Friday, October 30, 2009

Tax Training Haikus

I would like to sum up my tax training in Dayton today with a couple of haiku poems.

Students work slowly;
I say, "please learn to type and
Follow directions."

A long day, but the
Burrito with my best friend
Made the drive worth it.

Yep, I think that says it all. And the class only went over by half an hour. Weekend, here I come!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Back in the saddle

Just a week shy of "The Accident," I was on the road again today to a Benefits training in Preble County. The drive was easy (and beautiful--gotta love those fall leaves!) but it doesn't mean I didn't cringe a little when applying my brakes. In time, I'm sure my fear of the car behind me will fade, but for now I'm still a little shell-shocked. I am happy to report, though, that I made it there and back all in one piece.

I trained 5 new counselors today from two new agencies: Butler Behavioral Health Services and the Preble County Council on Aging. This training was actually pretty close to my heart, because Alex and I personally recruited these two agencies! A representative from Butler Behavioral Health attended a presentation we held in Butler County, and we met the ladies from the Council on Aging on our Tour de Preble County. Less than a month after that cold-call visit, these two women were in my Benefits class and inviting me to lunch with them. How cool is that? I'm a proud mama.

All in all, the day was pretty typical--I feel like an old veteran on benefits, but of course, I'm still learning new things every time I teach a class. Here's my top 5 list of lessons learned today:

5. People tend to tune out instructions about remembering and writing down passwords.
4. When counselors start the first practice scenario, the room gets too quiet. We could use a radio in there...
3. A trip to Preble County isn't complete without being stopped at a railroad crossing for at least 5 minutes.
2. Counselors like the federal name for food stamps (SNAP) when explained with accompanying hand motions.
1. No one will ever complain about a class ending a little early (including me!)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What day is it?

Today was my first day back in the office since last Tuesday. Between training in Columbus, my tax class in Xenia, and another visit to the hospital yesterday for CT scans and a chest x-ray, it had been a full week since I'd last set foot in Shared Harvest.

I spent much of the day making follow-up phone calls to potential OBB sites just getting started in the process, as well as to current OBB sites who might be interested in holding tax clinics next year. Aside from a residual headache, it was a good day. It felt good to get back into a routine.

This week is particularly busy for us Shared Harvest VISTAs. Alex has 3 classes throughout the week and I have two--one in Eaton and one in Dayton towards the end of the week. With all of the events and trainings going on, I think we're starting to get a tiny taste of what tax season will be like. By the time Alex and I are back in the office together, a week and a half will have passed. That's crazy!

After being out for so long, I'm not entirely sure what day it is. Monday? Thursday of last week? I think I'm entering a parallel VISTA universe...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

When it rains, it pours

It's been an eventful past couple of days. Where to begin?

On Friday I drove to Xenia for my first 2008 Tax Class. Zach Reat, the OBB regional coordinator from the central region, was to observe my training as part of my tax certification process. As you know, I was already nervous about doing a training less than 24 hours after being trained myself. That nervousness was only compounded as I drove to the training site through a torrential downpour. The rain fell so hard and so fast that I didn't dare drive over 55 mph on the interstate. I was anxious about being late for the class, but fortunately, I had left plenty of time to get there. But even though I was ahead of schedule, the class still didn't start on time. We had to wait for quite a while to even gain access to the computer lab. Finally, a few minutes after 9:00, we were led back to the computer lab area and I jumped right into the training.

Once I got started, I felt myself relax as I covered the first few parts of the training agenda/outline. I am still getting a feel not only for the material, but also for the rhythm of the class. Zach offered great encouragement and support throughout the day, and I feel much more confident in my tax training abilities. Before too long, I'll be a little tax expert wannabe, throwing around tax jargon with the CPAs.

After the training concluded around 4:00, I decided to make the short drive down to Wilmington to visit my Grow Food Grow Hope VISTA friends. I had never been to Wilmington, so it was nice to see the town and college campus during my visit. Here are a few pictures:
The Grow Food Grow Hope headquarters, housed at the college's Service Learning Office.

Sonja walking through the community gardens, located on Wilmington's campus.

Around 5:20 I got back in the car and embarked on the trip home. Again, I encountered very heavy rain, which fell, strangely enough, during bursts of bright sunshine. It had been a very long day and I was really ready to just get home and relax.

But when it rains, it pours.

One of the last legs of my journey, I exited onto I-275 heading westbound, and immediately encountered heavy rush-hour traffic on wet roads. As I neared the I-75 interchange, the traffic ahead of me slowed to a stop, but the person behind me did not. She plowed into me at full speed. Although I don't remember this, I somehow avoided slamming into the car in front of me by steering the car onto the right shoulder. The other driver passed me, then pulled over in front of me, her car a mangled wreck:

Upon seeing her car, I immediately called 911 who dispatched an officer. I had never called 911 before, and thanks to my dad's highway driving lessons, I was able to provide surprisingly clear directions to the scene.

What happened next is a bit of a blur. Somehow I managed to call Taylor, who was just off of work. He met me at the scene still in his EMT uniform, minus the ambulance. I also got a hold of my dad and, through a steady stream of tears, told him what had happened. Because my dad was finishing round three of repairs to my car, I was driving his vehicle on Friday. I couldn't bear the thought of telling him that his car was wrecked, not after all he had done for me in fixing my car. But of course, the car was the least of his concerns.

Long story short, the other driver and I had no obvious traumatic injuries. We exchanged insurance information and took photos for our respective insurance agents. The policeman issued the other driver a citation and arranged for a tow. My car was still drivable, escaping with relatively little damage, compared to the other driver's vehicle, that is. Both of us were lucky--it could have been much worse.

