On My Way to Serve DC

Safae Lacheheb, Morocco, PFP Fellow

“I spent the majority of my fellowship journey in the District of Columbia, where I was assigned by Legacy International to fulfill a unique experience in a governmental organization in my field of work on community service and volunteerism.

Upon my arrival to DC, it took me a while to figure out the status of this unique area in the United States. It is an independent city, not part of any U.S state, yet formed by land donated by the two states of Maryland and Virginia. After a while I figured out this is not the only unique aspect of DC, and to fully understand this place I took five steps toward learning and living as a true citizen of DC.

First step: Embrace the Local Culture
After a long trip here I arrived in the capital of the United States, surprisingly the first thing that caught my eyes were not the tall buildings, but the abundant greenery, the multiple forests, and the beautiful lakes. When I came across the buildings, I was delighted by the beauty of the architecture, and its original style due to different influences from distant times and places, from classical Greece and Rome, medieval Europe, to France in the 19th century.

safae2The District hosted the world foreign embassies, the headquarters of many international organizations and non-profits, the white house, the capitol, as well as many other prestigious buildings. During a tour with the other fellows I realized that the cultural aspect is very present as the district is home to many national monuments and museums, all of which one can visit for free.

I enjoyed the numerous advantages of being a DC citizen, including going on free trolley tours, visiting the local parks and learning about the wildlife while being approached by cute squirrels, walking in one street and hearing more than five different languages and encountering people from many ethnicities. As diverse as New York, the District welcomes with open arms new coming immigrants, all of whom bring perceivable cultural influences. It offers the large choices of the big city in terms of restaurants and gastronomical variety, international brands, different cultural entertainment and sport events, and when you’re tired of the city’s hustle and bustle, you can also find quite spaces where you may admire the nature symphony.

When you live in DC, you see musicians on the roads and on your way to the subway, you know the metro lines colors very well, you drive by car a long distance and you think it’s short, you serve yourself in restaurants, you recycle your trash, you favor organic food, and you probably have a pet at home, either a dog or a cat. You wear summer clothes and carry an umbrella and you can’t expect what surprise the weather is hiding for you.

You respect the traffic code, you easily access the transportation and public facilities if you are with limited capacity and you will meet with friendly Americans who will be glad to use their smart phones to show you the way. One of the skills you master when you’re a DC citizen is you speak very fast and you’re probably able to win Guinness record for number of words pronounced per minute.

Step 2: Spend time with an American family
I was lucky to be hosted by two wonderful families and to experience the warmth of American houses. Though short, my stay with these American micro-societies gave me an insight about the local culture.

safae1After a busy day of my fellowship activities and visiting places in DC, I appreciated the peaceful moments at home around the dinner table and a generously home-prepared meal, during which I had interesting discussions with my hosts about our cultural differences and similarities.

During weekends, we played fun board games and enjoyed family evenings in the backyard surrounded by trees. I particularly remember our visit to the Potomac River where I had a very pleasant time hiking with the family, learning names of the plants on the sides of the river, and watching the great falls and the kayakers.

The time I spent with the two families made me realize that they have different habits and that the word American lifestyle does not apply to all American families the same way. This is an understandable conclusion as they don’t share the same background. However, I couldn’t help but to observe some shared values, I noticed they’re devoted parents who work hard to provide the best education for their children, and was glad to see the effort they do to involve them in many activities, encourage them to find and pursue their passions and help them become independent. As they grant great importance to learning, they make sure to convey clear messages and expectations, and stimulate their spirit of curiosity towards other languages and cultures.

Both families happened to be responsible citizens and validated my theory about Americans’ engagement in environment conservation and community service. They promoted environment sustainability by preserving trees, recycling waste, and using bicycles for transportation, and were engaged in serving their local communities through different projects and activities.

Step 3: Work in an American organization
At High Atlas Foundation in Morocco we work towards establishing development projects that derive sustainable socio-economic and environmental benefits. Organized under a commitment of empowering community development through participatory approaches, High Atlas Foundation has supported projects for youth empowerment and created partnerships with Moroccan universities to implement service learning programs to the benefit of students and promote their civic engagement and social responsibility towards their communities.

To learn from the best practices of American peers in community service, Legacy arranged a fellowship placement in the governmental organization named “Serve DC,” related to the Mayor’s Office. It works on volunteerism, and its mission is to promote citizenship and cultivate commitment to service among the DC population as a sustainable solution to the community’s most pressing needs.

Initially my fellowship consisted of learning about the organization’s vision, organizational structure and systems and management model. With a small enthusiastic team, they run multiple programs engaging hundreds of volunteers, including the AmeriCorps State national service program to help NGOs create programs that fight poverty and advance economic opportunity and academic achievement. They also manage different service days to connect residents with volunteer opportunities such as Global Youth Service day, DC Public Schools Beautification day, National Day of Service and Remembrance, World AIDS Day and Martin Luther King Day of Service.

