Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Volunteers Are Free, Right?

In thinking about how to balance the programs we offer, the class was asked to share an example of how they changed a program, grew it or adapted it to create a better balance. This is one in a series of posts in which class participants responded to the prompt: Share an example of a way you evolved a program that led to a more successful outcome.

Erin, who works at the Herrick District Library (MI) and tweets at @erinisinire shares what happened when a great idea for a program run primarily by volunteers is seen for what it is: wildly expensive in terms of staff time.

For the past 6 or 7 years we've had a wildly popular SRP called "Reading Buddies." Young readers (1st-5th grade) were paired with a trained-by-us volunteer (6th grade and up) to read together in the library for one hour once a week for 8 weeks. We offered 3 sessions of 15 readers/buddies each and asked that all participants be able to commit to at least 6 of the weeks (accounting for summer vacations, camps, etc). 
Sounds lovely, right? These 90 people showing up faithfully each week to read together?

It was a scheduling and staff nightmare. 

Shockingly, some people can be wildly unreliable! If we were lucky, we'd get a call in advanced letting us know they were unable to make it. Frequently, we'd have no shows. It was horrible having to tell a volunteer we were sorry to have wasted their time, but their reader was a no-show. It was horrible having a kid show up excited to participate only to have their volunteer not be there. Staff were usually asked to fill in. We offered the program at both the branch and the main library. Our branch is TINY. That many people showing up at once to read together was disruptive to the other patrons who were there to use the library. TWO staff members were assigned to "run" each session-hand out progress folders to the kids, fill in as older buddies or find other staff to fill in, help with readers advisory, and wander around the department to make sure (especially the teen volunteers) were on track and actually reading and not messing around.

This was obviously a wildly expensive program that needed to change in order to survive.

We decided to offer a session this winter as a "pilot" program. Instead of looking to teens for this, we asked our Literacy Heroes (volunteer adults who go through a 3 hour training program by us and head out to various organizations and schools in the area to read with kids or offer small storytimes at other organizations-this is another program we're about to "evolve!") if they'd be interested. We had 15 kids and 15 volunteers sign up in advance. We asked EVERYONE to attend one meeting at a designated time-they were informed this was a mandatory meeting for participation at sign up-so we could match up buddies and readers. They were also informed in advance that they would be responsible for determining all future hourly meeting times AT THE LIBRARY. We strongly urged them to exchange contact information in case they needed to cancel. 

8 volunteers and 8 kids/parents showed up for the meeting. We matched them up and away they went. All folders are held at the reference desk and are accessible to each group whenever they come in to read together. Staff on desk are responsible for assisting with readers advisory if necessary. No more scrambling, no more staff intervention, no more 30 extra people in the department trying to read together at the same time. 

We are still learning from this as the program is still going on. We have yet to hear that it's not working. There were communication problems on our end from the onset and those have been corrected. For SRP this year we've already decided to drop the readers ages (1st-3rd) and we will still allow teens to participate. 

Here's hoping our evolution will work!

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