Wednesday, September 30, 2009

One of Us

I post this in humility and amazement:

A few weeks ago at the OBB conference in Columbus, I met a man named Chris Jacobs, the COO of Solutions for Progress, Inc. (This is the company that designed the software for The Benefit Bank, which is used in 5 other states besides Ohio.) He told me that he has been following my blog, and asked if he could post a link to it on the main TBB website. I eagerly agreed, once again astonished that anyone besides my mom actually reads this thing.

Well, Chris followed up on his request and now on the Benefit Bank website there is a new section called One of Us featuring blogs from TBB counselors:

One of Us: A New Area of Content on the TBB Web Site

Check out this new section on our home page where we post links to your blogs about working as a TBB counselor. Just go to our home page and follow the link to Kaitlyn Baker, Americorp/Vista, TBB Counselor's blog called "Making [Social] Change". She talks about her efforts to help people use The Ohio Benefit Bank services. Go Now

Thank you to Chris and the folks at Solutions for Progress who have linked to my blog. I am honored to share it with you and everyone else who is reading out there.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A rather blustery day

The high in Dayton was around 59 degrees today. According to Taylor [and the National Weather Service], the formula for wind chill is not accurate when the air temperature is above 50 degrees. But in my scientific opinion, I'm guessing the windchill was around, oh, 36 degrees today.

How do I know? Because I sat outside for over 5 hours today for a resource fair put on by Montgomery County Job and Family Services. The event was held at the Fifth Third Field where the Dayton Dragons minor league baseball team plays. On a non-fall day, this venue would have been perfect, but at the end of September, it was just a little too chilly for our blood.
A view of Fifth Third Field's score board from behind the backstop.

Alex and I arrived at the fair around 11:15 A.M. to set up our Ohio Benefit Bank booth. With the typical resource fair gear in tow, we maneuvered around the other vendors and dodged the local TV camera crew before arriving at our humble little table topped in a white plastic tablecloth. After a few minutes I was able to track down some extension cords, and our laptops were up and running with the OBB quick check program.

Or so we thought. My internet access was shaky, with a weak signal at best inside the stadium. And Alex's broadband wireless card was not working at all. Now, this isn't the first time this has happened to Alex. At the last resource fair we attended in Dayton, we spent about 40 minutes on the phone with Verizon customer support trying to get her broadband card to work. But this time when we called customer support, they said the card's account wasn't even registered in the system. Surprise! We tried our best to get the issue resolved through numerous phone calls between Verizon and the OBB state office, but to no avail. So between the two of us, we had one laptop running quick checks.

We did our best with what we had. It turned out that our booth was one of the most popular ones there, and we were constantly flooded with anxious fair-goers looking for help. Even the neighboring booths started referring people to our table to locate more resources. Alex fielded as many questions as she could from people clamoring for fliers, and I turned out the quick checks like a short-order cook. It was noisy in the stadium, so we were yelling all day, and our backs ached from the tense atmosphere combined with the flimsy folding chairs.

But it was all worth it to be able to tell the doubting 62-year-old that she qualified for food stamps, or to inform the 22-year-old man and his young and [very] pregnant wife that they were potentially eligible for medical benefits. We met a lot of people out of work, whose unemployment checks were ending tomorrow and who didn't have any other resources in sight. A lot of the people we met had never asked for help before in their lives, and they didn't know where to start. We realized the impact the OBB could have on their lives; we listened to every story and exhausted every resource we had to help them move forward out of crisis.

We even met quite a few social workers who were attending the fair just to see what was out there for their clients. They were enthusiastic to fill out contact cards so we could get them trained as OBB counselors. And Alex, god love her, went around to every booth at the fair at one point in the afternoon to see if the other organizations in attendance would like to become OBB sites. To our surprise, many of the vendors were already OBB sites and those that weren't were interested in learning more.

All in all it was a great day, especially after my toes and fingers warmed up in the car on the way home. Nothing a hot cup of cider won't fix.

Friday, September 25, 2009

It's beginning to look a lot season?

Even though it's only September, tax season is already upon us. Like you, I used to think tax season lasted from January to April. (And some of you might just think tax season begins and ends with April 15th.) No no. When you're a Community Trainer with the Ohio Benefit Bank, tax season preparations begin months before the first W-2s are mailed out. Now is the time for us to get certified to do tax trainings--which is why all 5 of us Community Trainers from the Southwest region observed Meredith's tax class in Cincinnati today. And I was a little nervous about that.

Before today, I hadn't had too much experience with taxes. My parents have claimed me as a dependent all my life, and have generally had their accountant go ahead and file my taxes. I think there were a couple of years that my dad had me fill my own forms out, but I was just going through the motions; I had no real understanding of the numbers I was writing on the lines. So you can imagine my anxiety over the thought of helping people file their taxes, let alone equipping counselors to do the same.

And when it comes to taxes, I'm not alone in my anxiety. I'm not sure what it is--maybe the idea of working so closely with a person's finances or an innate fear of the IRS, but people get really freaked out about doing someone's taxes, including their own! But as I discovered today, there really is nothing to be afraid of, especially when you use the OBB to file your taxes.

We went through the entire training along with the other 6 people attending the class. Even after going through the manuals and both practice scenarios, I certainly can't claim to know everything about taxes. But that's okay! The OBB was designed to serve as the expert in completing forms, making calculations, and screening clients' eligibility for various tax credits.

