Wednesday, June 30, 2010

United Way cuts

Bad news on the Butler County homefront. Yesterday I received an email from the director of the Butler County Rape Crisis Program about some impending budget cuts to our services.

As my faithful readers may know, I have been volunteering as a victim advocate with the Rape Crisis Program in my spare time since May of 2009. My days as an advocate may be numbered, though, due to recent cuts from the Butler County United Way. As I understand it, the United Way's fund-raising campaign was not as successful as in years past, and as a result, they are cutting all of their mental health funding to member agencies. All of it. Instead of putting a small amount into mental health services, they have decided to amp up funding for their job-training programs, among other things, thinking that if people can get jobs they will not need to rely on United Way agencies for their needs. It's a good idea in theory, but the truth is that many people are working multiple jobs and still can't pay their bills. Of course, there are also limited job opportunities in Butler County right now, at least jobs that pay a living wage. No amount of job training will make up for that fact. But if we really think critically about this, the real issue is a matter of priority. If a person does not have access to counseling, treatment, and other mental health services to meet their immediate needs, no amount of job training classes will help that person hold down a job in the future.

So how does this affect the Rape Crisis Program? Well, Butler County United Way funding comes under the category of "mental health," so now that funding is cut. Normally, the RCP could make up such a loss, but the UW funding means more than just a single check. Federal grants rely on a cash match option, which has traditionally been met by the United Way. So without UW funding, the RCP loses their federal grants, as well. Translation: the Butler County Rape Crisis Program is losing 80% of their funding.

No organization can operate at 20% of their current capacity, and of course the program is at risk unless this funding can be recaptured. The program director is looking for any and all suggestions for finding more funding, and are happy to meet with any potential donors at any time.

I don't know what lies ahead in the coming days, but I do know that if the Butler Co. RCP can not recover from this loss, a tremendous service will be stripped from the community. It's hard to understand the importance of our services until you find yourself in the middle of a crisis; hurt, scared, confused, and otherwise alone. Thanks to this program, victims become survivors and their families learn how to cope and move forward out of crisis. Our educational programming helps school kids learn how to stay safe in their relationships, as well as with strangers. Our Hispanic/Latino outreach provides services to a typically under-served population, especially in Butler County.

Our community can not stand to lose this service. If you would like to support the Rape Crisis Program, please do not hesitate to contact me for more details.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

My noble scribe

Congratulations to Taylor on his new job: Emergency Department Physician Scribe! After only three 24-hour rotations on his new shift at EMT, Inc., he was offered the new job and he took it. Now instead of taking senior citizens to dialysis and making emergency runs out of nursing homes, he'll be following ER doctors around and basically writing down everything they say and do. It should be much more interesting, with a much more diverse caseload. And this move couldn't come at a better time. With me unemployed, his new salary will be the equivalent of his old EMT paycheck and my AmeriCorps stipend combined. There's also the potential for health insurance, for growth, and for just overall life improvement!

So how did this come about? Well, I have been job-searching 24/7 for the past, oh, two months. As I searched for "administrative assistant" positions, I came across this scribe position, probably because of its assistant nature. I looked it over, but saw that the company preferred to hire EMTs and paramedics for these positions because of their medical background. Fortunately, I happen to know an EMT so I passed it on to Taylor on a lark. I knew he already had a job and shift that he liked, but I noticed the pay was higher and thought he might like to see other career opportunities that EMTs can take besides working for lousy ambulance companies that suspend yearly $.05 raises because of "budget concerns." So he applied. And a few days later, he was taking a typing test, doing a phone interview, and filling out tons of paperwork. He was hired just like that.

As happy as I am for Taylor, a small part of me is saying, "Are you kidding me?" I'm the unemployed one! I'm the one with Career Builder as a shortcut on my web browser! I'm the one who needs a job!

