Our Stories

Signing Off: The PA Pilot Project

Categories: Uncategorized

Last week, I attended my first ever NCTA Conference!  What an awesome time, and an awesome location! Lynne Nason and all of the amazing volunteers did a wonderful job with all the planning, culminating in a beautiful weekend filled with great activities and workshops. What was perhaps most impressive- Every time I saw Lynne, or Jill DeCator, or any of the other volunteers or NCTA staff- no matter how crazy their schedule or how many directions they were being pulled in- they always had warm, welcoming smiles on their faces. You could feel the family atmosphere as we all rallied around the trail and the NCTA.

While it felt like family, one of my favorite aspects of attending the 2010 NCTA Conference was to see the diversity of our trail family. People attended from all over- guests coming from as far away as Puerto Rico- each carrying her or his unique personal history and lifetime of experiences (some in their 80s and 90s, all the way through those just beginning their life’s journey).  The NCTA family is a mosaic- filled with colorful personalities, varied accents (you know?), unique perspectives, fascinating stories, and a plethora of diverse skills and abilities. From my time with the NCTA, I’ve learned to appreciate all of these unique stories, and I’ve learned that the first step to becoming a better communicator is to become a better listener.

Sea Caves & Lighthouse, Devil's Island, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
One of the excursions during the 2010 NCTA Conference in Ashland, WI involved a boat cruise through the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore!

Sadly, my first NCTA Conference as PA Communications Coordinator was also my last, as my AmeriCorps term of service has now come to an end.  (That’s not to say that I won’t be back in the future- just not in my current position!)  The last nine months serving the four PA NCTA Chapters and the Davis Hollow Cabin have been a wonderful experience.  I have met so many amazing people from each of the chapters, with so many different skills and talents, and I appreciate more than I can express the opportunity to learn from them and be a part of the family.

At the same time, I hope that my time serving the NCTA has set the stage for a new era of NCTA communications.  My service through AmeriCorps was a pilot program, both as an experiment for incorporating AmeriCorps volunteers (AmeriCorps is a national service program, like the Peace Corps, but focusing on solving problems and bettering communities in the United States.  See the AmeriCorps website for more info!), and as an experiment of having a concentrated communications effort, in this case, at the sate level.  I’d like to think it was pretty successful, but you can decide for yourself! Here are a few things I worked on:

In PA, each chapter now has a “Communications Liaison” (CL)- someone dedicated to the chapter’s communications and promotional efforts.  This position takes pressure off current leadership, who are already stretched with planning and administrating, and it ensures that someone is always thinking about spreading the word about the trail and all your chapter’s great work and volunteer opportunities.

The CL can send press releases, post events on online forums and social networking sites like Facebook, maintain your chapter’s website, and help take your event planning to the next level so that your chapter can recruit more volunteers and supporters.  If you don’t have someone doing this for your chapter, I totally suggest finding someone!  If no current members have the time/interest/skill set, look at it as a perfect opportunity to try targeted recruitment in your community or a local university.

We were lucky to have some amazing volunteers step up in PA to become their chapters’ Communications Liaisons (Thank you!! You guys are awesome!), and I wanted to make sure that once I left, they would have plenty of information and suggestions to help them get started in their new roles.  I wrote a Chapter Communications Handbook, which is full of tips and inspiration for anyone interested in communications.  (If you are interested in getting a copy of the handbook- it will eventually be posted in the chapter resources section of the website, or you can contact the NCTA office if you’d like to have a copy emailed to you sooner!) This handbook is just a seed- meant to grow as the Communications Liaisons grow and find their own paths to better chapter communications.

Beyond working with the Chapter CLs, I was privileged to have the challenge of designing chapter brochures and display boards for the PA chapters and the Davis Hollow Cabin.  These materials are meant to be used side by side with the new NCTA brochures and promotional materials- helping the chapters to promote the trail as a whole as well as involvement on the local level.  The same basic templates are easily adaptable to any of the other chapters, so if you think your chapter would benefit from a brochure or display board (e.g. the big poster boards you use at promotional booths/tables), contact the NCTA office to see whether the template could work for you!

Communications isn’t a one-shot job.  Contrarily, there will always be more people to tell about the trail, and the communications aspect of your chapter will never lose its place, just as trail maintenance will never lose its place.  I don’t see that as a negative thing…. although it would sure make our jobs a lot easier, wouldn’t it?  But volunteers who become members of the NCTA aren’t the type to do a project and walk away.  You understand and value the love, devotion, and and hard work that go into maintaining pristine sections of trail year after year.  When you think of your chapter’s communications efforts, try to afford them the same patience and persistence as you do the trail; rather than a frustration, view it as a challenge!

And if the communications piece isn’t for you, that is okay!  Look for someone else who has those skills and interests, and let them fill that role in your chapter.  Remember the family mosaic of the NCTA, that I was talking about earlier?  Learn to appreciate it!  (I definitely have!)  If you opened a puzzle and found that you had 500 copies of the same puzzle piece, you would probably be pretty disappointed.  You need lots of different puzzle pieces, with different shapes and colors, to create a solid, cohesive picture.  In the same way, the NCTA needs a diverse collection of volunteers from varied backgrounds and paths in life, who link together as equals to form a strong, effective team.

Make sure you look for diversity (in all kinds of ways), and learn to appreciate what each volunteer brings to the NCTA family mosaic.  One might roast the best hot dog and tell a great story, and another might have the perfect personality to network with local business owners.  Someone else might have the flair for social networking, YouTube, and multi-media communications.  Another member might build a five-star bridge, while another can plan a community hike without missing a single detail.  Each of these pieces fit together to make your chapter even stronger.

Learn to listen, learn to open your eyes to see all these unique puzzle pieces in your chapter (and in your community!), and learn to appreciate what each can bring to the table: It might not be the same thing you bring, but that new volunteer might just fill that odd shaped hole in your chapter and make your puzzle more complete and effective than you were before.

Lighthouse outside the AmericInn in Ashland, WI, home of the 2010 NCTA Conference
Lighthouse outside the AmericInn in Ashland, WI, home of the 2010 NCTA Conference

Thank you to all of the amazing people I’ve met during my time with the NCTA- from the members of the chapters and affiliates in PA, to the NCTA staff, to volunteers and new friends I finally had the opportunity to meet at Conference.  Thank you for sharing your incredible skills and knowledge with me; I have learned so much from working with you!  Most of all, thank you for sharing your stories!  Each of you has inspired me, and you have made a profound difference in your community and for the trail.  Thank you  for being a piece of the NCTA mosaic, and best wishes as you continue to do wonderful, inspirational things with your lives.

Singing out,

Julie Elkins Watson

PA Communications Coordinator