As I pulled away from the scene, I realized my head, neck, and back were pretty sore, so I went to the ER to be checked out. After a 4-hour wait, the doctor prescribed me with pain medication and muscle relaxers, both causing serious drowsiness. He advised me to lay low over the weekend, because I would feel even worse in the days to come. Unfortunately, he was right. I woke up on Saturday with painfully stiff muscles, a terrible headache, and tightness in my chest that made it difficult to breathe.

Of course, this accident couldn't have come at a worse time. Saturday was Make a Difference Day, and Alex and I had made plans to help out at a local food pantry in the morning. Then in the afternoon, I was scheduled to attend part 2 of my grant-writing class in Cincinnati.

Needless to say, I had to cancel those plans.

Much to my chagrin, I didn't make much of a difference on Saturday. In fact, I've spent much of the weekend asleep, with little improvement today. Here's hoping Monday is a little more productive.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I will survive!

Yesterday was our first day of 2008 Tax Training. Once again, it was great to see all of the other Community Trainer VISTAs from around the state and exchange stories. Although we are all doing different projects in our regions, our ties to the Benefit Bank continue to bind us. This time it was via OBB tax training, including completing a Form 1040 (yes, the loooooong form) BY HAND.

The morning was spent reviewing our tax guide, including the basic filing statuses, adjustments, deductions, and credits. After lunch, Suzanna passed out our materials, and we sharpened our pencils. Game faces on.
Given a mock set of W-2s and a 1099-MISC, we started in on the Form 1040 and accompanying schedules. Of course we couldn't get too far without the 100+ page instruction booklet. Before long, our table was covered in papers, calculators, and pencils:
We delved into all of our materials, flipping through pages, shuffling through schedules, and muttering to ourselves the whole time. Every once in a while, the members of our table checked in with each other to confirm that our addition was correct or that we were looking in the correct section of the booklet for direction. And after a little over 2 hours, we emerged victorious! We had completed the Form 1040 by hand. It wasn't nearly as painful as everyone said it would be, but that doesn't make me any less appreciative of the Benefit Bank tax module. Today we completed two tax scenarios on the OBB in about the same amount of time it took to complete one scenario by hand. Doing taxes with the OBB required a lot less clutter, a lot less chin-scratching, and a lot less frustration.

So while my confidence is up on tax-counseling, I'm still nervous about tax trainings. Tomorrow is my first tax training in Xenia, and while I only have 4 counselors attending training, I'm still afraid I'm going to embarrass myself by not knowing every little detail about taxes. Or even some of the big details! I know I felt this way before my first benefits training, and I survived that, so no matter what happens, tomorrow is just one day and I will learn from it.

I'll do my best, and hey, at the end of the day, I'll still have my completed Form 1040, ready to be framed in our office.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Move those barrels!

Note: I wrote this last night and set it to post just minutes after I hit the road this morning. And you thought I was gone. Never!

With November quickly approaching, the Holiday Food Drive season is really starting to pick up. As you know, Alex and I have been busy with Gus delivering barrels to several food drive sites over the past couple of weeks. And when we can't make the delivery, Sam or Holli does it instead, so we've got a lot of barrels out in the community right now.

But the goal is to put out more and more barrels all over the region! In addition to calling past donors, Alex and I have called dozens of potentially new food drive locations, as well. And so far, I am proud to say, 8 new local businesses have agreed to hold holiday food drives, including my very own apartment complex! The fliers are up on all of the doors in my complex--the grocery list that Holli typed up is posted everywhere, and the managers have even set up a system in which you can put food outside of your door and call them to pick it up. They have even incorporated the food drive into the kids' Halloween party! It's exciting to see people outside of the non-profit sector getting so excited about giving back to their community. In the coming weeks, I am excited to see how much food these businesses end up bringing in.

It's time for another food drive promo! Once again, if you're in the Shared Harvest region and wanting to conduct a food drive with your work, church, or school, let us help! We'll do all of the work--we'll get you the barrels, the posters, the fliers, the shopping lists--and we'll bring Gus out to pick up all of the food you collect when you're finished. How simple is that? Call us at Shared Harvest (513-874-0114) or send me an email ( to get in on the fun.

And if you're outside of the Shared Harvest region, please call your local food bank or food pantry to set up a food drive today! You don't want to miss out on any of the action.

Need ideas on how to conduct a successful food drive or fund drive? Click here for tips.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I linked, I learned, I left

Tomorrow morning I'll be driving to Columbus for Tax Training. Over the next two days, I will learn how to train OBB counselors on filing 2008 taxes. It'll be an action-packed couple of days, so tonight I'm packing my bags, complete with Taylor's trusty solar-powered calculator from 4th grade and a bottle of aspirin.

Oh, didn't I mention we have to do taxes by hand before we can learn how to do them with the OBB? Yes. I believe the exercise is mostly about making us appreciate just how easy the OBB makes it to file your taxes. Trust me, I already appreciate the Benefit Bank!

I think I'm up to the challenge. After all, over the past couple of weeks, I have viewed every link on IRS's Link and Learn program online. So technically, I have learned about each tax form, credit, deduction, exemption and their rules for eligibility. But am I going to be able to keep it all straight tomorrow?

My Magic Eight Ball says, "Ask again later."

