City Year - The Corps Arrives

City Year - The Corps Arrives

In September of 2009, over 200 Corps Members arrived in New York City to begin their year of service. Over the next five weeks, these young adults will come to better understand themselves, each other, and the potential they offer their communities as they transform from a group of strangers into the 2010 City Year New York Corps. This is their story.

The First Day

Eight o'clock in the morning and they begin to arrive.

They set their bags down on the benches outside of the Abrons Art Center and wait for eight thirty to catch up to their excitement. Some grab breakfast at the diner down the block while others review their notes for the day. A few of them just chat it up with each other about their weekend or what they're doing outside of work, yet somehow the conversations always come back to the day that will officially begin in just a few minutes.

The City Year Senior Corps has been training in New York City since the beginning of July for this day and the ten months following it, but for many of them today is the most important.

Today is the day that the last part of the family comes home: the 200-plus Corps Members that they will lead in a year of service in twenty of NYC's public schools. Today is the first opportunity to set the tone and expectations for a year that will bring struggles and hardship hand-in-hand with success and greatness. Today is when the bar will be set. All of the Senior Corps are, for the most part, completely new to the position. They have very little to fall back on besides their training, their individual skills and intuition, and the bond that they have formed with one another over the past two months.

The question hangs in the air amongst them all, unspoken but nearly visible in its presence:

   Can we do this?

One of the tenants of City Year culture is that we must look back seven generations to see the path that has brought us to where we are and in turn we must look seven generations ahead of ourselves and guide our actions accordingly, for one day someone will be looking back on their own path and will see our decisions. City Year has been in New York since 2003. Along the way we've gone from a Corps of 50 to 234 commited individuals, dedicated to the idealism and positive social achievement.

Good Morning, City Year!

Many people have worked many long hours to bring us to where we are on September 1st, 2009, and this thought encourages the Senior Corps as they end their first meeting at eight forty-five, breaking to prep for the day ahead.

Other people begin to arrive, the new Corps Members, some in groups and some alone. They are easy to distinguish from the Senior Corps as they have not received their uniforms yet, but even at this moment everyone there shares one thing: no one knows exactly what's about to happen.

The Senior Corps take positions in the theater. The doors open, and the family pours in. It could be a logistical nightmare but no one lets that happen. Instead, the Senior Corps gets right to work, organizing teams and getting to know the fresh ten faces that they will leading for the next week of training. 

It's a little chaotic as any group of this size can be, but then something happens - a Staff member walks on to the stage and holds one hand high in the air. The Senior Corps follow suit, raising their hands and ceasing their conversations...and one by one the Corps Members do the same.

Quiet falls over the room as the Staff member lowers their hand and greets them: "Good morning, City Year!" Then, in a united voice that is louder and more thrilling than any many of them have ever heard, the response follows:

"Good morning, New York!"

"How you feeling?"

"FIRED UP!"

And it starts.

Going camping!

09/21/09 - The month of training the 2010 Corps for City Year New York is off to a great start! We are currently three weeks into training and two weeks away from our Opening Day Ceremony and the beginning of our service in the schools of NYC. What better way to celebrate the mid-point than a camping trip!

240 Corps Members and staff are traveling to our Basic Training Retreat tomorrow for three days of team-building, sharing, and cohesion. It will be an opportunity to get to know one another and develop a better understanding of our diverse backgrounds and ideals. By Friday, the Corps will be stronger and our work throughout this year will seem more attainable than ever. In addition, there will be bugs. Lots of them.

Just a brief update on the Corps itself: they're fantastic. Our accomplished and passionate Team Leaders have been placed with a diverse group of individuals ranging in ages and backgrounds but united in their aptitude and their goals. This Corps is striving for excellence with no signs of their enthusiasm slowing. This is promising to be a remarkable year for both New York City and City Year, and we are very excited to be a part of it.

BTR Part 1

 Woo! Back in NYC! The City Year New York village has returned from three days at Camp Vacamas in NJ. It was an enlightening (and exhausting) experience for all involved. Over the next few days, we'll be posting pictures and stories from the event for you to read. 