But the truth is Taylor was, and still is, more employable than I am. You see, Taylor decided to leave college at the end of his junior year. Just walked away. He said that he never really liked college, didn't like his major (English...yeah, talk about unemployable), and he didn't want to get further and further into debt over something he just wasn't that into. That isn't to say Taylor doesn't recognize the value of a four-year degree, or that he never wants to go back to school. But Taylor did want some time to figure out what he really loved--and that turned out to be the medical field. He enrolled in an EMT program at Butler Tech and within months of leaving Miami, he had state licensure and national registry as an Emergency Medical Technician. And most importantly, he had a set of skills that made him highly employable. I'm not saying that he is rolling in the dough or that this is the career he'll retire from, but for now he is gainfully employed in a job he loves. And he is happy. How many recent college grads do you know who can say that? How many people do you know who can say that?

I hope to be able to say that soon. After one week of unemployment (minus the unemployment check), I am feeling restless. I don't like sitting idle. And I don't like not contributing--both to society and to my household. We have a mortgage to pay, kitties to support. I need to give my share.

In the meantime, thank goodness for my patient, and recently promoted husband. It certainly is nice to have someone to lean on in times of stress and instability.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

My replacement

I have officially been replaced at Shared Harvest! Please join me in welcoming Krupa, the newest VISTA to join the Shared Harvest team. She has a new blog and I would encourage you to check it out to stay up to date on all of the latest happenings at the foodbank.

Welcome aboard, Krupa! You're in for a great, but challenging year, and I know you'll enjoy it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

College kids grow up

It has been more than a year since I graduated from Miami University with my Bachelor of Science in Speech Pathology and Disability Studies. What does that mean? It means as my AmeriCorps term recently ended, I am now unemployed with no reasonable job prospects in sight. And chances are, if you're between the ages of 18 and 25, you're saying, "Yeah, join the club."

Over the past year I read about and met plenty of middle-aged parents out of work and struggling to pay the bills. Often overlooked in this economic crisis, though, are the young adults fresh out of high school and college. Maybe it's because we're crashing with parents and friends and are otherwise out of the headlines featuring foreclosure and bankruptcy. Maybe it's because many of us don't have families or children to provide for, so our stories just aren't as compelling as others'. But the truth is, this economic recession and job market slump will impact my generation long after the economy bounces back. Studies have shown that college graduates coming into the workforce at this point in history will earn less over the course of our lifetime than when unemployment rates were lower.

In the mean time, we'll be lucky to find jobs with paychecks at all. Many employers have laid off their employees to offset losses and can't even think about accepting resumes for new positions. And for that rare employer who is hiring, we young guns don't stand a chance. Most employers want to see lots of experience for even their entry-level positions, and in this market they can afford to be picky. I can maybe scrape together one or two years of social work experience from my college+AmeriCorps days, but I don't stand a chance next to the former executive director with ten years of supervisory experience on his resume.

I clearly remember calling to follow up on one particular job I'd applied for several weeks ago. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "Hi, my name is Kaitlyn Wessels and I recently submitted my application for the xxxxxx position posted a few days ago. I just wanted to make sure you had received all of my materials and to see if you needed any additional information to further review my application."
HR Rep: "What was the name?"
Me: "Umm... Kaitlyn Wessels?"
HR Rep: "Hmmm...*rustling papers*...the name sounds familiar. Umm...let's see...I'm sorry I just have about 130 pages in front of'll just be a second..."

Many of these conversations end with instructions on what to do to find out that I didn't get the job, rather than how to follow up for an interview. Rejection is just the name of the game.

I am an optimist by nature, but I think it will be a long time before I am offered a job that is in line with my goals, skills, and academic background and pays a competitive salary. About a week ago I was talking with my dad about my next steps after AmeriCorps. I told him about the dozens of applications and resumes I'd put out there over the past few months, and the zero bites I've had. He said unfortunately he wasn't suprised after hearing a follow-up story on the class of 2009 earlier this spring in which some 80% of graduates had still not found a job in their field of study one year after graduation. And now we've got the class of 2010 to compete with! Making matters worse, here comes this brand new class of graduates and we're old news. We're expected to have used the past year to gain experience in our field, not stock shelves at Target. Relatively speaking, those fresh-faced 2010 graduates are looking pretty good to new recruiters compared to us haggard has-beens.

Still, here we are, this weary group of grads, scavenging for low-paying jobs in whatever field we can find, trying to pay our bills on top of the exorbitant student loan debt we've racked up for a degree that is otherwise useless.