I am glad to have had the chance to work with the program and I feel much more confident about counseling clients in filing their taxes. Now I just need more practice in training counselors and I'll be set!

And remember: If your household makes under $56,000 a year (and you live in Ohio), you can file your federal, state, and local taxes for free with the OBB! Check out the website ( for more information or let me know how I can help find a tax site near you. You can even use the OBB to file back taxes from up to three years ago. So tuck that away for the end of January when your W-2s and 1099s arrive!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Members Only

Today was the Shared Harvest Member Agency Conference. If I understand correctly, any organization receiving food from Shared Harvest was invited/required to attend in order to renew their USDA contracts and to receive updated information on intake policies and data tracking.

Community leaders from Shared Harvest's member agencies watch as the conference kicks off

Pina Jean Barcus, Program Coordinator of the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program in Ohio, giving a presentation on state food programs

After lunch, the conference participants selected two workshops to attend from the following topics: state food program requirements, food safety guidelines, the Virtual Case Manager program, Nutrition and Diversity, SNAP (food stamps) Outreach, and of course, the Ohio Benefit Bank. Alex and I gave the OBB presentation, which was our second of the week. (Our first presentation was on Monday, and of the 60 non-member agencies in Butler County invited, only 3 were able to attend.) Today we presented to directors and representatives from 8 of Shared Harvest's partner agencies in Darke, Miami, Preble, Warren, and Butler Counties. All expressed interest in the program, and we are excited to follow up with all of the organizations we have spoken to over the past week.

Today's conference was a great success for all involved. Personally, it gave me greater insight into the challenges many staff and volunteers face every day as they meet the needs of our region. And even though the conference was obviously geared towards the food pantries in Shared Harvest's member network, I learned quite a few things, as well. Here's my top 5:

#5--Food pantries are not required to get proof of a person's household size or income. They can ask their clients for this information, but the state does not require this information be obtained.
#4--Food pantries may NOT ask for clients' social security numbers, and cannot require them to attend other programs associated with the food pantry to receive benefits.
#3--Twenty-six percent of food pantry recipients in 2007 were disabled.
#2--One of every two babies born in Ohio is eligible for WIC (Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program).
#1--Nearly 1 of every 4 children under the age of five in Ohio live in food insecure households. That places Ohio 3rd in the nation just behind Louisiana and North Carolina.

Oh and one more thing: Tina Osso is Superwoman.

Tina Osso, Executive Director of Shared Harvest Foodbank, polls the audience on their years of service. Tina wins with [at least] 30 years of service. Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, Executive Director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks, is seated at left.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Como se dice...Ohio Benefit Bank?

It is a little after 8:30 P.M. on Tuesday night and I'm still wearing my AmeriCorps*VISTA pin--that's right, I just finished an OBB event!

Last week Meredith sent me an email about a health fair for ESL families in the Fairfield School District. The event was to encourage good health practices and to show families how to access health resources. It was scheduled to last from 5:30 to 8 P.M., and even included a cook-out at the beginning of the event. But as I quickly learned, things don't always go according to plan.

The event took place at Central Elementary school in Fairfield, which is less than a mile from my apartment. Thus, I arrived promptly at 5:30 P.M. with my laptop, quick check cards, brochures, a freshly-made display board, and a bowl of candy in tow. I found another person struggling with their own display board as I entered the building, and we navigated the halls of the school together. We made our way to the gymnasium where people from a variety of organizations were setting up tables full of information. But I was not to set up here; instead, I was redirected to the school's art room which had been allocated for my OBB "break out session." I set up my materials, then made my way back to the gym to figure out what was going on.

Here was the run-down of events:
6:00-6:30 P.M. Cook out dinner
6:30-7:10 P.M. A panel presentation by a local doctor, mental health therapist, and dental assistant
7:10-7:15 P.M. A motivational speech by Lourdes Leon, Ohio Hispanic Business Woman of the Year
7:15-8:15 P.M. Attendees visit booths/break out sessions on various topics (including the OBB)

Well that was the plan.

But the panel did not begin until about 6:45 P.M. and each person had so much information to squeeze in to their individual segments that the presentation didn't finish until 7:45 P.M. Despite its late start, I enjoyed this part of the evening. For once I was in the minority, and any translation services provided were from Spanish to English. It was great to see local medical providers and business people primarily speaking Spanish rather than forcing the (mostly) Spanish-speaking audience to assimilate and listen in English. I particularly enjoyed watching the teeth-brushing and flossing demonstration in Spanish.

Next up was Lourdes Leon, who I believe owns the taqueria on Dixie Highway. There were no translation services during her speech, so I had to rely on my limited Spanish knowledge to process her message. Even with 5 years of Spanish education and 2 semesters of college Spanish, I only caught about 40% of her message. Yikes--time to brush up on my Spanish! Later this fall, Taylor is going to be taking a Spanish class for health care providers; maybe I could take a similar class for social services providers. I'll have to check with CNCS about that.

Finally, around 8:00 P.M. the attendees were dismissed to check out the booths in the gym and the breakout rooms. I hurried back to the art room, set up my laptop, and patiently waited for my first family to come in. But no one came. Not even the translator who had been assigned to my room showed up. Around 8:30, the event organizer came in, apologized profusely for my empty room, and told me I could go home. I packed up my stuff and made sure to leave a few brochures and a stack of fliers, which I hope will make their way into the families' hands.