A basic rundown: Basic Training Retreat is our opportunity to take the Corps out of New York City, away from our work, to a place where we can focus on the individuals in the Corps. We shared our interests, our fears, all of the feelings we take with us into our daily lives but often keep guarded. We found the experiences that we shared and issues that divided us, but above all we discovered a cohesiveness that is setting us up for success in our year of work in NYC. We hope you'll come back to take a more in depth look at our Basic Training Retreat over the next few days!

It's been a while...

 Hello all! So, it's been a while, but I'm back to give you an update on our service in PS 206/112 in Harlem. We hit the ground running at the beginning of this month. In three weeks we have begun four programs:

Bringing Books to Life - in this program we explore and read-aloud stories that teach lessons and values of different cultures to over 17 classes at PS 206/112.

Great Leaps - a one-on-one tutoring program that currently reaches 33 students at our school.

Shared Reading - literacy tutoring for the classroom, this one focused in PS 112.

City Year After School - here's the big one! 60 students in all join us in the afternoon for homework help, clubs, and soon...

Starfish! Yep, our Starfish Corps will begin next week and we are super excited to get started. We have an excellent team at a fantastic school. It looks to be a very powerful year of service at 206/112.

 

Well, that went well.

 So not every endeavor gets off to the best start. While City Year service at PS 206/112 has, generally speaking, been excellent. The kids are excited, the school is excited, and the team? Oh yeah, we're excited. 

But, not every day is smooth sailing. We're in our second year at our school and I'm a first-year Team Leader, so implementing our service and achieving some consistency has been a long process. Our After School program, usually the favorite part of my day, was a real struggle today. 

However, the bad days make you appreciate the good and tomorrow is only a few hours away... so I have to go to bed now to wake up for it.

The Challenge of the Year

 To preface this post, let me say that last week two of the ten team members at PS 206/112 left our organization. Though their reasons for leaving were personal and outside of City Year, it has made me think about the program we are running and the toll it takes on the individual. I'll share with you a little of this by focusing on myself.

This program is not for everyone. That is made clear to us from the very beginning, actually, to prepare us and also to bolster us - I believe that I am not alone in wanting to do things even more when I believe that those things are difficult and not always achievable. However, it was not until I gained the perspective of the day to day work of City Year that I understood how real the difficulty of retention could be.

A normal day begins at 7:45. We go into morning greetings for two schools, come back to talk as a team and then we're off to the races. Bringing Books to Life, Shared Reading, Great Leaps, all programs that run every day in addition to lunch support, dismissal support, and the beast that is City Year After School. That is what my team does every day. My day usually includes gauntlets of meetings, check-ins, and paperwork. Both schedules are taxing, and on the earliest of days we leave at 6:00. Most night we finish at 8:00.

Then back to do it the next day - and boy is that next day beginning to get hard. It's difficult to think about the work you are doing every day, the impact it is having, because the short term benefits of our work are small - a smile, an acknowledgement, the look of understanding when a child learns a new concept. It's hard to look ahead and know that every small step from here to June is one that will take us miles. Those steps are tough.

That's why this program isn't for everyone: ability to see perspective. I can't see it every day, but I don't have a choice - being a Team Leader, quitting isn't an option and anyway it's not one that I want. What I do like, though, are the moments of respite when my team takes over an issue and solves it without my having to say a word. I love moments when I can see the wheels turning without me, because it means I've done my job to put those wheels together. 

By the end of the year I'll know I've done my part if I can leave this organization having made it stronger, but most importantly, without it having any trouble continuing without me.

Post-Turkey Day Blues

One of the unforseen consequences of coming home for the holidays is the harsh reality that on Monday morning I have to fly back to NY and jump back in the trenches. Before leaving to begin City Year all the way back in July, I was looking forward to moving to NY with a passion. Over the course of a year I had been planning for this move, dreaming and stressing and waiting for it. I built up in my imagination the ideal city that none, even the Big Apple, could live up to.

Then I arrived and was forced to come to terms with the fact that New York was just...a city. I have yet to experience the magic moment when the energy and pace of the place clicks with my inner psyche and I feel right at home. It just hasn't happened, nor do I expect it to. Does this mean New York is bad? Absolutely not. New York City is amazing. The variety of cultures, opportunities, and experiences is stunning. However, even excellent cities are still simply a collection of large buildings and tons of people, and not every corner is particuliarly welcome.

