freiere.
Every conference participant had the opportunity to attend four workshops, and the best one that I attended was called Birds, Bugs and Plants: Using the Schoolyard for Creative Environmental Education. Taught by Mary Helen Gillen, a naturalist at Pickering Creek Audubon Center, this workshop focused on ways that nature awareness could be incorporated into the classroom through fun activities like writing poems, dissecting flowers, keeping a nature journal and other equally whimsical ideas. She provided all participants with access to online resources we could adapt for use in our own classrooms. The ninety minute session was jam packed and a gold mine of information for the summer ecology camp planning I will soon be doing for Big Laurel. I feel confident that the children we work with will really benefit from the resources I gained from Mary..though the bugs around us may not.
Another conference highlight was learning about other NDMVA service sites around the country. Throughout the conference every service city was responsible for giving a five minute presentation to provide other members a sense of what made their city special and what their service experiences were like. Some groups presented in person while others opted for professional-looking videos.
Though the thee of us working at Big Laurel are technically a satellite of the Cincinnati group, we didn’t present with them and instead set up an informal demonstration of photos of the work that we do. Over the course of an hour the other conference participants visited our table and those of other service sites too small to make a big presentation, asking us questions about Big Laurel and West Virginia. The three of us appreciated the more intimate nature of this presentation style and our ability to have real conversations with interested people about the work that we do.
The conference was a whirlwind: intense, exhausting, and uplifting. I took more notes than I have since graduating college. Yet I believe I speak for most participants when I say that we left recharged. Giving service can be a grueling experience and it’s easy to feel isolated and that the problems we face are unique. A conference like this provided a much needed reminder that none of us is working alone and that this world is filled with passionate people fighting to slowly but surely bring about the changes we all dream of seeing someday. It’s no surprise that the NDMVA midyear event is often a time when first year volunteers decide to sign up for a second service year. The problems facing our nation are daunting indeed, but there is hope so long as organizations like NDMVA keep connecting passionate people with the communities that need them.
If you or someone you know is interested in serving with Notre Dame Americorps, you can find more information at http://www.ndmva.org/.