Tonight provided a great lesson in language, as well as some time management, differences across cultures. I am disappointed that I spent so much time this evening and to no [obvious] avail. But more importantly, I hope that the families who need the OBB eventually gain access to it. Better luck next time.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Two weeks ago I was surprised to discover an extra $11 in my bi-weekly payment from the Corporation for National and Community Service. I thought surely there had to have been some kind of mistake, and I expected the superfluous amount to be deducted from my bank account once they discovered their error. But that never happened. A few days later, I learned that because the cost of living had increased, my AmeriCorps*VISTA living allowance increased from $835 to $857/month. Score!


Last week we received a letter in the mail from Butler County Job and Family Services. When I saw the plain, white envelope in the mailbox, my stomach started doing flips. I envisioned a slew of nasty-grams that this envelope could possibly contain, including but not limited to:

"We don't believe the AmeriCorps*VISTA program exists. Your full income will now be counted in determining your household's eligibility."
"Food stamps can no longer be used to buy fresh produce. You may only use food stamps to buy pet food, soda, and candy."
"All people receiving food stamps will need to come for weekly appointments beginning yesterday."
"Effective immediately, all people who blog about us are ineligible for benefits. That means you, Kaitlyn Baker."

Can you tell I have a little anxiety surrounding communication from the Butler County Department of Job and Family Services? Based on my previous interactions with them, it's to be expected, I suppose. So you can imagine my surprise when I opened the letter and read the following:

"We have made decisions about your cash, food, or medical benefits. You can appeal if you disagree with any of our decisions. This notice explains our decisions and how you can appeal. You can reapply at any time if we denied or stopped your benefits.

Gulp. Keep reading.

"If you need translation or other help to read this notice or to communicate with us, contact your caseworker. You will find your caseworker's name and phone number below the Mailing Date above.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, get to the point...

"We will RAISE your FOOD ASSISTANCE from $260 to $263 each month starting 10/01/09."

Cha-ching!! Hey, every little bit helps.

Friday, September 18, 2009

My piggy bank

It's been a while since I have talked about our household budget, so I wanted to give you a little update.

Since moving to Fairfield in May, we have been able to pay all of our bills on time, we have eliminated credit card debt, and we've even started putting money into a savings account. Taylor and I are doing all right for now, and we will continue to take steps to ensure we aren't living in poverty forever.

And for that, I feel a little guilty.

I feel like I'm "selling out" for not wanting to live in poverty for the rest of my life. Even though I work hard everyday to eradicate poverty in my community, I feel like a phony for working even harder to bring myself out of poverty. Living in poverty is what has connected me to the low-income families and individuals in this community. By putting money in a savings account and emerging out of poverty, am I abandoning them? Am I still credible when I say, "I know what you're going through"? I know that this experience will impact the rest of my life and how I view the world, but I still feel guilty for wanting to live comfortably and earn more than $10,000/year. It's hard to explain--VISTAs, can you relate?

When people ask me what my blog is about, I usually tell them that I am an AmeriCorps*VISTA member and I write about living in poverty. But is that even true? Yes, I earn poverty wages, but I'm not living in absolute poverty. After Taylor and I pay all of our bills, we have money left over to save--and with my travel reimbursement checks from the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks, we're able to build up our savings account even faster. Taylor and I still haven't splurged on big purchases (or even dinner out, just the two of us), but we're certainly not struggling like we used to. This is largely due to the following factors:

1) We still qualify for food stamps, which has freed up quite a bit of money every month that we would have had to spend on food,
2) We have supportive parents who laid a solid fiscal (and emotional) foundation for us to get started,
3) Taylor's contribution to our household more than doubles what I would be earning alone,
4) Our conscious decision to scrimp and save for the future.

So while my income puts me in "poverty," I feel like I am a mere interloper here. I know I have a brighter future ahead, and I have a lot of supports in place to help me get there. And as proud and relieved as I am to say that, I still struggle with feelings of guilt that many people are not able to say that.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Kaitlyn Baker's Off Day

Ever have one of those days when you just Yeah--I'm having one of those days.

I woke up today to hear dripping in our bathroom. This is a bad sign to hear in our apartment, as we have had a ton of headaches over the plumbing here. Sure enough, when I opened the curtain to step into the shower, I was faced with a large, bulging bubble coming out of the wall near the ceiling, full of water that had leaked from the apartment above us. Great. The joys of apartment living!

In the confusion of calling maintenance and getting our bathroom ready to be serviced, I forgot to put on my engagement ring and AmeriCorps*VISTA pin (things I wear everyday!) I feel weird without them, but that was only the first of the day's weirdness.

When I got out to my car at 7:00 a.m., I found that I couldn't open the driver's side door from the outside. It was stuck. So I had to crawl in the car from the passenger's side, push open the door, and get in that way. Wonderful.

By the time I made it into the car 15 minutes later, I set out for my first solo OBB training. The training lab was located about 75 miles north in Troy, Ohio, in Miami County. Though I had never been to this particular location, it isn't exactly unfamiliar territory; I grew up in Urbana, Ohio, located in the neighboring Champaign County. And somehow I still got lost. My directions and map showed me turning left off the interstate and heading north toward Piqua, but as I eventually discovered, I should have turned right and gone south towards Troy. Fortunately, I had plenty of time to spare for this unexpected detour, but I felt rattled nonetheless.

