Fighting Poverty with Passion
Question: how does one survive two weeks of little sleep?
Answer: I am addicted to coffee.
I know tea is better for you, but I just cannot stand the taste of tea. These last few weeks, however, did prove to be excellent research to this question. New Orleans Outreach was the proud host to multiple Spring Break volunteer groups at our various schools. These volunteers came from all over the country, some even local.
One of my roles as a VISTA is to coordinate special projects, such as these volunteer groups, in our seven partner school sites. I knew a few weeks in spring would be filled with these wonderful groups, I just did not realize how many groups Outreach would be able to host.
As a VISTA, I was very excited to be able to have a responsibility this great. I know how important the volunteer groups are to New Orleans Outreach. I did not want to let these volunteer groups or New Orleans Outreach down. I also did not realize how quickly the spring break volunteer weeks would arrive.
With Mardi Gras being late this year, having the groups arrive less than a week after Mardi Gras day proved to be an obstacle that I could not let hinder the execution of the projects. This meant little sleep for me after Mardi Gras, which for most New Orleanians is a time to hibernate and maybe not come out until the first day of Spring. As much as I tried to have every detail hashed out with each group prior to Mardi Gras, I was unable to achieve this goal. This meant a few late nights in coffee shops trying to work everything out, as most schools were on break during the whole Mardi Gras week.
With most volunteer projects, I try to think of every last detail; however, I have learned during this year that I can truly rely on my Outreach and school teams to help me plan the projects to allow the volunteers to have a great time and the schools to have a wonderful project. I have also learned to keep my cell phone on me at all times and to never let the volunteers see you sweat! And when all else fails, think of the reason this project is being done: for the children at the school.
The first week of volunteers arriving came quick. Even if everything did not appear to be all ready, it was game time. I even met with one of my volunteer groups on the Saturday before they were to serve in the schools to welcome them to the city and go over last minute details. The difference between these volunteer groups and many of the other ones I have worked with was that they were going to be volunteering during the day when the children were still in school, some even volunteering directly with the children. This did require more coordination with the schools, as to ensure the volunteers were a positive addition to the school and did not distract the children from learning. In Spring, the students are required to take standardized testing that determines how well the school is functioning; in some grades, the test is considered “high stakes” and determines if the student will get to move on to the next grade level. As you can imagine, this time of year in the school is stressful not only to the students, but the entire school. What this meant for me, was even more attention to detail, including needing approval from members of schools that I had not previously worked with.
Now it was show time. The volunteers were here. Unlike other volunteer times, many of the groups were coming more than one day. This meant if they did not have a positive experience, they may come back with a bad attitude or may not even come back. Jumping to the end of the story, neither of those negative outcomes happened; phew! Another negative notion that I had to personally overcome was not worrying so much and enjoying all the positive energy the volunteers brought to this school. By the middle of the first day of the volunteers, I was able to do this (as well as for the rest of my time with volunteers).
I cannot say everything went completely smooth. But in my opinion, nothing interesting in life is a “piece of cake.” I was so happy to get to lead a project where volunteers were able to interact with students. I think getting to know the students allowed the volunteers to see their direct impact.
The group I was able to get to know the most was a group from Tufts University. Although they were my last group of volunteers (which meant when they left, I could sleep) I was very sad to see them go. When I was in college, I participated in two alternative breaks. I enjoyed getting to work with such engaged students and excited to hear that many of them were truly interested in entering the education system (and coming back to New Orleans). One phase of the high stakes testing took place during the week this group was here. Instead of giving up on this group being able to volunteer with Langston Hughes Academy, I was able to work with the school and the volunteer group to set up the volunteers to work with the lower grade school and even donate and work on adding to our new Kindergarten Play Area.
All in all, I had a positive experience with these volunteer groups. My biggest lesson learned, was that when I can sleep, do! Also though, you need to enjoy what you are doing and take a little “me time.”
-Elizabeth “Betsy” Lopez, AmeriCorps VISTA Visit New Orleans Outreach, to learn more about the Outreach program and volunteer opportunities in your area.