Holly Daniels, MAVA's Greater MN Program Manager, recently interviewed Marley Melbye and Ali Berhow from the Tri-Valley Opportunity Council in Crookston, MN
Tri-Valley Opportunity Council directs programs such as Foster Grandparents and Caring Companions, and their favorite MAVA benefits are the resources that are customized to rural areas and advocacy opportunities.
Obviously COVID has been hard for seniors, and you all have stepped in to provide real emotional support for your volunteers. It really seems like you’ve built a community with volunteers that is more like family. How did you create that with them?
I always call it my work family. So if any of my volunteers called — my foster grandparents, for instance — it's “Hi, Grandma, how are you?” It's literally like they’re my family. So for instance, one of my volunteers last week had two great-grandchildren born within three days of each other. And there's another one who I know lost their dog. So I mean, it really is a family.
Two weeks ago one of our foster grandparents’ husband passed away. And I think Ali and our agency was one of the first ten phone calls she she made after her husband died. And that doesn’t happen by interacting with them only as volunteers, saying, “This is your placement. This is your classroom. Let us know when you have your timesheet at the end of the month.” We spend so much time trying to get to know them as people, and not just volunteer number ten.
And I also think that as a team, if I'm having a really bad day, or there's something bothering me, I know that Marley can sense it, I know that my coworker Kristal can feel it. I know that my team is there, and they're going to talk me through it and be supportive. And so I think that treating our volunteers the exact same way really goes to show that we truly value them. You're not just a number, you really are important to us. The things you know and offer are important.
Because if that caring, loving, supportive relationship is built between us as a staff and between us and volunteers, and between the volunteers and students at the school, that loving mentoring, compassion, “biggest cheerleader” mentality is going to filter down to those kids. And that's what we truly want our volunteers to do is to be the students’ biggest supporters, biggest cheerleaders, biggest hug in the morning, that they might not be getting at home. Or when school is frustrating, they know they can go to grandma and grandpa and feel that love and support and compassion.
But being from small rural communities, we need each other anyway — you're getting groceries for your neighbor, you're getting the mail for your neighbor who can’t walk down to the mailbox. Here, jumping in with two feet is just part of being a community member. And so our volunteers jump in wholeheartedly. They buy into the program. They support the mission. They buy into the program. They buy into the kids, and they buy into us as leaders as well. They buy into us. And so it's almost natural to become a family.
For people who want to create that community with volunteers but they don’t know where to start, what advice do you have?
You know, it's a matter of scheduling time to call one of your volunteers to check in. We started doing volunteer spotlights on our Facebook. We would ask all these fun questions like “Who was your favorite teacher in school?” And “List your top five favorite books, top five favorite musicians.” And, you know, their responses would make us laugh so much.
So with putting those on social media, you’re kind of getting two bangs for the buck. Because you're getting to have that conversation with your volunteer and walking them through filling out the questionnaire. But you also get to post that on social media. And our data from our marketing specialist shows that those are the highly clicked-on posts. We usually take the time to make sure we tag the school that they work at, and we tag any family members we know, the teacher that they work with, or the city in general. Just to make sure it gets to that area. And they are so clicked on because the volunteers become truly a part of the school.
And so you know you, you get that interview time with the volunteer, and they feel special, and they feel more connected, more rewarded. Take that time to learn about them!
That's such a good idea — to pair your desire for relationship with a chance to recognize that volunteer and create great content that uplifts your program!
What would you say is the biggest value of MAVA to you?
I think for me, the biggest takeaway with MAVA is, out of all of the different trainings and all of the different learning techniques we've used over the last couple of years, you guys are the only ones that really kind of gear anything to that rural area. Which is huge, because what works for Minneapolis or Duluth does not work for us.
Being connected with MAVA, we’ve gotten a lot of new ideas, a lot of validation in what we're doing. And so just, again, creating that family, that that person at that organization that knows what we go through and have some answers to the questions, and are helping to educate us and support us through the work that we do it. But, also it for me, personally, it has encouraged me to do more, and now I'm involved with MAVA’s public policy committee, trying to get the Volunteerism Bill passed.