Monday, October 19, 2009

What's new

I recently visited with a few old friends this weekend from a Women's Leadership Conference I attended a couple of years ago. The theme of the evening was "So what's new with you?" and I was surprised with how many updates I had to report. Many of these you already know--I'm an AmeriCorps*VISTA, I train counselors on the Ohio Benefit Bank program, I live in poverty, blah blah blah. But there are a few recent changes (in no particular order) to my VISTA-ship that you might be interested in as well:

1) Taylor got a promotion!
That's right, Taylor passed his national EMT-Basic test and is now working as an EMT! He is staying with his current company and moving up to work on an actual ambulance with the other EMTs. With this promotion comes some changes. One, Taylor's hours have changed now from 5 A.M. to 6 P.M. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. For all of you non-math folk out there, that's a 13-hour day, taking him up to just under 40 hours a week. Today was his first day, and I vaguely remember his shadow moving around the room at 3-something this morning. Poor guy!
With this new position, Taylor's pay will increase from $7.35 to $10.15 an hour. Double digits, baby! And do you want to know what my first thought was upon hearing this particular news?
"OH, well, we'll have to report this to JFS--I wonder how much this raise will reduce our food stamps?"

2) My car is messed up...kinda
After dropping my car off at the mechanic on Saturday, we got a call a few hours later that it was ready to be picked up. So before my grant-writing class, we drove over to pick up the car and hear the latest diagnosis. Turns out, one rear strut was worn out and the other was completely broken, both requiring total replacement. In fact, the parts were so old and grimy, that they had to be torched off. That's never a good sign. The mechanic took great pleasure in showing me just how messed up the old struts were. Then he ran down a laundry list of other repairs that he recommended, but my dad will be doing those on his own later this week (yes, another car switch is in order).

But here's the real news: the total repair cost $580, and guess what--my dad paid for all of it over the phone. What a relief to not have to drain our checking account with another round of bills coming up this week! Once again, without this supportive relationship with my parents, we would be where millions of people in poverty find themselves quite often--strapped for cash in the face of an emergency. That, or down one vehicle at a time when both of us need our cars to get to work.

So this is a big shout out/thank you to my dad--we will find a way to repay you for your generosity.

3) Jason DeParle of the New York Times is here RIGHT NOW!
Yes, as I write this, Jason is touring the Southwest Ohio countryside in search of info for his food stamp story for the NY Times. After his plane landed last night, Taylor and I met him at a Frisch's restaurant in Fairfield for a late dinner/dessert and chat. There we talked a little about our experiences in Fairfield so far, including Taylor's [involuntary] stint in poverty as a result of my commitment to AmeriCorps. We talked about the process of securing food stamps and some of the barriers that stand in the way of that process. We talked about the increase of food stamp usage around Ohio (and the country), especially in this conservative part of the state, and what that means. And we talked about the people who are eligible for food stamps but aren't receiving assistance for an assortment of reasons.

You'll have to read the story to get the full account. :)

This morning, Jason and Steve (a NY Times photographer) were here bright and early to meet Tina and SNAP Outreach. We'll be meeting them for dinner tonight at a BBQ place in Hamilton. And perhaps most excitedly (for this VISTA, anyway) Jason asked Alex and me for permission for the NY Times to link to our blogs! We said yes, of course.

4) Lastly, Gus has a Facebook page!
Today Alex, Gus, and I made another excursion to drop off 4 barrels for two food drives at two separate businesses. While we were out, we decided that we should make a fan page and profile for Gus on Facebook! There you can see Gus's interests, activities, even a schedule of Gus's upcoming appearances at area businesses. So if you're on Facebook, friend him here:

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Raising funds

Yesterday I attended part 1 of a grant-writing class at the main branch of the Cincinnati Public Library. This portion of the class was mainly about how to find grants appropriate for your program. We learned how to use the directory of granters listed through the Foundation Center's website, which is offered free at the library. Next week I will learn the basics of proposal writing and receive a certificate for attending the 6-hour class.

About 20 people showed up to the class, all from non-profits wanting to find funding for a variety of projects. One woman was looking to fund a program that helps young adults secure resources as they age out of foster care. Another man was interested in starting a non-profit that would provide artists with legal aid services. No matter the project, somebody out there has a grant for it, and we learned how to find it.

In a couple of weeks I will start preparing grant proposals for the school supply initiative listed on my VISTA Assignment Description. The goal is to raise enough money to cover school supply kits for elementary and junior high school students on free or reduced lunch. Each kit costs about $5 and there are thousands of kids in need in this area, so the project requires a lot of fund-raising work.

However, I am beginning to realize that I will need to develop other streams of revenue for this project besides just grants. Yesterday I learned more about what grant-makers are looking for in a proposal. Not only do they want to see a quality program, they want to see other sources of funding so they can be assured we aren't going to be dependent on them year after year. So in addition to grants, I'll need to develop other means of sustainable fund-raising that will bring in money for years to come.

Piece of cake...!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

I have learned quite a few lessons about poverty since beginning my term as a VISTA. I'd like to share two that I learned firsthand this week. Keep reading.

As you know, I've been struggling with my driver's side car door for quite some time now. Back in September, the door handle started sticking, making it very difficult to open the door. I was lucky that I had a training near Urbana, so I stopped by to have my dad take a look at it on my way home. He knows my car inside and out, so he fixed it that day--but about a week later, the handle was stuck again, and this time it was broken. I spent the next few weeks mastering the art of leaning across the passenger's side to push open my door from the inside. But at Shared Harvest, it never failed that I was always parked on a slope causing my door to fall shut when I tried to push it open. It was this exercise in gravity that caused me to start entering my car by crawling into the passenger's side and over the console into the driver's seat.

The acrobat act was getting old, so we decided to have the car fixed. We took the car to a GM dealer (my car is a 1995 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme), and for $90 we found out that yep...the car handle is broken. We were this close to having the replacement part ($300) ordered and installed (another $90) when my dad said STOP! He could fix it for $25. We canceled the order and waited for the opportunity to get the car to my dad so he could work his little voodoo car magic.