The weirdness continues. I had 11 counselors enrolled in my class, which was scheduled to start at 9:00 a.m. But when the clock struck 9, only 2 people were present to begin the training. Two more participants showed up about 20 minutes later (they were also lost, and they even had a GPS!), so by 9:30, we had only 4 of the 11 participants in attendance. Weird.

The training went fine, but I kept forgetting little anecdotes and factoids that I always like to mention in my trainings. I had included all of the necessary information, but I just couldn't get a rhythm down and I just felt...weird.

After lunch things went a little smoother, that is until it was time for the new counselors to log-in to the system with their new ID and passwords for the first time. Of my 4 counselors, there were issues with 2 of the log-ins. We eventually discovered both problems were due to [their] human error, but Suzanna at OASHF and Ryan at Solutions for Progress helped iron out the wrinkles. (Thanks so much, guys!)

Anyway, by the time the training ended and all of the problems were resolved, it was 4:30 p.m. and I was exhausted. I loaded up my computer, my bag, my 7 unused software guides, benefit guides, and training packets, (and the cart I used to haul all of this stuff), into my trunk, then climbed through the passenger side of my car, and drove away--in the right direction this time.

As I write this, I am sitting on the couch at my parents' house in Urbana. I stopped by for a quick visit (which is also an abnormal occurrence for me because I live so far away) before heading home later tonight. I can't wait to share the details of this very weird day with them over a (hopefully) less weird dinner.

Here's to a normal tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Kaitlyn Baker's Day Off

Thanks to Shared Harvest's comp time policy, I got an extra 2 hours of sleep this morning! That's right--I took the day off. I have accrued about 20+ extra hours of work over the past few weeks, so I took 8 of them for a little R&R today. It felt strange to be home watching all 3 hours of the Today show this morning, and I had to fight the temptation to work on a few things from the office.

Taylor woke up a little later in the morning (Wednesdays are his regular day off) and we drove to Warren County to meet his parents for lunch. Taylor's dad recommended a restaurant called The Wildflower Cafe and Coffeehouse in Mason, whose mission is to serve locally grown, organic food. Here's what it looks like on the outside:

Our table had the Chicken Club, two orders of The World's Best Burger, and the Fried Green Tomato BLT, as well as the flourless chocolate cake and a hefty slice of carrot cake to share. The food was delicious, and the restaurant's mission statement prompted a great discussion about buying locally and eating organically.

Grow Food Grow Hope VISTAs--I hope you get a chance to make the trip down I-71 to visit this restaurant. I don't know what's on your VISTA Assignment Descriptions, but maybe you could help some interested entrepreneurs with a similar endeavor in Wilmington? Just a thought.

To learn more about this quaint restaurant, go to: and plan a visit to Mason! Call ahead--the restaurant is tiny and they prefer to take reservations. If you live in Southwest Ohio, it's definitely worth the trip.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Last night I returned home from my In-Service Training (IST) in Columbus. The training is designed to help VISTA members re-focus and get back on track after their first 3 months of service. Normally, the training lasts 3 days, with participants also trained in a program called Bridges Out of Poverty, complete with a poverty simulation. Our group is so small, though, that training lasted only 1 day total and we received a condensed version of the Bridges Out of Poverty program.

At 8:00 a.m. Monday morning, we May/June PSO babies left our posh digs at the DoubleTree Hotel and ascended the 31 floors of the Riffe Center to start our training. As I mentioned, it had been three months since we had seen each other, so the day began as a mini-reunion, as well. It was great to see everyone again! We might be doing different projects, but we share a common goal: to eradicate poverty across the state (and the country). Our experiences working to better our respective communities (while living in poverty) create a strong bond among us.

Two VISTAs from the Grow Food Grow Hope program in Wilmington, Ohio, chatting on a break. Check out that view!

The first part of the morning was spent working through logistical issues that can arise during our year of service (i.e. resolving payment/reimbursement problems, etc.). Then we spent some time envisioning the remaining 9 months of service. I know I have a lot of work to do, but from what I can tell, I am on track with completing the goals listed on my VISTA Assignment Description. It's hard to believe that I am already a quarter of the way through my year, but I am excited for the upcoming months.

Shortly after the visioning session, we took a break for lunch. A few of us took our boxed lunches to some tables near the river across the street from our hotel.

Meet Sonja and Rob. Rob was the first VISTA I met in the airport(s) en route to Indianapolis, and Sonja was my PSO roommate! At the end of PSO, these awesome VISTAs made sure I got home after storms grounded my flight leaving Indianapolis. Good times.

After lunch, Zach Reat from OASHF did our Bridges Out of Poverty training. The Bridges program teaches about how economic class can not be defined solely by income level; economic class also tends to come with a [hidden] set of rules or beliefs.

When you live in poverty, you live in crisis mode. This is called the Tyranny of the Moment--being so consumed with meeting immediate needs that
planning for the future isn't really an option. However, with more money, people in the middle class can afford to shift their priorities to plan for the future. American society mistakenly believes that the more money you have, the higher your economic class. But to truly move up in economic class, you have to know (and follow) the "hidden rules" of that class.

