Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Comics and Community Service, Part 3

(Read Part 2 here.)

Once the decision is made to commit to a service project and the type of project is chosen, the next step is to organize it. This means finding a location, choosing a schedule, and advertising. There is no way to describe in detail every possible scenario that can be encountered at this stage - this is meant as a general guide so that others can fashion their own comic service program, like the Create a Comic Project.

The selected venue can often dictate the success of a community service project. Types of venues include libraries, community centers, and art museums. The project ideas described in Part 2 were aimed at students in K-12, so a place that has regular attendance by school children is important.

Public libraries are generally the most diverse in terms of attendance. Most libraries have volunteer programs already in place, making it simple to get permission and advertise the program. Experience has indicated that children who voluntarily go to a library after school will tend to be a motivated group with open minds ready for learning. Be careful of children whose parents are using the library as a babysitter – they will likely not be willing to participate in any programs.

Don’t expect consistent weekly attendance in a library if it’s a multi-week program – kids will often wander in and out at varying times, so every week will have a different audience. It’s best to craft sessions as standalone lessons, requiring little introduction to previous materials, because new students will come and go.

The attendance of a library, as well as its resources, varies widely by neighborhood. Not all libraries are near schools, meaning they won’t have as many school age children in attendance. The best thing to do is ask the Children’s Department librarians who attends. They will often know what demographics they have in abundance.

The comic project was fortunate that the New Haven Public Library was in walking distance of several local schools, providing a steady stream of attendees within its target age group. In Pittsburgh, though, the main branch of the Carnegie Library only had very young children or older teens, due to its location, so the comic project wouldn’t have worked there.

It’s also a good idea to ask what sorts of programs a library is already running. If a library has a packed schedule filled with reading and art programs, it may be best to find another location. Likewise, librarians or volunteer coordinators may be able to say ahead of time whether a proposed project is too ambitious or if it fits their needs well.

Community centers are different from libraries in that they are can be more restrictive in terms of access. Youth oriented centers, for example, can require pre-registration by parents in order for their child to be granted entry. Centers also tend to have a closer link with the neighborhood, often being staffed and run by local residents. For example, the Dixwell-Yale Community Learning Center was aimed at the Dixwell neighborhood of New Haven, a predominantly African-American neighborhood on the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum. This can allow for deeper networking with the broader community.

A community center will generally have a roster of programs and events members can participate in, such as sports, computer classes, or tutoring sessions. A comic program will generally go over well if the center is in need of any kind of art programs. Like the library, there will generally be a volunteer coordinator on staff to make setup easier.

Unlike libraries, community centers will usually have a more regular attendance structure. Once parents know of a program and want their child to attend, they will usually ensure the child attends frequently. This can allow for a more structured program form, with each lesson building on the previous. The Human Services Center (HSC) serves the depressed region of Greater Pittsburgh, drawing students from diverse backgrounds. The HSC was designed as a daily program, where students are formed into classes and attend every day after school. Once a student signed up for an extracurricular activity, it was made part of their daily schedule, ensuring consistency in turnout over time.

Art museums are a potential third venue to explore. Shaenon Garrity has taught children at places like Cartoon Art Museum, for example. As with the previous two venues, be sure to find a volunteer coordinator to ask what kind of programs they’d be interested in running and what sort of attendance they get. If 70-something grandparents mainly attend the local art museum, it’s probably not where a comic project should be held.

The above three are not the only venues possible, of course. Robert Anke and Tycho and Gabe have brought comics into elementary schools. Many universities sponsor one-on-one mentoring programs that could be used for comic education. Faith-based initiatives use churches as bases of operation. Volunteer network sites – such as the United Way – provide lists of locations in the area seeking volunteers. Consult those and find the location that works best for the project.

When approaching a volunteer coordinator to apply for a position, remember to check state regulations on what clearances are needed such as criminal background checks. Write a clear and concise summary of the project to give to the administrator, along with a resume with any relevant teaching or volunteering experience. When the Create a Comic Project was first getting started, a 4 page summary of the project was used to highlight the important aspects of the program: who it was aimed at, what it would do, how it would do it, and what resources it’d require. This made it easier for the volunteer coordinator to explain it to the head of the Children’s Department and also allowed her to know what supplies to allocate for the project’s support.

Letters of recommendation pertaining to teaching and volunteering skills can also be used to bolster credibility. The more credible the project appears, the easier it will be to get permission. Remember when the project is finished to get a letter that can be used later on. If a letter is too much trouble, keep a record of who helped and their contact information so they can at least be used as a reference.

With the venue selected, the next step is to schedule the event. If the program is intended to be a long-term weekly or monthly endeavor, anytime during the year is suitable to start. If it’s going to be a one-shot or a limited series of sessions, try to time the event to periods of high turnout by students.

Based on attendance from the Create a Comic Project, the best months are in early spring (March and April): the weather isn’t preventing travel, but athletic programs aren’t yet in full swing. Holidays (late November through early January), deep winter (February), and the summer (June through August) are not good times to expect large crowds. (An exception is if the project is linked to a special summer program at a center or library.)

Come time to do the project, the basic advice for going to a job interview aptly applies: show up on time. Exercise good personal hygiene and grooming. Be polite to all participants (even the ones who are rude). Be sure to use “Thank you” in great quantities to the staff and administrators who assist. An impression of professionalism will ensure the project is invited back a second time and that any reference given will be glowing.

Advertising the program is vital to attract participants. Don’t count on parents or children finding out about new programs on their own. Fliers for in-house distribution are generally a good idea: they’re easy to create and display. Libraries will generally have a location where they advertise their upcoming events, be sure to get added to it. Hand fliers to staff who work with the target age group and have them hand it out to kids. Some libraries and community centers will have mailing lists; see if they’ll mail the flier to that list so parents are notified.

Once the project has gotten off the ground and is running smoothly, it’s important consider the local press. A newspaper article on the service project is a great way to let people all across the neighborhood know about it. It’s also rewarding to the venue, as it helps advertise their services.

Talk to the center’s public relations administrator – many service locations will have contacts with a reporter. Propose the article as a human-interest story; reporters like those because they’re easier to write than regular news and readers enjoy them. College students should consider approaching the school newspaper. Local papers will sometimes pay attention to university press for ideas. The Create a Comic Project, for example, attracted coverage from the New Haven Register after the Yale Daily News ran a story on it.

For more assistance organizing consult a general project management guide; it’ll contain many tips for planning that can help ensure things go smoothly.

Setting up a comic service project may sound arduous, but once a location is found the administration and staff will often be more than willing to lend assistance. The Create a Comic Project was made possible thanks to the invaluable assistance of several librarians. Other projects will no doubt encounter the same level of cooperation.

Support for comic service is not necessarily limited only to the institutions at the front lines. Creators who lack the time for direct intervention can assist through indirect service, a topic for a later essay.

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