This past Monday my mom took the day off to come visit me and to work on wedding stuff. When she left, she drove my car home to my dad and left her car with me. Ah, finally, a working car door! My back was grateful, but my feet were not--part of the arrangement required me to park as far away as possible from other cars that could ding and tarnish the car's pristine doors. Anyway, my dad kept the car for a few days, talked with mechanic friends, then ordered and installed a much cheaper part (indeed, $25). At the end of the day Friday, he and I left our respective jobs, got on I-75, and met at a halfway point between Fairfield and Urbana to exchange our vehicles.

At first I was very excited to see my old friend, that is, until my dad gave me a report on its behavior. Apparently, the little grunting sound my car makes every once in a while is an indication that my rear struts have snapped. And yes, for all you non-mechanical people out there, that's as bad and dangerous as it sounds. The diagnosis--fix this thing immediately. Oh and while you're at it, he added, the car seems to struggle accelerating, especially on the interstate. Better check/replace the spark plugs. You might as well check out other ignition parts.

Oh, brother. The point of this story was not to get all technical about my beloved car. Besides, I really have no idea what I'm talking about--I've stolen these bits from my dad's jargon-laden explanation today. But it was to show you a couple of things:

1. When your income is limited, necessary expenses are painful.
Obviously, I have to have a car--it's my only practical mode of transportation to do what I do. (Imagine biking 100 miles to an OBB training.) But that doesn't change the fact that a couple hundred dollars for a repair is any less difficult to face. People with money--people in the middle class and up--might be annoyed that their car is in the shop or that they have an unexpected expense, but they'll take care of the problem without much of a second thought because they have to. But people in poverty agonize over expenses like this--and they'll do exactly what we did to pay as little as possible for service, which leads me to my next point...

2. People in poverty really have to rely on relationships to meet basic needs.
Let's face it. Without my dad, we'd be down about $400, plus whatever these new expenses will cost, all to keep a very necessary part of life in tact: transportation. My mom and dad have been very generous to exchange vehicles for a week and fix my car to save us a big expense, even at the cost of their own comfort.
With this second round of expenses coming up, my dad has done quite a bit of research to help keep our costs down. Later this morning, we'll be going to a reputable mechanic that many people at Shared Harvest have recommended. Being completely unknowledgable about cars, though, my dad will look out for me by talking to the mechanic via phone about the car's condition. And if the cost is too high here, he'll connect with one of his mechanic friends in Urbana to keep our costs as low as possible.

Of course, I'm lucky that my relationship with my parents is a healthy one. Unfortunately, many people in poverty are involved in abusive relationships, but can not break them off because they rely on them to meet basic needs. Once again, it is this small, yet major, distinction that makes me a mere interloper in poverty.

Nonetheless, today could be rather costly for this low-income household.

Friday, October 16, 2009

It's official

So it's been a few days, and some of you might be wondering about my teaser from earlier in the week. Did anyone figure out the relationship between the Shared Harvest Foodbank and the NY Times?

Yes? No? Okay here it is:

Jason DeParle, a reporter from the New York Times, is coming to Ohio next week to do a 3-part series on food stamps. Because Tina started the first food stamp outreach program in the nation, Lisa Hamler-Fugitt from OASHF recommended that Jason focus on Southwest Ohio, specifically Shared Harvest Foodbank, for his story. If I understand correctly, as part of his visit, Jason will be looking at how Shared Harvest's SNAP (food stamp) outreach program and the Ohio Benefit Bank have increased people's access to food stamps in a traditionally conservative part of the state.

And if that isn't exciting enough, get this:

While he is here, Jason may also explore the national service component of all of this, which brings him Lisa, Dustin, and Tina all pointed Jason towards my blog, and about a week ago, I spoke with him for the first time on the phone. Now we are planning to meet on Sunday evening after his plane lands to talk even more about the AmeriCorps*VISTA's role with the OBB.

Yeah, I know. It still seems a little surreal to me too. :)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Brrr, it's cold in here

What does winter look like at the foodbank? I'm starting to get a glimpse.

The office that houses all of us OBB people--Meredith, Martha, Alex, and me--has two external walls with large windows. In the summer, these windows make the office quite desirable, providing a sunny, scenic view of Dixie Highway. But in the winter (and yes, I consider mid-October winter) those windows make the office very very chilly. The heat will officially turn on November first. Until then, we don't bother taking our jackets off in the morning, and we are as quick as possible when dropping our lunches off in the big cooler. Hats, gloves, and scarves now have a permanent place in my bag.

Winter at the foodbank should make holiday food drive pick-ups fun too. For instance, today I accompanied Holli on a delivery of 11 barrels to two branches of a local company. When we loaded up Gus, the weather was cold, gray, and drizzly, with no change by the time we arrived at our destinations. There we learned that Gus likes to retain water, so when we opened the door to unload each of the barrels, a steady stream of cold water leaked into the back of the truck, catching us unsuspecting suckers in its path. Dodging the drip made our task of unloading the bulky barrels even more interesting. I'm excited to see how Gus takes to snow. :)

But even though the winter chill is setting in around here, we do have one small consolation: At least Gus has a working heater.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I'm baaaaack!

A little R&R can do a lot of good. :)

I'm back today, my first day back in the office since Friday. My day consisted of healthy servings from the VISTA's 4 basic food groups: the computer, the phone, the car, and the copier.