I suppose that my ten years in theatre have made it very hard to be blinded by big city lights anymore. Perhaps my wandering nature is just aching for a change of scenery. It's good to be able to return to something that feels just right: my family, my friends, and the few hangouts that are still holding on in poor old High Point.

This reluctance to return to my job with City Year is part of the reason I wanted to start this blog. There are many topics we go over during training, including the difficulty of completing the year. However, from my perspective, there were very few specifics brought up as to why the year would be difficult. Returning home with the expectation of having to leave again is one of them. While I know that this problem is not exclusive to our program, I do feel like this is something that should be shared.

Thoughts? Please respond if so. I look forward to what you have to share. Thanks for reading.

Commitment

One should always remember the ramifications of their word.

This has been the thought taking up most of my spare mental powers today. For me, taking on a commitment is a rather huge responsibility. It says that I hold myself accountable to my honor. If I accept a job, I in turn accept all that comes with that job, the good with the bad. I also acknowledge that yes, sometimes there will be incredibly rough days. There will be moments where the prospect of letting that obligation go will seem to be a very tempting idea.

Something has to anchor you for this temptation to pass. From the beginning of this year, we have been repeatedly reminded that this service is less about us and more about the people we work with. To put that into personal perspective, that means that my time here is not about my 70 hour work weeks and the skills I pick up from them, but about how in those 70 hours I impact the lives of over 300 students at my two schools.

To me, that's quite a commitment. It both makes the responsibility of doing this job more daunting, but at the same time makes the time feel more manageable because, frankly, I have very little excuse to leave. Do I miss home? You betcha, more than I expected. Do I love being in NYC? Not at all. But those complaints seem superfluous when stacked against the fact that if I don't do this job, if I don't give this time to the improvement of this school and this program, then who will?

City Year Versus Rain, Round 1

This past Saturday, December 5th, marked one of our first major events of the year: E.A.S.T. Harlem, a Financial Planning and Career Festival. The highlights of the event included panel discussions and workshops with local organization, a day of fun kid's programming, and the opportunity for the Harlem community to learn about the important resources available for them to take advantage of. A month and a half of preperation went into the event, and from an on-the-floor perspective it went off quite well.

Except for the weather. 30 degrees and snow mixed with rain, all day long.

Sigh. No matter! The City Year mentality held fast and strong, and our awesome External Affairs team would not be detered by the chance of catching pneumonia. Tirelessly walking the streets, the brave members of Ex Affairs still managed to pull in a respectable crowd for the event. In reflection, while the day may have been a disapointment in terms of turn-out, the planning and orchestration of the event was a great success due to the hard work of the Harlem corps. Let's hope the next one has better luck with Mother Nature.

Potential

 In a week or so, I'm going home to NC for the holidays. I've never been more excited for a break than I am now. My girlfriend is coming down, my best friends will be home, and I'll have ten days of limited responsibility. I can't wait!

This trouble me, though. Coming home from the Thanksgiving break was very tough. Being away from home has made me appreciate it so much more. I'm also finally starting to realize why retention is so difficult for City Year - the difficulty of this job cannot be understated. So, if a four day break was difficult to let go of, how on Earth am I going to spring back from a week and a half?

So, I'm hunkering down over this week to focus on our team potential. We only have 94 actual days of service in the school remaining. That seems like so little now and I have a feeling that June is going to rush up to meet me as soon as January starts. My greatest fear is that I'm going to look back in June to discover far too many missed opportunities and promises of 'I'll get to that when I can.' I don't want to feel like a moment of this semester is wasted when it's all said and done. 

What do we want to accomplish before this year is over? What do we have left to do? What legacy do we want the team starting ten months from now to inherit? What is our team potential and how can we meet it? Those are the thoughts that are going to get me back into my red's on January 4th. Those are the reasons I'm going to come back swinging. 

94 days. Gotta make them count.

Pics from Movie Night

 Here's a couple of photos from our awesome movie night last month! Many thanks to Fine Fare and the PTA of PS 206/112!

One of those days...

It's not every day I have to fight children tooth and nail to convince them to stay in a program that, to be honest, I don't think they should be in.