This idea particularly rings true for people in poverty moving towards economic self-sufficiency in the middle class. Even when people in poverty come into some money through a job or tax refund, it doesn't necessarily mean they will climb the class ladder. For that to happen, their mindset would need to shift. However, people in poverty often spend or give away money as soon as they get it, because this is how they have always survived. Saving is a middle class rule, and doesn't often exist in poverty because there really isn't room for it.
When your mentality has been one of immediacy, it is unrealistic to expect a shift into a middle class mindset of meeting future goals. In this way, money is an incomplete indicator of class because it ignores the ramifications of the "hidden rules" of economic class.

Because most of the social workers, case workers, and administrators live in the middle class, that's how our agencies are set up, with middle class rules and expectations. When people in poverty come in for services, their mindset doesn't match up with that of their caseworkers, which ultimately creates a barrier in securing help. The Bridges program says that we (service providers) must explicitly teach people in poverty the "hidden rules" of the middle class so they can hold onto benefits, a job, and their money. Without access to these "hidden rules," economic advancement is nearly impossible.

I agree with this idea, but I am still struggling with how this might look in the real world. I guess I am uncomfortable with the idea of the person in poverty having to make all of the changes, as if their way of life has been all wrong. Maybe there should be a transitional period in which the "Bridges Out of Poverty" are two-way: with both the caseworker and the client meeting in the middle. Yes, people in poverty do need more education on how to gain economic self-sufficiency and manage their money, and that takes time. In the meantime, caseworkers must also take into account the "hidden rules" of poverty and administer social services accordingly. For instance, instead of lecturing and judging people for missing appointments when their car breaks down, maybe caseworkers can understand the Tyranny of the Moment and make some adjustments for this person. Instead of setting up appointments early in the morning or mid-day when people are trying to get their kids to child care or themselves to work, maybe agencies can change their hours to better accommodate people accessing services. There should be a mutual understanding of both parties' perspective, and a respectful interaction between the two that reflects that. Lets hold everyone to a higher standard of understanding and communication, not just one group of people.

Maybe with the full two days of training this program would be clearer to me, maybe not. One thing is for certain, though; issues of poverty and class are complex and difficult to work through, and there are no perfect solutions. I will continue to explore these ideas and reflect on them here throughout the year.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Weekend? What weekend?

Despite our Labor Day holiday last Monday, the past week feels like it will never end! To say we've been busy is an under-statement.

On Saturday (yesterday? yes--I guess it was yesterday) Alex and I drove to the Evangel Church of God in Dayton for a community resource fair. A few weeks ago, I arranged all of the details with Pam, the church's event planner. She told me that the people in their community needed a lot of help and support, and they wanted to put as many resources as possible in one place. They lwere looking for a one-stop place to send people to get plugged in to as many supports as possible. Perfect! We were a great fit for the fair, and Pam later told us that our Ohio Benefit Bank booth was the pride and joy of the event.

We arrived about half an hour before the event began at 11:00 a.m. to set up our booth. The rest of the fair (complete with inflatable jumping arenas, food, games, and music) was outside, but because we needed access to electricity for our computers, we were set up in a room just inside of the church. It wasn't quite far enough inside to block the live music blaring from the stage outside of our door, but it was a good enough set up. Take a look:

Throughout the day, Pam made several announcements from the stage about our booth and personally sent in as many people as she could find. We did 35 quick checks total, and a majority of the people we saw had no idea of the benefits and tax credits they were most likely eligible for. The OBB sites in Dayton will be busy after all of our referrals! It felt great to see the smiles (and relief) spread across the people's faces as we showed them which benefits they could possibly receive.

We also talked to several volunteers staffing the event, and we were even able to recruit potentially 3 new OBB sites through the ministries offered within the church!

We packed up and left a little before 5:30 p.m., feeling very good about the potential impact we had made on the 35 families we saw. It was one of the most rewarding days we've had so far in our year of service!

Today I'll be heading for Columbus around 4:00 p.m. to stay overnight for my In Service Training tomorrow.

Weekend? What weekend?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Converting the Convent

Yesterday was the National Day of Remembrance and Service, so to commemorate the day, Alex and I joined 70+ AmeriCorps*VISTA members, VISTA Leaders, and HarvestCorps members in Columbus for our service project. As I mentioned, we helped transform an old convent into a new shelter for mothers, immigrants, and refugees in poverty.

Thanks to Alex's GPS, Rita, we were able to find the location with plenty of time to spare. While we waited for things to get started, we caught up with some other VISTAs outside of the convent, and chatted about what we'd been up to. This little huddle of laughter and fun was a great way to start the day.

Around 10:00 a.m. we were split into groups of two and assigned a room of the convent to paint. Alex and I worked as a team to repaint a little room on the second floor. Take a look at the before shot (at left).

It's a cute little room with a bed, two sewing machines, two ironing boards, a lamp, and a fan. We piled the little stuff onto the bed and moved everything to the center of the room, away from the walls. During this process, we learned how to collapse an antique ironing board and we even had a visit from an outside guest:

After a little rearranging, we got to work taping off the room in preparation for painting. Alex and I didn't consider ourselves skilled enough to freehand it! Once every inch of the trim, windows, outlets, and door frames were covered, we located some paint supplies and got to work. There weren't a lot of supplies to work with, so we grabbed two brushes, a gallon of white paint, and a gallon of light green paint. We started by painting the trim around the room until rollers and trays became available. Unfortunately, we never did get rollers, so we left quite a bit of work to do for Team B coming in after lunch.

