Theory of Change: My Year as an AmeriCorps Member Part 4

Last September I began a year-long commitment as an AmeriCorps Member at an education non-profit. On my first day, I walked in the door armed with notions of grandeur, a touch of cynicism, and a food stamp card. On my last day, I handed in my keys and laptop and found myself staring at an empty apartment, wondering what to do with the colorful rose a student had given me.

Throughout the year I attempted to regularly document lessons learned and observations made, but whether it was because didn’t know how to say what I was thinking or because I didn’t know what to think at all, every time I sat down to write, the words wouldn’t come. (That being said, you can read the thoughts I did manage to articulate here, here, and here.)

I learned about something called ‘Theory of Change’ this year, which is essentially an organization’s articulation of the change they want to see and how they want to get there. Within this articulation there are several questions addressed that help the organization understand what exactly they are trying to accomplish and whether or not they are moving towards that goal.

A few years ago this would have seemed cold and calculating to me, but I’ve learned over the years that it’s hard to tell if you’re actually making a difference unless you’ve articulated the change you wanted to see in the first place.

What target population are you seeking to benefit or influence?

Ever since I recognized the importance of striving for people and not an idea, the words ‘target population’ started to bring not numbers and statistics to mind, but names and faces  – individual people whose lives are more valuable and important than any cause or movement.

It used to be easy for me to write about the people I would meet – to over-romanticize their stories, as if my words were giving meaning to their existence. But there’s something about knowing the same people day after day, week after week. After a while you began to see their humanity, and the person sitting in front of you becomes not a hero but a person – and a person is something far greater and more beautiful than a hero ever could be.

How and where are your core competencies employed?

Despite coming in with a self-aggrandizing mission to use my voice to impact the world, I spent this past year being quieter than I expected. I found myself observing more than speaking, and I learned the value of listening and learning to understand.

I observed my colleagues and my students and what I noticed is that what people want more than anything is to be noticed, understood and listened to.

What changed conditions do you believe will result from your activities?

I was reluctant, initially, about leaving after a year. I’ve always been put off by the idea of being that person who comes and goes, just another passerby in someone’s life.

And maybe I’m still not quite okay with it, but I don’t think the negative impact is quite as dramatic as I made it out to be in my head. But I guess no one can really know.

There were some difficult times this year, to be sure, but exhilarating and rewarding moments as well. I will miss working at a place where everyone is genuinely passionate about loving people and making a difference.

I saw myself change, and there were times that I started to see that I was not person I thought I was. Coming to grips with my own humanity, I suppose.

On some days I felt like something inside me was breaking. I could feel small cracks starting to form in what I thought was my hope. I even wrote about it here. There were days that it felt almost pointless to hope in anything, but I was reminded that one day this light and momentary affliction will give way to an eternal weight of glory. The things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Can you articulate why you exist?

Before leaving my empty apartment that day, I set the colorful rose given to me by a student down on the windowsill. It wasn’t until I was driving away, my car crammed full of boxes with remnants of the year that I realized I had left it on the windowsill.

As I continued to drive, the sun was starting to set, turning my ride through downtown Austin into a portrait of gold and dust. I think about the rose sometimes, and I wonder why I didn’t go back for it.

The driving goes on.


The End of the Tour

I wasn’t sure how to feel after watching The End of the Tour. Throughout the movie I kept waiting for the wave of existential loneliness to paralyze me with this gut-wrenching sadness, but I actually just kept thinking about how I wanted to eat pancakes at the same diner as David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky (or I guess more accurately, Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg).

The only other people in the theater were this older couple, a middle aged guy by himself, and an older middle aged guy by himself eating a large popcorn. The five of us sat and watched as Wallace and Lipsky ate pancakes and junk food and showed us how great and how lonely it is sometimes to just be human.

Nothing and everything happened in this movie. It’s 98 percent dialogue between the two Davids, David Wallace alone and terribly afraid of being American, and David Lipsky alone and terribly afraid of not.

Jason Segel said in an interview that The End of the Tour is the kind of movie you can watch alone in your house. That was my first time going alone to a theater, which is something I can now cross off my to-do list, but probably isn’t something I’ll do again. No one to watch my stuff if I want to go to the bathroom.

I found myself identifying more with Lipsky than Wallace in the movie, which came as a surprise to me, but probably shouldn’t have. I’d like to think of myself sometimes as the brooding, contemplative writer living alone in a small town, observing the world. But in reality I’m more like the nervous reporter, anxiously taking notes and writing down observations, building someone I admire up in my imagination only to be crushed when I realize their own humanity complicates the dynamic.

