Navigating your service year in AmeriCorps is challenging in a number of ways, and one of the greatest ironies of it is that by the time you really begin to get the hang of it, you’re already on your way out! You pick up all these little tricks along the way and even shortcuts and you think, “Agh! I just wish I knew this all along!” Looking back on my past year of service, I’ve thought about all of those things and compiled a list of “10 Bits of Advice I Wish I Knew Starting out as an AmeriCorps*VISTA at Serve Rhode Island” in the hopes that for all of you future Providence AmeriCorps members, you might be able to benefit!
1. Apply for SNAP ASAP
SNAP is a Food and Nutrition Service that can stand to help ease the financial burden of AmeriCorps members. The program basically functions as a monthly allowance for people to spend money on food, similar to what is known as “Food Stamps”. Regardless of your living circumstances while in service, every AmeriCorps member qualifies. Your stipend counts towards income on your taxes, but the SNAP offices typically don’t count it as an actual form of income, which means that all AmeriCorps members are eligible for the maximum amount of benefit. Maybe most of your stipend goes to your rent or maybe you lucked out and it doesn’t. If you feel that you need the some odd $200 dollars a month that you can receive in food, then you ought to take advantage of this as soon as you enter service and use it for your entire year. For me, I didn’t think that I would qualify so I didn’t bother even applying until almost halfway through my term. As it turns out, I definitely did qualify. Things to consider: the excess rolls over and you get special incentives and perks if you shop at local Farmer’s Markets (in that $1.00 at a Farmer’s Market is basically worth $1.40 or some similar rate).
2. Practical construction experience can go a long way
Particularly at Serve Rhode Island, we help manage many different physical service projects. We were down in Misquamicut after Hurricane Sandy struck, helping to clear out homes and yards of debris. I’ve worked on other projects where we’ve had to paint hallways or clean up Roger Williams Park and others where there’s planting and/or weeding involved. I’ve been genuinely surprised how handy my past experiences in construction have been. My father owned a construction company in the early 1990′s, and I’ve been on a Habitat for Humanity mission trip in college, so these experiences have certainly come in very handy. Most AmeriCorps sites participate in projects like these once a year, so whether you’re at Serve Rhode Island or somewhere else, knowing how to use a hammer might just come in handy!
3. Keep track of acquired skills and projects you’ve completed
On my third day of service I helped manage a group of volunteers down in Newport. To me, it was mostly just taking pictures and helping them weed invasive plant species. It took me several months before I realized that it constituted Volunteer Management, which is a skill that can certainly stand to boost a resume. Along the way in your service term, there are a lot of little projects that you’ll work on. It’s important to always be thinking about how to frame the experience and clearly identify the skills you’ve gained. Particularly fields like Development, Management, and Advertising can stand to be very broad terms that encompass a lot of what I’ve wound up doing this year.
4. Actively pursue your interests and desired experiences
Placements like mine as an SRI VISTA allow a lot of room for personal growth. It’s important to be vocal with your site supervisor about the kinds of experiences you want to take away from your service term. Many things need to be done to keep a nonprofit functioning. Grant Writing, Bookkeeping, Managing Volunteers, and many other skills are ripe for the acquiring. If you don’t directly gain these experiences, try speaking up as often as possible about what you’d like to try doing.
5. Identify and frequently visit your zen garden / take time to RELAX
Life can get stressful! Know the best ways for you to unwind. When it’s nice out, I like to go kayaking. One most days, I desperately just need to stay active and go for a run or go to the gym. Know your happy place so that when you need to go there, you can. Don’t absorb yourself in time-wasting hobbies unless it’s something that you truly love!
6. Try your best to eat well, exercise often, and stay healthy
It takes as little as 30 minutes of exercise a day to stay very healthy, and that’s just being mildly active! If you want to stay frugal, just snag some running shoes and run outside. When it gets too cold, I have some free weights that I dabble with indoors and also a pull up bar that’s attached to a doorway in my home. These are some easy, cheap investments that can last a long time. And shop around for gym memberships; some can be very expensive and others can be as little as $10 a month! When it comes to eating, try and buy fresh and local (see #1), especially at Farmer’s Markets where your SNAP can go a long way. And if you do go out to eat, do it in a fiscally responsible way! (see #7). You’d be amazed at how much impact a healthy lifestyle can have on your happiness. Do you best to sleep enough too!
7. Find frugal forms of entertainment
There are SO many great websites out there that are just aching for you to save money by spending more of it at the same time. Ebates.com allows you to get a few % cash back on basically ANY website you buy from. Websites like LivingSocial, Groupon, and Restaurant.com are the ultimate when it comes to getting discounted tickets on activities and restaurants. Between these, and many more deals and discounts out there, the internet can be your best friend. There are also a lot of free/cheap forms of entertainment in the form of WBRU’s Free Summer Concert Series or various art galleries or museums around Providence and the rest of Rhode Island. And don’t forget that most theaters offer discounted movies on Tuesdays!
8. Be outgoing
Many of your fellow AmeriCorps members are living in Providence with perhaps only a few prior contacts. Try and meet as many people as you can! Volunteer for different things and connect with your fellow Corps members and the service community at large. You can make lifelong friends or at least some great references or business connections.
9. Start thinking about what you want to do next year as soon as possible
One year can go by VERY quickly. In some cases you will need to have your next year plans sorted out by around December, particularly if you are interested in something like undergraduate or graduate school. You’ll need letters of recommendations scholarship applications, and you’ll definitely have some tight deadlines to meet. Set aside a half hour or so each week to research or soul search on what the future might hold for you.
10. Have fun!
Don’t forget that your year of service is about personal growth and bettering your community. Enjoy it!