Okay, I know it isn't useless--compared to our high school graduate peers, we're doing alright. The unemployment rate for college grads under 25 jumped from 5.4% in 2007 to 9.0% in 2010, while high school grads of the same age faced a 22.5% unemployment rate, up from 12% in 2007. But it certainly isn't encouraging when those jobs are in ditch-digging after investing upwards of $100,000 in preparation for a career in accounting. Or education. Or basket-weaving. Whatever.

A college degree just doesn't guarantee a good job these days. The most we can hope to gain from our degrees is the ability to think critically and creatively to get through tough times ahead. Many graduates are thinking outside of the box to jump start their careers. We're taking part-time positions and freelancing rather than working the typical 9-5 job. We're doing odd jobs, we're traveling, we're volunteering. We're surviving any way we can.

And though we're discouraged, we're not giving up. So if you'll excuse me, I've got a date with the classifieds.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Livin' on a prayer, a.k.a $18,000

Yesterday I came across a fascinating article linked on Get Rich Slowly, a personal finance blog that I read daily. The article, titled "Living on $18,000 a year--by choice," describes the choices of three different people, ages 25, 44, and 60, that have led them to a very thrifty existence. But this isn't one of those "what not to do" articles--it's about people who have chosen to live on less so that they can better pursue happiness.

Of course this article caught my eye after earning somewhere around $10,000 last year in the AmeriCorps*VISTA program. I, too, chose to live in poverty in pursuit of higher dreams. Now I hope to secure more permanent employment, most likely in an entry-level social services position while I attend graduate school in the fall. Many times I am asked to specify my salary requirements on my application, and when "negotiable" isn't an option, I feel silly writing down anything higher than $10,000. Taylor and I have gotten used to living on so little that anything more than $10k seems extravagant (not to say I don't want to earn a higher salary!) I guess it's all in your perspective.

It feels good to see the author of this article talk about an annual salary of $18,000 as something to marvel. The fact that Taylor and I met our basic needs, built our savings, and bought a house on less than $25,000 combined last year makes me optimistic. Imagine what we can do with $26,000?

Oh, the possibilities!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Happy Father's Day

Just wanted to say Happy Father's Day to my dad, Duane Baker.

My dad is a pretty humble guy, and I don't want to embarrass him or anything, but I figure my blog post today is a good way to show him just how much I appreciate him. (That and the awesome cookout Taylor and I hosted last night. Yum!)

When I was growing up, my dad worked a lot in the labor-intensive manufacturing industry, and I didn't always understand why he wasn't home as much as we both would have liked. Only now am I starting to get even a small glimpse of just what all of those hours of work really meant for our family. My dad worked hard so that I wouldn't have to struggle as much to get the things I wanted in my life. Not only did my dad make sure my basic needs were met, but he also ensured that many doors were opened for me. My dad never had the chance to attend college, so it was a top priority to him that I further my education. This was so important to him, in fact, that he saved enough money for me to graduate debt-free with funds left over for graduate school.

Although he doesn't have a piece of paper from a four-year school, my dad is one of the smartest people I know. I find myself going to him for advice, even when I don't think I need it. He has taught me so much over the course of my life, such as how to manage money, how to golf, how to ride a bike, to name a few. Perhaps the most important thing he taught me, though, is not to get too complacent; to always try harder and to never give up.

So Daddy, thank you for always pushing me to be a better student, a better professional, a better citizen, a better person. Growing up I didn't always show you how much I appreciated you, but I hope this little blog post helps to say:

I love you.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

End of an era

Today marks my official last day as an AmeriCorps*VISTA member. Of course, my last day at Shared Harvest was yesterday, but in VISTA world, today is my real last day in service. I will be spending it at home with mine and my husband's parents for a pre-Father's Day cookout.

I will also spend this day transitioning my blog from a VISTA blog to a more personal blog. Over the course of the past year, I have shared some personal information about my life, but I have been limited by the Ohio Associated of Second Harvest Foodbanks in just how much non-VISTA commentary I can share. Also dictating the contents of this blog were the Hatch Act, which essentially restricted us from commentary of a political or religious nature while representing the AmeriCorps*VISTA program. There have been quite a few times this year that I would have loved to dive into some more controversial topics, but my desire for continued employment overrode those blog posts.