2.5 hours of Computer: Link and Learn
Next week the Community Trainer VISTAs will travel to Columbus to receive training on 2008 taxes, starting the certification process for doing OBB tax trainings. But before we go, we're all supposed to go onto the IRS website and do the "Link and Learn" portal. Now, this sounds simple enough, but let me tell you--this thing is intense. As the name indicates, there are a dozen or so links on various tax topics, with each link consisting of upwards of hundreds of pages of information. And the material certainly is complex with tons of terms, numbers, and rules to keep straight. Getting through all of this information can take days--weeks, really--and even if I get through it all, there is no way I'll ever retain all of this intricate information.

But getting through all of the links isn't all that necessary to become a good OBB tax trainer and counselor. Sure, the information is valuable, and I've already learned quite a bit about the various tax forms and exemptions out there through the links. But I don't have to know everything about taxes to be successful this tax season. That's because the program's software was designed to serve as the expert. Just like with Benefits, the OBB does all the work for us, with the counselor simply facilitating the process. And for that, I am extremely grateful! Still, even by using the OBB this winter, I will undoubtedly learn more about taxes than I ever wanted to know.

1.25 hours of Phone: "Hi, this is Kaitlyn with the Ohio Benefit Bank..."
A good portion of the day was spent on the phone, as well. Often times, a site will express interest in using the OBB, but somehow get delayed in starting the training process. So to help move these sites along, we are intensifying our follow-up calls from one call every week or so, to one call every two days until the site either enrolls in a training or tells us to stop calling. With this new measure, I spent a significant chunk of time calling dozens of sites, asking for people whose names I wasn't sure how to pronounce, reminding them of what the OBB even is, and trying to prod them along in the process. Some sites had expressed interest in the OBB over 6 months ago but still had not followed through on getting trained! So at the risk of morphing into a telemarketer, we're stepping up our calls and [gently] pushing people along in the process to become an OBB site.

2.75 hours of Car: Warren County Interagency Council
In the middle of the day, Meredith and I put everything on hold to drive to Lebanon for the monthly interagency meeting for Warren County agencies. One of our OBB sites, Warren Co. Community Services, was being featured for the first half of the meeting, which gave the OBB a little freebie promo! The second half of the meeting was spent catching up on what's new with the other area agencies, and before we knew it, we were back on the road to Shared Harvest.

1.5 hours of Copier: "Okay, now let's turn to page 3 of the PowerPoint presentation..."
The last portion of the day was spent putting together packets for a Benefits training I'm doing tomorrow in Dayton. All 9 counselors registered for the training are from the same organization, including one very familiar counselor--Rebecca, my friend Lisa's mom! I'm really looking forward to this training, and if I had a little more expendable income I'd buy donuts or something for the occasion. Instead, I'll come bearing training manuals, marketing, and materials.

All in all, a pretty typical day in the life of a VISTA. It's amazing how fast the day flies by when grazing on each of our major "food" groups!

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Hello readers--it's been a while since my last post, and I apologize for that. As you know, I volunteer with the Rape Crisis Program in Butler County, and I was on call Saturday evening after a good, but busy, day in Yellow Springs for their fall street fair. Once again, I was called out to a hospital multiple times during my shift, spending a total of about 8 hours in the ER. These cases were overwhelming and more emotionally draining than usual, and so while there is plenty going on that I'd love to share here, it's going to have to wait.

The best care is self-care, so I think it's time I practice what I preach. A brief hiatus is in order for me right now. Fortunately, I had already scheduled Monday off (Happy Christopher Columbus Day!), so you can probably expect my next post on Tuesday.

Until then, a cliffhanger--how are the Shared Harvest Foodbank and the New York Times related? Stay tuned to find out...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Wheels on the Bus

With the holiday food drive season picking up, it was time to take Gus for another drive today. This time Alex and I were headed to Mason to drop of barrels to two Warren County businesses. The staff at Shared Harvest were kind enough to load the van/truck/bus with 5 posters and 5 empty barrels for us, leaving Alex and me free to spend our morning calling past donors about holding a holiday food drive this year. So by the time 11:20 A.M. rolled around, we were actually looking forward to taking Gus out for a spin. We decided that Alex would drive to the first business, I would drive home, and we would "rock, paper, scissors" to see who would drive from the first business to the second business; I lost.

As always, the first part of the trip is always the worst. The driveway leading up to Shared Harvest is steep and bumpy, and navigating it can be treacherous. With our standard amount of shrieks and squeals, we finally made it down the driveway and to the road. Whew.

Our first delivery was pretty uneventful. Alex did a great job with challenging tasks like turning and merging, and we were even able to find the place with relative ease. But by the time we unloaded the barrels, we only had 15 minutes to get to the second business before our contact person would be out to lunch. Of course by the time we located the correct driveway for the second business, we had just missed our contact. To pass the time, we did what any good VISTA team would do: we parked Gus and had a fall photo shoot, followed by a mini jam session to whatever songs came on the radio.

Half an hour later, we rolled up in front of the HUGE building and parked a second time. The receptionist found our contact person, but instead of having us drop the barrels off with her up front, she mysteriously instructed us to take the barrels to the "docks" and meet her there. So we got back in Gus, drove over a few curbs (accidentally, of course) and found one of the 22 docks on the side of the building. There was no sign of our contact, so we gave her a call on her cell phone to clarify directions. We were at dock 20, and we needed to be at dock 16. But dock 16 was located behind a locked gate. No problem...we creepily waited until someone drove up to the gate and then we just followed them in. (No, I don't think that's illegal.) Once at the dock, we unloaded the barrels and carried them through the distribution center (which resembled an adult-like Willy Wonka chocolate factory), through the offices, and then into the cafeteria area. Finally, mission accomplished!