My favorite part of the movie was the final scene, when David Wallace is dancing at a church alongside strangers, a look of contentment on his face, while in the future David Lipsky is reading his tribute to Wallace after learning of his suicide.

I think I would watch the movie again, but only to find this specific scene where Wallace is explaining something to Lipsky. I know the words resonated with me, but I can’t remember exactly what he said, only that he was comparing writing to music. But maybe it was as simple as that.



I recently discovered another little coffeshop in Austin that I’m starting to call my favorite – it’s a little far from where I live but it has photographs on the wall and wooden stools and a piano in the corner, so I like it. They have live music sometimes, and on the first night I went there was a guy and girl playing jazz music which was especially nice, not because I’m a huge fan of live jazz or anything (though maybe I should be), but because jazz reminds me of traveling and reminds me of home, two things that kind of remind me why it’s good to be alive.

I ordered coffee and a slice of breakfast coffee cake and sat on one of the wooden stools as the music drifted over me, the gentle tunes of the guitar and bass dancing in the air on that warm sumer night, soothing my soul.

Sumer has been different for me, this time around – the days are longer, the sun brighter, the breeze a little quieter. I’ve actually been spending a lot of time these past few weeks packing my things into boxes, getting ready for the next season. 

There’s something about packing and folding and taping boxes shut that signifies the end of something. As I was packing the sunlight was streaming in from the window and I thought about all of the moments from this past year that I wanted to bury underneath my books and papers before sealing the boxes shut.

Like the time I received a text in the middle of teaching a lesson for high school seniors . The only words I saw as I glanced at my phone were grandma, heart attack, and hospital and my insides filled with a sharp and sinking feeling of dread and anxiety. I thought about packing that away – that feeling of talking to my mom on the phone and trying to speak but the words get lost somewhere inside me and never make it out.

The music was beautiful that night and for once I got lost in it, the notes washing over me, the smooth rhythms drowning out the chatter and the noise around me, the music giving joy and meaning to it all.

My grandma’s going to be okay – I learned that the other day. And I actually feel okay – maybe because I have a better understanding of hope now – that thing with feathers, that makes me look not to things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.

New beginnings. Not completely, but that’s enough.


Kathy and I are blogging together!

Hello readers!

Back in the summer of 2013, Kathy and I ran into each other at the Starbucks below the UTSA library. We came up with an idea that day, and two years later this idea has become Letters + Stories. It’s our hope to record stories of characters who have appeared in our lives and to document these brief encounters – stories that would otherwise go unheard. One day, we’d like to compile everything into a book. Who really knows.

There are some similarities to this blog and some stories recycled, but new voices and new characters. Please check it out!


Paying Attention

It’s finally summer, which (this year) means mosquitos, rain, and flash flood warnings going off twice daily on everyone’s phone. Literally.

It also means field trips for our students, which in turn means sitting on a school bus trying not to breathe in the thick, still air as we sit unmoving in the Austin traffic.

Someone told me later that the kids sitting in the back of the bus were throwing fruit snacks at each other’s faces. When I heard this I smiled because it made me think of fun and laughter and friendship, and how those things can be found in the smallest of moments.

I started thinking about what it’d be like for those kids to one day look back and smile about the time they were throwing fruit snacks at each other’s faces. I wonder if when they’re older they’ll think about how carefree they were, and how they wish life were still like that. I wonder if they’ll smile at the memory or if they’ll think instead about the bus driver who probably had to stay late and pick up the fruit snacks that had fallen onto the floor or had melted into the plastic seat – and I wonder if they’ll think about it and become sad because maybe that bus driver was getting old and had a bad back and had to slowly bend down to reach those fruit snacks thrown by the children.

Lately I’ve been trying to force myself to get into the habit of noticing the things around me. It’s as if it’s a muscle I haven’t used in a long time because I’ve been staring at my own feet  for such a long time that I’ve forgotten how important it is to look around. You miss a lot of things when you’re not paying attention. The other day I was sitting in the office of a high school drop-out-prevention–specialist and I was getting frustrated with her because she was saying things like some kids are just like this and I started to think angry words in my head like ignorant and heartless.

But then I stopped and tried to notice things. I noticed that she was wearing sneakers with bright purple laces. I noticed that she had sock monkeys strewn all across her cabinets, and little Precious Moments statues perched gently  on the surface of her desk, as if at any moment they would fly or twirl or do a little dance. There were thank you cards, pictures of her children ( grandchildren?), and boxes and papers scattered everywhere. And then probably the most curious thing – a tank of liquid nitrogen.

Part of being alive, I think, is learning to pay attention. And not only paying attention, but then communicating what is going on – and finding meaning therein.