To preface, we have certain rules and expectations that we establish with our afterschool students prior to the program beginning. Some of the most important rules are no fighting, no disrespect, and participation. One of our students has, at least once a week, broken one or more of these rules. The very first week, he hit someone... and I let it go. We had a serious conversation, I reached out to his parents, and we moved on. When it happened again, I had a sterner conversation and yet again reached out unsuccessfully to his parents, but once again we moved on. Again and again, this pattern repeated - until today.

After spending twenty minutes convincing this student to do their homework, he yelled at another student and nearly kicked him. It was at this point that I took him out of the program for a long conversation about his behavior and his continued participation in our afterschool program.

Never have I been more frustrated in a conversation with a student than I was today. To be honest, I don't know that this student should be in our progam. He is very smart but very disruptive, often taking the majority of our attention away from the other 15 students in his team. I now worry that he is a danger to other students and someone who we may just not be able to work with.

But when I spoke with him about his commitment, his responses ran the gamut of 'I don't care,' to 'this is boring anyway, I hate City Year.' When asked what he would do instead, he didn't know. When I asked him where he would be if he didn't complete his homework and go on to do well in school, he said 'hanging on the street, collecting tips, having fun.' So now I have to try to convince him that it's in his best interests to stay in our program, even though I don't think it's in the groups best interests to keep him.

What do I do with this? How do you teach someone who so obviously needs the help and support but is so determined not to accept it? What needs do I sacrifice to support this one student when I have 60 others in the same program who need the help, and 20 others outside the program that desperately want to be in it?

I am at a loss. Luckily, the decision is not entirely up to me and I can trust the school's faculty to provide their perspective and advice. It comes at a much needed time.

It always feels like failure in the middle.

I remember loving this job. When I started the summer with the Senior Corps training, I was constantly inspired by this incredibly capable group. There's not a member of the Senior Corps that I don't respect and care deeply about. They are truly the cream of the crop. However, as I've been working in our school for the past two months, I've felt the energy and enthusiasm I started this year with slip away.

The root of my sadness comes from the seemingly constant internal struggles of my team. There seems to be no middle ground in terms of mentality - it's either positive or negative, optimistic or cynical. My own fault in this is that I allow the bad attitudes of the few to affect my mood and my interactions with the team as a whole.

How do I fix this? Why do I keep letting our successes be overshadowed by the small frustrations of the day? Why, above all, am I dealing with more internal issues than the challenges of the school? I feel like my time is being wasted trying to coach and lead those who push back against being led. While I know that I have to try different approaches and strategies for different individuals, I feel like very little is being done by those same people to meet my own style.

To sum up: why do I feel like the Boss from The Office? Why do I not like this job anymore? I need some inspiration, badly, otherwise I'm going to be horrible at this and six more months will be unbearable. I know that I am a good Team Leader. For those that already follow me, I'm very grateful and honored for their trust. How do I become an effective Team Leader for those who don't trust me yet? How do I get back to loving what I do?

Snow Day!

Hello! It's been a while since I've posted. A quick recap of the month of January. After returning from an all too short vacation, our team reconvened on January 4th to start the year off strong. Many of the troubling issues that we faced in December - low morale, lack of focus, and frequent absences - have been improved upon significantly. I must thank my team for their renewed effort to be positive and idealistic as we continue our service at PS 112/206 through June - only 128 days to go!

So, being from NC, we don't often get snow, but when we do EVERYTHING shuts down. NYC is another story. There are waves of people on deck to clear the streets at the slightest suggestion of snow. There is even a phone line you can call to get a temp job shoveling off sidewalks! This amazes me. However, yesterday, apparently NYC stared in the face of an oncoming blizzard and blinked. As of noon yesterday, schools were closed for today, leading to a general euphoria amongst students and teachers alike.

However, other places remained open, including the Food Pantry that City Year Harlem sends volunteers to every week. So, at 2:00 I put on my winter gear and trudged out to the Food Pantry, certain that a blizzard would not keep the Pantry from being open, and open it was! Together with my excellent partner Luis, we manned the store room from 3:00 to 4:00... and not a soul dropped by to get their groceries. Sigh.

Enjoy your snow day, everyone!