We couldn't leave right away, though. We had to wait a couple of minutes until someone was ready to leave the docks so that we could follow them out of the gate. I think the other truck drivers enjoyed watching us amateurs navigate the docks, but hey we did it! Oh, and don't worry, Tina--we were good little ambassadors for Shared Harvest, we promise!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A quick recap

The past few days have been pretty busy with a variety of activities. Normally, I don't like to use blog space for a run-down of tasks completed (unless the story is really entertaining), but I want you to get an idea of what I've been up to over the past few days.

Monday was mostly spent catching up on odds and ends around the office. In the afternoon, though, I accompanied Holli to Hamilton High School to meet with 3 teachers/administrators about a district-wide food drive. The project was coined "Fill that bus!" modeled after Ty Pennington's famous line on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The basic idea is that each of the 15 or 16 schools in the district will collect canned goods and non-perishable food items over the course of a month in January 2010. Some student groups had already generated several fun ideas to accomplish this goal, including holding contests between schools and encouraging community members to donate at sporting events. At the end of the month, the students will load the goods into a line of school buses, filling the seats with items. The buses will then parade through the district before stopping at Shared Harvest to be unloaded and weighed. So far, the students and administrators are energized and full of ideas on how to market the food drive, and we will do everything we can on our end to facilitate a successful food drive.

The idea for the "Fill that bus!" food drive originally came from the Beavercreek City School District, so we are excited to see how this plays out in Hamilton City Schools. Of course, my involvement with Shared Harvest food drives will end after the holiday season, but I am excited to see how this food drive turns out. The district has been very thoughtful about the timing of the food drive, as well. Instead of holding a food drive during the holidays when many people are already giving so much, the district took Tina's advice and decided to do their food drive right after the holiday season when donations and volunteers tend to drop off. Of course, holiday food drives are wonderful, and part of my job is to help facilitate those seasonal food drives! But hunger is a year-long problem, and we don't want to forget about meeting that need when the holidays have ended.

That being said--if your organization would like to hold a food drive this holiday season (or anytime), please, go for it! If you live in the Shared Harvest area (Darke, Miami, Preble, Butler, and Warren Counties) you can contact me or call Holli at 513-874-0114.

So where does the OBB come in this week? Tuesday morning I gave an OBB presentation to potential OBB sites in Montgomery County, while Alex presented to agencies in Greene County. In order to get through rush hour traffic and make it to the presentation on time, I had to leave my apartment at 6:45 A.M. When I arrived at the site over an hour and fifteen minutes later, I set up my presentation, and waited for attendees to show up. And what do you know--about 10 people came to the presentation! A majority of them worked in some capacity with St. Vincent de Paul, but everyone in attendance seemed interested and enthusiastic about the program. (Of course, it's hard not to like how easy the OBB makes benefit applications for our clients!) After the presentation, I stuck around to answer a few questions and then made the drive back to Shared Harvest. Around 12:30 I was surprised by a phone call from one of the presentation attendees already requesting training dates. Talk about enthusiasm! That felt pretty good, especially after having poor attendance rates at our past few presentations.

Tuesday afternoon was spent preparing for an OBB Benefits Training today in Hamilton. For the first time, my commute to the training site was only a few minutes longer than my regular, everyday commute. But the day itself didn't seem like the average day. I only had two counselors signed up to attend, but due to some communication and navigation issues, they arrived at the training 35 minutes late. At times they struggled to understand directions and use the software, and I questioned their interest in the program. After lunch, though, things went much smoother. Both counselors had a lot of questions and comments on the benefit programs housed in the OBB and even tried to challenge me about how low the poverty line is set. I reminded them that I don't make the rules, I just relay them--and not to shoot the messenger, for gods sake! That seemed to help, but I really didn't mind their critique of the programs. It was actually refreshing to see other people get riled up about the bureacracy surrounding many of these benefit programs. I believe that if more people knew how difficult it is to live on such little income, they might actually do something about it through advocacy and policy change. And I guess that's why I'm an AmeriCorps*VISTA member--because I know what it's like to live in poverty and I am doing something about it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Get out the vote

Don't forget, tomorrow (October 5th) is the last day to register to vote for the upcoming November election! There are a lot of important state and local issues on the ballot this time around that I can't really comment on here, but they are definitely worth exploring. Educate yourself, form an opinion, then express it through voting! Every vote really does count.

And speaking of voting, would you do me all a favor? Add the following link to your favorites:

What's this? My VISTA friends in Wilmington are working on a community gardening initiative called Grow Food, Grow Hope. They have been selected as one of 50 finalists to receive a $20,000 grant from a group called Tom's of Maine. (I should mention that this money would fund nearly all of the projects they have in mind for the coming year.) The only way for them to receive the grant, though, is by receiving more votes than the other 49 finalists. So visit the link once a day, click on the "Community" tab, and scroll down until you find Grow Food, Grow Hope. Click on their icon and vote!

Here's a little bit more about the Grow Food, Grow Hope project taken straight from the VISTAs' mouth:
Grow Food, Grow Hope is a community gardening initiative that aims to raise awareness of the benefits of local food production, backyard and community gardening, and increasing self-sustainability in our daily food habits. Our community was hit hard by the recent departure of the shipping giant, DHL, who took with it thousands of local jobs. Feeding our community has become an even more pressing issue as a result. This grant would help us to help the people of Wilmington, Ohio tremendously.

The public can vote on which project they would most like to support. From now until October 30, you can vote once a day, everyday, for five projects of your choosing. (Note: the more you vote for other projects, the harder it becomes for us to win, so just save those extra four votes a day for another year!) Come November, Tom's of Maine will announce the five winners of the grant, based solely on the votes received by each project.
Won't you please help these guys out by voting daily? It is extremely easy to do and takes all of 30 seconds, so please, get clicking!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Takin' it to the streets: the sequel

Logging over 160 miles on my odometer Friday, I journeyed to Miami and Darke Counties for OBB presentations #4 and #5.