But now my VISTA ties are broken and this blog is about to take a more personal turn. I'd like to now use this blog as space to explore what it means to be a social justice-minded 20-something in America today, particularly in relation to politics, employment, and education.

So if you were reading this blog exclusively because of my VISTA-ship, consider this fair warning of this blog's impending overhaul. I hope you'll stay with me as I emerge into a new phase of my life.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Good night and good luck

That was kind of the theme of the day as I said my good-byes at Shared Harvest today. In the morning I finished my part of the VISTA binder, cleaned up my desk area, and packed up my personal supplies. Then Tina treated me and a few others to lunch at Taste of Julia's in Fairfield for the best soul food EVER. And when we returned, Martha had a tasty cake from Jungle Jim's, pictured above.

Throughout the day, especially during lunch, I had the opportunity to talk about some of my most memorable experiences, both good and bad. It was fun to reminisce about adventures with Alex and Gus the Bus, as well as the misadventures in OBB site recruitment. At the end of the day, when I tally up everything that I've seen and done, I'd say this was a pretty fulfilling year. So maybe that's why I was surprised to hear everyone thanking me today for my year of service. They were the ones who made this year so wonderful and to whom I owe thanks.

To all of the employees at Shared Harvest, thank you so much for making this year so special. To quote a beautiful farewell letter I received from Tina, "this year of service will become one of those memories that you can take out every now and then, dust off, shine up, and smile about." I am confident that it will.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Class dismissed

Today marks my last OBB training before my end of service. I'm only in Dayton, but because we moved further south into Cincinnati it took me about 40 minutes longer than usual to get through traffic to the training site this morning.

And for some reason, I have the most detail-oriented group today--and that's NOT a good thing. They are picking through every little thing about each benefit, each hyperlink, each element of the OBB. But instead of providing clarity, they are getting overwhelmed and confused. And when I try to reassure them "This isn't important information" or "You don't need to be an expert on benefits to use the OBB" they just don't believe me! So needless to say, it's taking a while to get through all of their questions and fretful glances.

Oh, and the internet at this computer lab is on the fritz and blanks out for no apparent reason every 20 minutes.

AND this lab is a million degrees.

I guess what I am saying is, this is a good training to go out on. I was afraid I would get nostalgic and sentimental today, but this training has been so exhausting that it is almost a relief this is my last one.

Still, I am glad to have gained more public speaking and teaching experience as an OBB Community Trainer this year. Since June of 2009, I have taught 154 counselors how to use the Ohio Benefit Bank; some on taxes, some on benefits, and some on both! Every counselor has been different, with their own personalities (some friendly, some grumpy) and set of skills (some weak and some strong), and it has been challenging to find a style that works for everyone. I am proud of the work I have done, though, especially in training good, quality, counselors to help our community members access much needed public benefits and free tax assistance. At least, that was the goal!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cincinnatian in Federal Service

As I prepare to end my year of service, I can't help but reflect on what this year was all about.

One year ago I was sitting in a ballroom in an Indianapolis hotel learning about what it means to be an AmeriCorps*VISTA member. While the details of the VISTA health plan were still a little foggy, our mission for the year was perfectly clear: to alleviate the effects of poverty. Sure it was a daunting task, and I wasn't exactly sure how I would go about doing it, but at least the purpose of my position was clear. As the year progressed, though, I realized that the goal of the AmeriCorps*VISTA program was a little too big for just one person in just one year. We VISTAs do the best we can with the time we have, but at the end of the day we know that we aren't going to win the "war on poverty" in 365 days. Poverty is a bigger issue than just signing up a couple for food stamps or collecting canned goods at Christmas. To really end poverty, we'd have to make major changes to the way this country operates, including job/wage reform for starters.

That isn't to say that the work of AmeriCorps*VISTA members isn't important. Through our indirect service, we make a difference in the lives of thousands of people in our community every day. By signing up the senior citizen couple for food stamps, they are able to afford their medications. And those canned goods we collected during the holidays? They are feeding the family of 3 who has fallen behind on their bills and needs a little extra help.

