Service Projects, part 2: Everything you always wanted to know about Service Projects, but were afraid to ask

One phrase you’re likely to hear a lot about as an Americorps member is the term “service project.”

Service projects are just what they sound like – projects, activities or events with a service-based focus (helping others). What exactly satisfies a service project requirement, though, seems to vary from one organization to the next. In some cases, it’s as simple as a group project where everyone works together as a team to complete a single, one-shot activity. For others, though, such as where I’m serving, members have to complete multiple and multi-part individual/site service projects either on their own or with a small sub-team (in our case, each site assignment has two service projects a year to be completed by the team members who serve at that site). There are also “day of service” type projects, which are activities you do as a group that are part of larger service-oriented events or activities, such as picking up trash on Make A Difference Day or helping the Red Cross run a blood drive. This is the sort of service project we are doing Tuesday.

All Americorps members do at least one team-based service or individual/site project, as well as participating in several “days of service” type activities, throughout their service year. These are not optional. All service projects must be completed successfully in order to maintain your active and requirement-compliant service status (it’s what keeps those stipend checks coming and makes sure you get your ed award at the end of it all).

Here’s the thing – for “days of service” projects like Make a Difference Day and Martin Luther King Jr events, you’ll just be told where and when to show up and what to do. But for the big, key central service project(s), successful completion of which is the glue that holds your Americorps benefits package together, it’s all on you. Either on your own, with your sub-team or as a group, you will have to brainstorm ideas, decide on one, research it, create a proposal and then carry out the project and no one will be on your butt to make sure that you do.

Yes, you can “fail out of” Americorps. Happens all the time. And it isn’t pretty when it does.

And in every team there’s almost always someone (or the whole team, if it’s a group project) who puts it off until the last minute (usually because they’ve simply forgotten, or through that lovely process of “If I don’t think about it, it’ll either go away or miraculously materialize on its own” denial) and then they’re stuck doing a high-stress, rushed-through crap-ass project under a massively tight deadline in order to graduate and get their benefits.

Don’t let this happen to you. Avoid the agony of humiliating self-defeat by taking the following steps:

  • Pay attention during orientation to what will be expected of you re: the service project (it seems to be different everywhere). Make sure you understand all of the requirements, any deadlines and any required expectations/metrics/goals that may be embedded in the requirements.
  • Ask about what previous team members have done to get some ideas, or go to the library to find books on service projects from any number of different sources (the Make A Difference Day projects that are completed around the world are always a great source of inspiring ideas – check their website for ideas).
  • Consult early and often with your supervisor to make sure you’re progressing on a timeline that bodes well for a successful and timely completion.
  • And whatever you do, for dog’s sake, DON’T PUT IT OFF UNTIL YOUR LAST MONTH HOPING IT WILL SOMEHOW WORK ITSELF OUT! It won’t. But it will leave you in a bind so tight you’ll have to buy smaller underpants to cover what’s left of your ass.

Just for the sake of edification, here are a few examples of service projects I’ve worked on (or heard of):

During my year of service for Habitat for Humanity, way back when, we did one service project as a group. It took us a while to settle on what to do (what do you expect from a dozen or so fractious do-gooders who spent entirely too much time together for their own good?), but eventually we realized that there was a horrible hill o’crap dump spot behind the cul-de-sac where we were putting in 4 houses. So we set a date and did a trash clean up so that the future homeowners and their families would have a safe, clean and positive environment in which to live and play.

This year, for our homework club, Sarah (who is the titular “Enrichment Specialist” to my “Volunteer Coordinator”) has to design and complete two 6-part projects for our students to do that include a pre-test, a learning component, a service component (actually getting out and doing something) and a post-test. Although she is primarily responsible, we both work together on it.

Initially, she created a survey for the students to see what issues they were concerned with and from that she decided to do the first project on “Children and Poverty” with three parts – Nutrition and Poverty, Hunger, and Homelessness. Then she designed a pre-test to baseline the students’ knowledge of the issues and created several activities that would provide hands-on learning in these subjects. She wrote up a proposal, got it approved and we are now in the process of working through it. We only have the service component left to go in the first one (we planned a visit to a local women and children’s homeless shelter), but have hit a snag in that our only source of kid transportation has fallen through until sometime next year (gah!). So we are having to re-configure that part on the fly (maybe doing remote assembling of care packages or creating holiday cards for homeless kids) in order to complete the service project in time and as required.

I’ve also heard of teams creating a local-resources “Yellow Pages” book, holding food or resources drives for charities, helping out at a shelter or food pantry, doing trail, river or highway cleanups and so on. It’s amazing how creative some of these teams have been.

Service projects can be as ambitious, fun and inspiring – or, conversely, as lame, boring and crappy – as you want them to be. It all depends on you.

Look at it this way: You’ve got to do one. It’s a given. You might as well make it ambitious, fun and inspiring. Take the time to do so. Start getting ideas early. Bounce those ideas off of your supervisor to make sure they work within the organization’s required goals and metrics before you put a lot of energy into research and planning. Plan well and plan early. Give yourself plenty of time and flexibility to complete the project, even if you run into roadblocks (like we did). Don’t get discouraged if it seems harder than you thought it would be – that’s kind of the point, to challenge and stretch you. (Hey, it’s Americorps, not daycare. You want easy, you’re in the wrong club, bub.)

But most of all, enjoy it! Given its government-grant-based existence, Americorps has some touchy rules about activism and stuff. But through the venue of a service project, you can address the ills of the world and make a real difference in areas that matter to you (as long as they can somehow be linked to supporting your sponsor org’s goals and mission – and you are serving with an org that supports your values, aren’t you?). Find something that speaks to your passions and wale on that sucker for all it’s worth! Save the world! Save the children! Save the whales! (Well, maybe not ‘save the whales,’ unless you serve with a marine biology group – but hey, it could happen!)

What I’m saying is this: It’s a sad fact of modern life that a lot of people who want to make a difference in the world simply can’t afford to do so, either in terms of time or money or both. However, through Americorps, you not only get the chance to make a little difference every day, but you’re required to do so and reimbursed for doing it. And, at least once during your service and maybe more often, you also get the chance to make a big difference, all on your own and to your own credit, with all the backing of a Federal grant and an entire organization’s worth of support and resources.

All you have to do is show up.

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