The day began with a torrential downpour. The entire length of the 1.5 hour drive north consisted of a congested interstate made worse with never-ending construction. I caught glimpses of the orange barrels through my hyperactive windshield wipers. Fortunately, as I pulled into the presentation site in Piqua (pronounced 'Pick-wah) the skies cleared and the rest of the day was breezy and sunny. I set up my laptop and and carefully laid out my brochures, and sure enough, one person showed up. Hey, it's better than no one! I went through the presentation, answered her questions, and we were out the door in under 45 minutes.

I had some time to kill before driving over to Darke County that afternoon, so I pulled up my list of potential OBB sites in Miami County and got back in the car. Although Alex wasn't with me today, she lent me her GPS (thankfully!) and I quickly programmed all of the addresses for the Piqua agencies listed into the unit. Of course it would have been much more efficient to present to all of these agencies at once, but you do what you have to do. Once again, if they won't come to us, we'll bring the OBB to them.

There were a couple of pretty memorable agencies from this little excursion. The first was a mental health agency in Piqua, where I was able to speak to a director. She seemed genuinely interested in the OBB and said she would "think about it." On my way out, she asked me what my pin was for. I told her about being an AmeriCorps*VISTA member at Shared Harvest and she pointed to a pin on her bulletin board--turns out she had been a VISTA member back in the day, too! She told me that she had started at her agency as a VISTA and just never left. So we had a little VISTA moment.

At the next agency, which happened to be a partner agency with Shared Harvest, I tried starting out by introducing myself as an AmeriCorps*VISTA. But it was my connection with Shared Harvest that got me in the door--they couldn't have welcomed me inside any faster! I gave a mini-OBB presentation to the nice ladies there, but they were mostly interested in showing me around the pantry and opening freezer doors to show me how much food they had in stock. Now that I think about it, they might have thought I was there for an inspection of some sort--nonetheless, I left the OBB brochures with the smiling bunch and went on my way.

By this point it was time to get back on the road, but not before a quick lunch. I drove through a McDonald's on the way to Darke County:You're seeing this correctly--there are two drive-thru lanes pictured, which eventually converged into one lane for the pick-up windows. I honestly never thought I would have to merge in a drive-thru line. Ah, the life of a road warrior.

Arriving in Darke County, I made my way to the Greenville Public Library for my presentation. It was a quaint little building and I navigated the halls+elevator to get to the 3rd floor meeting room. I went through my typical set-up routine, fully expecting to take it all down at 1:05 P.M. and hit the streets just like we did on Thursday in Preble County. After all, we were only able to invite 8 agencies total to this presentation, and if our attendance rate was consistent with that of previous presentations, we could expect less than half an agency to show up. To my amazement, though, a lady from a local agency walked through the door and actually was in the right place! One whole agency! She was chatty, so the presentation lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes. When it was finished, I packed up my stuff, loaded the car, then programmed Alex's GPS (who we named "Rita," by the way) to visit the Darke County agencies that hadn't attended the presentation.

And that's when everything started getting really...weird.

I arrived at one agency that I believe served as a shelter of sorts. It was in the middle of a residential neighborhood and looked like the other old houses nearby, except for a sign clearly marking it as a non-profit agency. I stepped onto the porch and found some kind of twisty knob for the doorbell. I turned it a few times but I couldn't hear anything, so I rattled the screen door, hoping someone would hear it and come answer it. But nothing. So then I opened the screen door and tried the knob on the main door--strangely, it was unlocked. Expecting to find a reception area in the front hallway, I opened the door and stepped inside. But the house was dark, with no one in sight. I called out, again hoping someone would hear me and come meet me on the porch. But nothing. Thoroughly creeped out by this point, I stuffed some brochures and my business card with a note in the mailbox and briskly walked back to the car.


My last stop in Greenville was at a partner agency food pantry located within a church. I arrived at the address to find an empty parking lot with signs pointing to enter at the rear of the building. I drove around to find a playground, no parking lot, and a small construction addition to one of the wings of the church. I walked up to a steel door with a piece of computer paper marked "Entrance" taped to it, tested the handle, but found it was locked. Again, no one was in sight. Oh well.

By this point I only had one more agency--a food pantry--on my list for Darke County, and it was in New Madison. I had no idea where that was, but I knew Rita would, so I typed in the address and followed her directions to a little "town" 15 miles or so south of Greenville. The drive was peaceful. Darke County is about as rural as it gets, so I was surrounded by sunny, rolling fields and a bright blue sky the whole way. I went through the occasional town but they were so small that the speed limit didn't even least I don't think it did...I never slowed down anyway...

As I closed in on the town of New Madison, Rita alerted me that I was approaching my destination. As the GPS dinged to let me know I had arrived, I looked around, expecting to see some type of warehouse for the food pantry. However, I quickly noticed that I had actually passed the street number I was looking for (271), so I parked and walked back towards the address listed. I walked past 236, 252, 264, 268, and 270--all were houses along the street. I started to cross the street when I saw a mailbox marked "271" on the other side. Bingo! But then I observed that the mailbox actually belonged to an old house with a stained mattress on the front porch. Whether or not it was a food pantry, I'll never know. I promptly turned around, got back in the car, and drove home.

You can tell how much I believe in the Ohio Benefit Bank to drive miles and miles through SW Ohio on the occasional wild goose chase to promote it.