Perhaps the biggest revelation I have had since beginning this year of service is that the mission to alleviate poverty doesn't end on my last day of service. I have kind of had this countdown going over the past few weeks (or months, let's be honest) to my last day in service. Yes, Saturday, June 19th will mark the end of my piddly service stipend, limited health benefit, and travel reimbursements. It will also mark the first day I can accept and use my education award and seek permanent employment. And most importantly it is another day in the fight against poverty. I realize that VISTA is more than a year of service; it is a lifelong commitment to care about our country's social issues and to do something about it, stipend or not.

Which is why I find this picture we snapped at the Cincinnati Museum Center especially pertinent:

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Celebrate good times

As you know, the Kits for Kids Campaign is wrapping up, but the funds are still coming in. On Thursday the Rotary Club of Fairfield approved an additional $200 donation on top of their original $300, and on Friday the Hamilton Rotary Club confirmed a $3,000 grant. To date, we have raised $45,139, the most in BCSSC history.

As proud as I am of the successes of this campaign, I can't help feeling a little disappointed for a couple of reasons. First, we only raised 48% of our goal. When I think about the thousands of kids who won't be served by us next year, it stings a little. I feel like I could have and should have done better.

Second, I didn't always have the support of the Butler County School Supply Coalition. Sure, they had kind words to say when I sent them e-mail updates, but they didn't make this campaign a priority. I asked them to complete tasks and instead they gave excuses. We were supposed to have our final meeting yesterday to discuss the project's end, and all but one member canceled at the last minute. Despite scheduling this meeting over a month ago, the members did not make time for it, and we had to reschedule. Again.

In this way, the work of an AmeriCorps*VISTA member can seem pretty thankless. Overall, though, my year in AmeriCorps has been a tremendous experience, and I imagine I'll start to get pretty nostalgic over the next week. That is, if I haven't already! Last week Alex and I attended a Year in Review reception for our VISTA friend Jessica Reading at Miami University Hamilton campus. She discussed her goals and accomplishments of the year, as well as some of the disappointments, and it made me realize once again the solidarity of us VISTAs. It isn't a walk in the park to be a VISTA. But I guess that's not why we signed up for this gig.

Getting things done for America: Kaitlyn, Alex, and Jessica

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Winding down

It's a time of transition at Shared Harvest. I have less than two weeks until my service as an AmeriCorps*VISTA member ends and the new VISTA's term begins. Alex and I have been working on a binder that we will pass on to her, which contains all of our secret tips for success. Well they aren't really secret, but it's certainly going to be helpful as she dives into all of our projects.

Today I will be preparing the Butler County School Supply Coalition section of the binder. Looking back a year ago, I had no idea what this project was even about. I thought I would sit in on meetings and listen as everyone else chugged along in their fund-raising efforts for the Kits for Kids Campaign. Little did I know that I would take the lead on the project and do the bulk of the work. I remember how overwhelming and confusing it was to get started; it would have been nice to have a binder handed down to me, so I am trying to make my sections as thorough as possible for my replacement.

Speaking of doing the bulk of the work, a few more granters have come back with decisions on funding. The Hamilton Community Foundation Youth Philanthropy Committee approved a $2,500 donation, and the West Chester Community Foundation approved a $5,000 donation! Van Buren PTO and Linden PTO in Hamilton are making contributions, as well. Rotary Club of Fairfield is considering making another donation, while also appealing to their Hamilton and West Chester counterparts to do the same. At this point in time, we are up to....$41,939 in funds. That will buy school supplies for at least 7,625 kids around Butler County, and in case you are wondering, the Coalition managed to purchase a total of 5,114 kits last year. That's a 49% increase from 2009.

We still have a few more grants out there, and I hope I am still here when the final numbers come in. Likewise, the JournalNews is considering doing a story on this project to launch our individual donor campaign, and I'd like to be here for that, as well. Ordering and distribution will happen after I leave, but I hope to prepare the group for those steps at our final meeting this Friday.

As ready as I am to end my AmeriCorps term, it's hard to just hand this project over to someone else to finish. I have put so much work and time into the campaign, and I am nervous about how it will transition. I don't want to drop the ball and jeopardize any funders for next year! And on a more personal level, I guess I'm just not quite ready to let go.