One of the programs I had the chance to explore in depth is called Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) which is a critical one to the agency as DC is known for high rates of deaths due to incidents that could be prevented. Thus, this program is designed to engage residents with free emergency preparedness training to ensure they have the skills and resources necessary to serve their communities in times of crisis and threats such as disasters, crime and terrorism.
In addition to the skills I acquired as a participant in this training program, it was interesting for me to learn about different aspects of “Serve DC” including: i) partnership building and collaboration with community, NGOs, private sector, and local and federal government; ii) conducting outreach and public relations and elaborating a successful communication strategy to engage and motivate volunteers; iii) coordination with external agencies. In this regard I attended meetings organized with different stakeholders involved in preparation for major emergencies, including homeland security, health organizations, department of aging and disability services, sheltering department, water infrastructure and others. These meetings were about preparing action plans, sharing responsibilities, and coordinating efforts to face any sort of potential emergencies and to make sure all categories of citizens are represented and included; Vi) The main challenges they face in managing and training an important number of volunteers, keeping them engaged and motivated and involving new volunteers, taking into account the bureaucracy and all the procedures it takes to get funding from the federal government to keep the program running.

Step 4: Learn about civil society and community service
Community service in the US is structured in the framework of a national program that is expanded over the country. The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) is the federal agency mentoring this program and coordinating national service initiatives for the citizens as well as for the nonprofit sector. “Serve DC” is the Commission representing the District of Columbia, and it provides funding and supports AmeriCorps members who serve at more than 60 nonprofit and community-based organizations. I had the chance to meet with some of these nonprofits and get one step closer to understand the service culture in the US.

I attended different activities in schools where they provide after schools programs for highly impoverished communities, including reading and math tutoring, homework help, language skills for kids with learning difficulties and kids of new coming immigrants. Other activities included play-works for behavior coaching, and social-emotional activities to foster independence and leadership among children and prevent bullying in school recess. In the Youth Community Center I witnessed an activity by a nonprofit working towards increasing opportunities for youth from disadvantaged communities through culture, sport and health education in order to promote healthy behaviors and safe transition to adulthood.

All these organizations rely on a high number of volunteers to support their programs, and this is observation among others proved to me the high level of youth civic engagement in this country.

safae and yaniTo learn about engagement of university students, my supervisor in “Serve DC” kindly arranged for me a meeting in one of the most well-known universities in the US, Georgetown University, in order to learn about the experience of student’s service learning. The university offers opportunities allowing students to participate in Service projects and initiatives which range from tutoring disadvantaged children in math and reading to offering pro bono legal services and health care in the District of Columbia’s most underserved neighborhoods. Recently, CERT program was included to address the unique challenges faced by college campuses and their communities. The goal of the program is to create a group of trained volunteers who can safely support emergency services workers.

One of the important lessons I will remember about engaging volunteers, is that they should be always reminded of the goal and the vision of the service they’re providing and be ambitious to stay motivated, otherwise service will be nothing more than free labor.

Step 5: Serve DC
I couldn’t claim to be a true citizen of DC until I completed one final mission, to participate in a community service activity. For this reason, I joined community members of Arlington and a local nonprofit to work together to clean a local park and remove invasive plants that are killing native plants and restore balance to the ecosystem.

Community members from all ages and abilities were invited to participate in this activity. As it was also meant to be educational, before we started, a member supervising the activity explained the objectives to the group, the types of different plants, and how to proceed and eliminate the invasive ones in the target area before they spread.

I started working with the group of volunteers while learning about their motivations, some of them were doing it as a requirement for school, and for others it was really about the feeling of self satisfaction that every volunteer seeks and experiences when accomplishing a service for the community.

I can say that after a period of five weeks I consider my mission complete. As I’m preparing my luggage to go back to my country, I’m carrying back many memories, resources and precious lessons that I intend to share with our volunteers to better serve Morocco.

Thank you to all the people who showed me DC through their eyes, my thanks go particularly to my two host families, to my hosts in “Serve DC” who made sure I had the most rewarding experience, to all the organizations who shared their knowledge with me, to Legacy International and its amazing staff for putting together this unique program, to the State Department for sponsoring it, to my fellow colleagues who added salt and sugar to this experience, and finally to all DC residents by whom my heart is deeply touched by generosity and kindness.” ~ Safae Lacheheb, Training Coordinator, Center of Community Consensus-Building and Sustainable Development, High Atlas Foundation

Sixteen Moroccan and Tunisian fellows served in fellowships as part of Legacy International’s “Professional Fellows Program in Non-profit Development for North Africa (PFP).” The fellowships are with non-profit and public-sector offices in Washington, DC, and in Roanoke, Virginia.

Learn more from the Fellows in the Fellows Blog