After a couple of hours of work, here's what Alex and I accomplished in our room with a roll of tape, a couple of paint brushes, and two gallons of paint:

There were about 14 other teams of 2 or 3 working in similar rooms, accomplishing similar results! Here we are outside of the convent:

At lunch time the second group of volunteers came in and we went to the Columbus Public Library for lunch and a VISTA meeting. Overall, it was a great (but exhausting!) day and we were proud to have been a part of it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

National Day of Service Eve

As you all know, another year has passed and September 11th is upon us again. In honor and remembrance of the lives lost at Ground Zero, in the Pentagon, and on Flight 93 eight years ago, this year President Obama has proclaimed September 11th a "National Day of Remembrance and Service."

Accordingly, the OBB VISTAs and HarvestCorps members are traveling to Columbus tomorrow for a statewide service project. This is a bit of a treat for us. Being an AmeriCorps*VISTA is a lot like being a stagehand on a play. We work behind the scenes to make direct service possible in our organizations. So rather than directly handing out food to hungry people, we help organize the food drives. Rather than directly mentoring small children, we recruit volunteers to serve as mentors. Rather than directly using the OBB with clients, we train counselors on how to use the program. In other words, our everyday duties revolve around indirect service.

Tomorrow's direct service project will be a real change of pace for us VISTAs that I hope will be invigorating and fun. From what I've heard, we'll be helping to transform an old convent into a shelter for impoverished mothers and refugees. It's certainly a worthy endeavor and I am proud to contribute to it, but I have mixed feelings about tomorrow's activities. I live and serve every day in Butler County, and I've seen a lot of hardship here. It would be just as worthwhile to roll up my sleeves and spend the National Day of Service right here at home to improve my local community. There certainly is a need for service here, and, as a VISTA, I rarely have the opportunity to get directly involved.

Of course, there is a need in every community across the country to improve the lives of its citizens. That's why I hope all of you will catch the spirit and spend at least a few hours in service to your community and your country tomorrow. Volunteer at your local food pantry, or pick up trash on your street, or even mow your neighbor's lawn--do something to serve someone else. Need some more ideas? Call your local 211 (United Way) to get plugged in to volunteer opportunities.

And after tomorrow is over and it's September 12th, I hope you won't wait until next year to do it again. Service is a mindset, not a date.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Health Care

It would seem that health care is the theme of the day.

As I write this post, President Obama is addressing Congress and the nation on health care reform. Because I am an AmeriCorps*VISTA member, this isn't the place for political endorsements or campaigning. Yet, like millions of Americans, and politicians on both sides of the Congressional aisle, I can recognize that the system we have now isn't working. Putting the particular details of health care reform plans aside, we can all agree that a solution is in order. Health care is, in fact, a human right. Write and call your Congressional representatives to remind them of that.

But health care reform is empty without an improvement in health care quality. This morning, Meredith, Alex, and I attended an event called Cincinnati Aligning Forces for Quality, which addressed that very issue. And I'll be honest, a lot of what they discussed went over my non-medical head. A layman's translation would have been helpful! Still, the gist of the forum was clear: doctors, hospital administrators, insurance companies, and politicians all have an obligation to provide access to quality, affordable care to all Americans.

Taylor and I are lucky to have health coverage for the time being--Taylor's through his parents and mine through AmeriCorps. But we're getting married in March, and I won't be serving as a VISTA forever. One year from now, what will our health insurance coverage look like? Can we guarantee that we'll have employers who offer a quality health insurance package? Can we even guarantee we'll have full-time jobs with decent wages to cover our expenses?

The health care reform bill working its way through Congress is more than just a rhetorical debate. Real people's lives are at stake. Speaking for myself, I hope our president and policymakers will get it together to get this thing done.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

High-Mileage Maintenance

Today I learned an important lesson in routine maintenance.

With all of the miles I've traveled for VISTA activities, it was time for my car to get an oil change. I took the car in today after work, and as I waited for my car to be serviced, one of the mechanics asked me to select which oil change I wanted. I was surprised to find so many options for this seemingly simple task.

"High mileage oil?" I said. I didn't know what it was, but Taylor had prepped me for this question, and this was the answer we had rehearsed. I later discovered that it is a special oil treatment to help cars with over 75,000 miles run more efficiently. The treatment cost a little more than the regular oil change, but because my car has over 120,000 miles, I was willing to pay the extra amount for a little more preventative care.

So what did I learn from this experience?

It's important for all of us to invest in some regular maintenance of our own. We VISTAs have some pretty "high-mileage" positions ourselves. I don't know about you, but I've been on-the-go for quite a few weeks now, which has affected my regular daily routine. For instance, waking up at 6:30 a.m. has been a major shock to my system, but not as big of an adjustment as getting to bed before 11 p.m. every night. Then with little energy left at the end of a long day, it is easy to crash in front of the TV or computer and snack, which has resulted in a little weight gain since beginning my year of service a few months ago. I wasn't running marathons before beginning my stint as an AmeriCorps*VISTA, but I certainly wasn't this sluggish either. I've let the demands of this position get the better of me, so it's time for a tune-up!

This week, Taylor and I started a new health regimen. We're getting active in the evenings by taking walks together and improving our flexibility and muscle tone through Pilates and weight training. We're also encouraging each other to monitor our snacking. Even with a fridge stocked with healthy food, we've still got to watch our portion size and calorie intake!

I'm recognizing the importance of self-care now before it's too late. It makes total sense to invest a little extra effort to maintain our vehicles, why not ourselves?