Thank god for GPS.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Takin' it to the streets

It's been presentation central around Shared Harvest lately. Remember that presentation Alex and I did to the partner agencies with Shared Harvest? Well we're doing the same type of thing with all of the non-partner agencies in each of our 7 counties--but on their turf. We have traveled through Butler and Warren Counties to do 2 presentations over the past two weeks, but they weren't anything to write home about; only 5% of all agencies invited showed up.

Thursday made presentation #3 for the non-member agencies in Preble County to attend to learn more about implementing the OBB in their organizations. We wanted to see a little higher attendance rates, so this time Alex and I sent out the invitation letters as usual, and then placed follow-up calls a few days ago to remind people of the presentation. We even called to invite Shared Harvest's partner agencies to the presentation if we hadn't yet been in contact with them. We had to leave voicemail messages with most of the agencies, but we hoped for the best, and yesterday morning, we packed up our presentation gear and made the 45 minute drive to Eaton. We set up our laptop and projector, a bowl of candy, and a pile of brochures, then sat back to watch the clock. And sure enough, at 10:00 A.M. our presentation space at the Preble County Public Library was....empty.

But we weren't about to go home empty-handed. While we were waiting for our guests to arrive, we scoured the library's information table and collected a handful of brochures from area non-profits. With addresses from these agencies plus those from the original list of agencies, we plotted out our route and packed up the car. These people were going to learn about the OBB one way or the other!

Armed with fliers, brochures, and business cards, we started knocking on doors. And to our surprise, people not only invited us in their offices, but they listened to us! We were able to leave information at 5 agencies, and we were able to sit down with the directors of two agencies. One director, whose agency we just happened to stumble across, even requested training dates after our chat with her. It was very encouraging to have agency directors excited about the program, and certainly made the trip worthwhile.

While in Eaton, we learned a few key points that will serve us in the future. The first is that communicating via snail mail may not be our best bet with our more rural counties. After walking around for a little, we discovered that some agencies' addresses led us to old, abandoned buildings. It might take a little personal exploration to find up-to-date contact information. Secondly, face-to-face contact tends to be preferable among the tiny, close-knit communities we're visiting. A cold letter from an unknown organization isn't the same as a warm handshake and a conversation. So to successfully recruit OBB sites in our rural areas, it is going to require a lot of time and a functioning GPS to get us out there and meet these agencies face to face.

As I write this, I have just completed presentations in Darke and Miami Counties, two very rural areas of my region. The above strategies I mentioned above certainly applied today--but more on that adventure later!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

It's a small world

The second Resource fair of the week, I attended the Butler County Head Start Health and Safety Resource Fair in Hamilton on Wednesday. This event was designed to connect parents whose kids are in the Head Start program with various resources in the community.

You would think that all Resource Fairs are the same--but that's definitely not the case. This resource fair had some significant differences from the Dayton resource fair we attended on Tuesday.

First of all, the organizers of the fair had enough sense to move the event inside when the temperature fell below 60 degrees. They must have realized how difficult it would be for vendors to communicate with families through chattering teeth. And for that, I am very grateful!

Secondly, this event was obviously smaller, and had a much homier feel to it. I arrived to find my booth squeezed into a snakelike line of tables in the church's gymnasium. On my left was...surprise: the Community Crisis and Counseling Center! As you know, I volunteer with the Rape Crisis Program, which is housed in the Crisis Center, so it was nice to see a familiar face. But as I would discover, familiar faces were all around. On my right I met Dan, and AmeriCorps State member with the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio. Turns out, Dan and I had met once before during our Miami days in a creative writing class we had both taken about 3 years ago. (It was quite a memorable class--for our final project the class held a poetry reading on one of the university's metro buses. How could you forget that?) As I surveyed the rest of the room, I recognized each of the 20 agencies represented, and I could identify some of the staff and volunteers in attendance, as well. Even Jessica, a fellow AmeriCorps*VISTA member from the Miami Hamilton campus, wandered by! It felt good to greet people by name; I'm certainly feeling more at home among these agencies.

The third difference: yesterday's resource fair served a hot lunch--a FREE hot lunch. At the Dayton resource fair, we only had ballpark food to choose from, and at $3 a pop, hot dogs just didn't hit the spot. All of the 60+ families and the 20 organizations present were fed a delicious lunch before the event was over.

One thing that was not different from the Dayton fair was the noise level. It's so difficult to compete with the noise level in a gymnasium or any other hollow, concrete space. I suppose some things just can't be helped, and it was certainly better than battling the elements outside.

Another difference with the Dayton fair was the volume of children running around. Now, I like kids--don't get me wrong. But when you're explaining the OBB to a frazzled parent trying to hold onto 3 squirming pre-schoolers, you have to wonder how much information is really being retained. Next year, Head Start could do better by offering free childcare through the end of the event.

The final difference between the events was that the Head Start fair-goers were required to get vendors to initial a sheet of paper after they had stopped by our booths. I think the goal of this task was to make sure parents visited every booth and got as much information as possible, but the reality was that most parents were only half-listening to our spiels. I don't blame them! They were just trying to get as many initials as they could before their child had a complete meltdown on the floor. When all is said and done, this practice seemed a little demeaning to me; the set-up felt contrived and patriarchal, further reinforcing an often hidden power dynamic between service provider and consumer that I'm not particularly fond of. The event could improve by allowing parents to visit the booths that they need most, and giving them ample time and space to do that, distraction- (or kid-) free.

It's the little things that make resource fairs a success. I was glad to stay in my home county for this one, and I'm certainly learning a lot about what goes into quality events. Maybe by the end of this term of service I could work as a resource fair/event planner....oh the possibilities.