Sometimes I sneak away from the office for a moment to buy coffee. There’s a little bakery/cafe across the street, and I buy coffee to go and sit at one of the tables underneath the umbrellas and think for a bit, listening to the sound of the violin music.

These past few months were strange. But there’s beauty in failure, I think.

I was recently at a work thing that involved me and many people well above the age of 40, and as part of the longest icebreaker ever, we all went around the room and said what advice we would give to our high school selves. Being that high school was actually not terribly long ago for me, the only thing that really came to mind was don’t eat curly fries every day for lunch. As everyone was sharing, I wrote down some of my favorites:

  • Slow down
  • Laugh more, sooner
  • Everything is not so important
  • Things are changing quickly
  • It’ll all work out – slow down and enjoy life
  • Every part contributes to the whole
  • Ask her to dance

Happy summer!

7 things I’ve learned about working for a nonprofit: My Year as an AmeriCorps Member Part 3

I don’t think I’m really qualified to write on this topic. Three weeks ago I attended a Texas Women’s Leadership Conference that I thought was for millennials but turns out was more for women whose children were millenials, and I was very aware of the fact that I have so much more to learn. A more accurate title for this post would probably be “7 things I think I might’ve figured out during my brief time working at a nonprofit.”

This list is not exhaustive. It is also very subjective, and will probably only be applicable to nonprofits specializing in education/youth. I’ve been an AmeriCorps member for an education non-profit for almost nine months now, and during this time I’ve faced new challenges, learned a lot about myself, and eaten atrocious amounts of pizza. Out of pure necessity I’ve sort of taken the time to process – and though most of the things running through my mind only vaguely resemble formed thoughts, here are seven things that I’ve started to make sense of:

1. Strive for people, not an idea

Something I love about the non-profit I work for is that we do a lot of direct service, meaning we spend a lot of our time working directly with people, something that can be uncommon in the nonprofit world. There’s this quote I like by Thomas Merton from his ‘Letter to a Young Activist’, where he advised his reader to “struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people.”

Because ideas have no substance without people. Noble phrases like alleviating poverty, bridging the gap, transforming communities – those words hold no weight if you don’t recognizes faces or know names or understand stories. I used to spend a lot of time thinking about ideas (which isn’t bad at all) but it wasn’t until I had the people in my life that I realized there really isn’t one solution. And I realized how dangerously close I had been to caring more about a cause than a person.

2. People who work for nonprofits are wired very similarly

This can be good or bad. Everyone I work with has the same passion for youth and education and the same longing to make a difference. We’re all very like-minded and wired similarly – kindred spirits in a way. But I have to remind myself to stay aware – it’s easy to be sucked into a bubble.

3. You will have to fight to stay idealistic and optimistic

It was frightening to watch how quickly my own idealism faded. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s taken me so long to write this post. Dreams of changing the world that once flowed so easily from my fingertips to the keys came to a halt as I grew tired and a little disillusioned. I’ve heard it happens to everyone, but not as the same rate. Compassion Fatigue, they call it.

Thankfully though, it’s never permanent and it never wins. Not unless you let it.

4. You won’t agree with everything

And that’s okay. Believe it or not, most people are aware that they don’t have all the answers – but they’d rather try than sit back and do nothing.Learning how to best help others can be a lot of trial and error. Allow the nonprofit to grow and change; chances are, you’ll realize you were wrong most of the time too.

5. Take care of yourself

People around me, myself included, have a tendency to wear ‘Busy’ as a badge of honor. After sitting through countless sessions on ‘self-care,’ I’ve gone from rolling my eyes to being convicted about the way I live my life. We advocate for our students and families to live healthy lifestyles while we work well after the sun has gone down, sustained by coffee and pizza.

I don’t really know what this looks like though. So far it’s meant rummaging through my closet to see if I still own running clothes, and buying large amounts of kale.

6. Stop trying to be an inspiring person – it’s not about you


7. It’s good to change, but don’t lose focus

Countless times this past year I didn’t feel like myself. I lost myself in my work, in ministry, in the lives of other people, and forgot about a lot of things. I forgot that I’m living in light of eternity, and I forgot that nothing can actually change without Jesus. I forgot that it’s only by losing my life for His sake that I will find it, and I forgot that there’s a Victory in the end.


Honorable Mentions:

Food stamps are interesting

I could probably write an entire post about food stamps, but it would probably come across as pretentious, or even worse, naive. Instead, here is someone with more well-informed thoughts.

No more pizza.



Thoughts? If you work for a non-profit, do you agree? Disagree? Do you think I should start eating more pizza? Do you think I should stop talking about pizza?

Thanks for reading :)