So to all the VISTAs, social services professionals, and anyone else out there reading this post tonight--please take care of yourselves! Stay active, eat right, and get enough rest because you deserve the best.

Ugh, no one deserves cheesy rhymes, though. My apologies.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Gus the Bus R Us

Note: the following story is rather silly. I should also note that this story, in all its ridiculous glory, is entirely true. Enjoy.

Earlier this week, Holli (the Special Projects Manager at Shared Harvest) approached me about a country club in Warren County who is holding a food drive and in need of a barrel pick-up. Their food drive ends on Monday, September 7th, but they had already filled one barrel and wanted it collected a little early. I nervously orchestrated the pick-up with Holli and marked my calendar for Thursday, Sept. 3rd at 10:00 a.m.

On Tuesday afternoon, Meredith confirmed that Alex would also be working on the Holiday Food Drive this year. We will be working together to recruit more organizations to hold food drives AND to pick up and drop off barrels for food collection. Whew! What a relief to know that I would always have a partner and friend along with me on these excursions.
Later in the day, Holli taught me the basics of using the Shared Harvest "van" for food drive deliveries. For some reason, everyone around here calls this vehicle a van. Does this look like a van to you?

I've driven a few vans in my time, and this is no van. This is a truck. It doesn't require a CDL to drive, but that small detail didn't comfort Alex or me much. We envisioned ourselves causing mile-long back-ups as we steered the big box down the highway. We envisioned Tina saying, "We're not mad, we just want to know why the van is in pieces." When Meredith told us stories from her days driving the van as a VISTA, our nervousness increased further. Suddenly the thought of completing simple tasks like "backing up" and "parking" made my stomach rumble, no matter how much anyone reassured us that we would be "fine." Ha.

On Thursday morning, I brought Alex up to speed on the details of the spreadsheets, databases, and policies with the food drive. As hard as we tried to focus on other work, we spent our first hour and a half biting our nails and watching the clock. Finally, at 9:00 a.m. we couldn't avoid it any longer--it was time to hit the road. By this point, the entire office knew about our upcoming adventure and wished us luck as we marched into the warehouse, van keys in hand. Darrell helped us load a two-wheel dolly, 7 empty banana boxes, and a forklift palette into the back of the "van." Take a look at the picture of our loading process.

You'll notice the cart, the stack of banana boxes which we were to load the food into, and the shiny thing in Alex's hand. What is it? The handle for the van's back door. I know what you're thinking, and no, we didn't break it! It was already broken. Seriously. So to open the door we have to jimmy the handle into a hole where the handle used to be, twist, and lift the door. When we're finished, we close the door, pull out the handle, and store it up front with us in the cabin. Hey, it works for us! Besides, no one ever said working for a non-profit was glamorous.

We agreed that I would drive there and Alex would drive home, just so we could both get familiar with the "van." I carefully backed up inch by inch, but I quickly realized that I could not rely so heavily on the rear view mirror for these trips. First of all, there was no rear view mirror, and even if there was one, it would do no good to reflect the big box behind us. This was going to be interesting.

Next we had to make it down the driveway. This seems simple enough, oh, except for the gigantic potholes and crumbling asphalt on the path standing between us and the street. The following is a sampling of the sounds you would have heard, had you been anywhere near the van as we descended the driveway:
"Ooo, ooo, whoa, AH!, okay okay, eeee....oof! *bang*pow* Uh-oh. Hahaha it's fine, it's fine, we're alright *pop*crack* ahh!!"

The rest of the drive sounded a lot like that as we hit bumps in the road and merged in and out of traffic. This is the visual version of that:

(I'm sure my father, who works as a real truck driver, is very proud.)

We pulled into the country club about half an hour later. I didn't even attempt to maneuver into a parking space--but 3 spaces seemed to suffice. We walked into the reception area and brightly greeted the woman sitting behind the desk. She pointed us toward a barrel near the entrance, which we expected to contain dozens of tasty treasures brimming near the top. However, we found quite the opposite: one lonely jar of peanut butter and a bag of cookie mix sitting all the way at the bottom of the barrel. We looked at the receptionist quizzically, then at the food, then at each other, then back to the receptionist and asked: "Is this it?"

She smiled and said, "Yep!" I considered asking her why in the world we had just taken the joy ride of our lives to pick up these two measly food items. Instead we smiled, stifled our incredulous giggles, and patiently asked one more time if she was sure there were no other barrels marked for pick-up. "Nope, that's it!" Alex and I exchanged one more glance, then leaned into the barrel and carried our goods out to the "van." We opened the back door, placed the two items in one of our seven boxes, and prepared for the trip home.

Before we could make it to the interstate, though, we agreed that we should probably double check with our contact person at the golf course to make sure we weren't missing anything. We'd hate to return back to Shared Harvest with only two items--how would you explain that? Sure enough, there was an entire other barrel stashed in a nearby closet, so we turned around and went back to pick it up. We shared a laugh with the receptionist, who was clearly as clueless as we were, and started loading the food into our boxes.

After a few minutes we were back on the road and it was Alex's turn to drive. It seemed like we had to merge about a thousand times, but we made it back safe and sound. Once back at Shared Harvest, we weighed the load and discovered that the country club had collected 130 lbs of food. Not bad! We could handle this!

Oh and one more thing. In case you're wondering about the title, Alex and I named the "van." Yeah--his name is now Gus the Bus. We figure that if everyone else misnames the truck as "van," we should get to call it whatever we want too, hence: Gus the Bus.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

OBB Conference

With just under 24 work hours logged in the past two days, this week has been a bit of a blur! On Tuesday at the end of the work day, Alex and I piled our stuff into my car and took off for the 2nd Annual Ohio Benefit Bank Conference in Columbus.

The conference was for anyone affiliated with the Ohio Benefit Bank: The Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks, the Governor's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Soluntions for Progress (the program software designers), VISTA Leaders, AmeriCorps*VISTA members, AmeriCorps State members, HarvestCorps members, counselors from OBB sites around the state--everyone!

Wednesday was the first day of the conference, which began with a presentation by Joel Berg, the keynote speaker. Mr. Berg previously served in senior executive service positions in the USDA under the Clinton administration, and currently works as the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Clearly, he knows his stuff! In his book, All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?, Mr. Berg discusses poverty and hunger and offers real solutions to these problems. In yesterday's presentation, he compared poverty to other national problems this country has faced and solved in the past. He talked about cholera, yellow fever, and malaria, and how all were solved by the actions of government. He linked poverty to these problems by claiming that if government were to take enough thoughtful, deliberate action, the war on poverty could finally be won in this country. His argument was compelling, and I look forward to reading his book, which all conference participants received free of charge.

After his presentation, Jason gave an update on the latest info with the OBB. Since its inception in 2006, the Ohio Benefit Bank has brought back over $153 million dollars to Ohio families in tax credits and public benefits. This is money that would have otherwise stayed locked up in the federal government without the OBB's efforts. That's my kind of stimulus!

Jason also talked about the new programs added to the Ohio Benefit Bank. Call me a dweeb, but this was very exciting to me! Recently added is the Big Brothers Big Sisters Amachi Ohio program. This youth mentoring program matches adult volunteers with kids whose parent(s) have been incarcerated, and the OBB now has an application to refer eligible children for the program. How cool is that?

ALSO--I'm so excited about this--a select group of OBB sites and counselors is now able to help clients complete SSI/SSDI applications! Eeeee!!

Thanks to OASHF and my new friends at Solutions for Progress (hi Chris--thanks for reading!), a special "pro" module of the Benefit Bank is now available to help people fill out social security disability applications. To use this version of the software, counselors must receive special training and have extensive knowledge of the OBB, as well as an existing professional responsibility to help clients apply for social security programs. These counselors are known as "SSI Ohio Specialists," and in my region, they can be found at the FreeStore Foodbank in Cincinnati and the Samaritan Clinic in Dayton.

The module was launched in July, and I really can't say enough about just how positive this pilot program is for Ohio citizens. As you know, I have studied both the Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance programs, and what I found was no secret: the social security system is a bureaucratic mess. To further affirm this, Jason told us yesterday that only 28% of SSA disability applications are approved on initial submission, and with an extensive appeal process, it can take YEARS to get a final decision on one's benefits.

To make matters worse, the applications for these programs are long and involved, requiring a lot of paperwork for proof of income, assets, and disability. The application process can serve as a major barrier to anyone applying for benefits, but it can be especially burdensome for individuals with multiple disabilities, individuals who are homeless, and individuals who have a hard time keeping their papers organized. To put it simply, accessing SSI/SSDI applications via the Ohio Benefit Bank is a wonderful thing.

The rest of the conference consisted of: a brief visit with other VISTA members, lunch with OBB counselors from my region, two sessions on grant-writing, a regional briefing with Meredith, and a two-hour trip home. Overall, it was an exhausting, but positively educational experience and I am happy to have been a part of it!

P.S.--Stay tuned for our ridiculous adventure driving the Shared Harvest "van" to pick up food drive donations today. You don't want to miss this!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Holiday Food Drive

It's September 1st, so you know what that's Holiday Food Drive time! Okay not quite, but it's increasingly on our minds now as we approach the fall/winter months. Officially, any food drives conducted between October 1st and December 31st are considered Holiday Aid.

One of my second quarter goals is to work with Shared Harvest Foodbank staff and volunteers to coordinate the Holiday Aid Food Drive. I met with Holli yesterday to talk about what that entails. In the coming months, we will start fielding more and more calls for groups requesting help in launching their food drives. I learned how to process these calls and how to enter information into the food drive database on the Shared Harvest server. Soon I'll be dropping off and picking up barrels full of food with each agency conducting a food drive. I'll be doing this in Shared Harvest's big box truck (which everyone calls a van, but let me tell you, this is no van! It's huge!) Holli and I are working on syncing up our Outlook calendars to better coordinate this effort.

Another task with the holiday food drive will be to recruit more agencies, groups, churches, schools, etc. to host food drives this year. There are already a ton of groups who have donated in the past, so finding new places should be fun but challenging. If you are in the Butler County area and are interested in hosting a food drive for the holiday season, let me know! And if you don't live in the Butler County area, I hope you'll still host a food drive at your church, school, place of employment, etc. for your local foodbank. In these economic times, foodbanks and pantries all around the country are serving more people than ever, and they could use your help!

Yesterday, Tina was brainstorming slogans for the posters and fliers that groups can use to advertise the food drive, and I forget what exactly she came up with, but it was something along these lines: "Do what you can, give what you can--donate today." That pretty much says it all.