Great questions to ask.
1) Do all of the Americorps volunteers ever get together for anything? Will I ever even see another member of Americorps (aside from a few that I may be working with)? How "involved" is the organization with the actual assignment?
That's going to depend on the community you live in. And by all AmeriCorps members, do you mean VISTA and non-VISTA as well? Some states have InterCorps Councils that try to bridge the gaps between all the various streams of national service. My first year of VISTA (Springfield, MO) I was the only recent college grad, with the other two VISTAs in the community being 55 or so. During this second year as a VISTA Leader, there are almost a dozen VISTAs in Helena (population of less than 30,000), so we get together a lot, and we see some of the other AmeriCorps members occasionally as well. In fact, we had a soccer game tonight, and our team has 3 VISTAs, 2 VISTA alum (one of who is currently serving a second term with AmeriCorps with the Montana Conservation Corps), and usually a VISTA or two supporting us as cheerleaders. During the Earth Day festival here in town, I'd guess 6 or 7 of us were there helping out in one form or another - one advantage of serving in a small town that has a large amount of VISTAs.
Montana is different though, in that it was doing state wide Pre-Service Orientations and the equivalent of Early Service Trainings, before the Corporation moved away from the cluster based. Montana also only recruits for July and January start dates, so you instantly know half the VISTAs around the whole state. We've also got a pretty active MSN group we use to stay in touch - very different from my experience in Missouri.
During my first year, I only saw people at trainings - I saw the other VISTAs in my cluster at Pre-Service Orientation and Early Service Training, and then the other VISTAs on my project (who were placed through out the state) at project-specific trainings and events.
As for how involved is "AmeriCorps" that depends again. I'm in the state capital, so I know the people in my state VISTA office, as well as the people who run the AmeriCorps*Direct programs, but they're involvement with your day-to-day role as a VISTA is minimal. The state office is who you call if you need to fly home for a funeral (one of the benefits of serving - the Corporation for National and Community Service will pay for travel for a death in the family), or something else major like that. Everything else you deal with your site, or perhaps a VISTA Leader if your project has one.
2) Living allowance: Basically $1000/mo? Obviously that would be living fairly cheaply. Anyone have suggestions as to stretch your money? Certain amounts you allow yourself for rent, etc?
Living allowance is calculated on a county by county basis, depending on the poverty line. Here in Montana, all the counties are at $785/month. You learn to live cheaply - I didn't qualify for food stamps, but most of my VISTAs do, and most of them also qualify for the Low Income Energy Assistance Program. I've heard of members qualifying for Section 8 housing as well. I know a lot of my members are still on shared minute cell plans with their parents and things as well, which helps cut costs. The one other piece of advice I'd have is that if you're relocating, try to stretch your relocation allowance out as far as possible. The $550 plus mileage can go a long way!
3) Outside activities: Americorps is obviously not a fan. I can understand not going to school or having a second job while you're working for them, but how keen is Americorps on things like... spending time with friends, going to a gym, and other things like that?
Outside activities are fine, as long as VISTA remains a top priority. In fact, as a Leader, I encourage my members to engage in outside activities. As much as we want your project to be a priority, we also don't want to see you burn-out, and outside activities are important to your overall health. The community I'm in is awesome in that they've embraced national service - the YMCA does a $10/month rate for VISTAs, and we have tons of local businesses that give us discounts as VISTAs (20% at a sporting goods store, lots of coffee shops giving us 10%, free drinks at the local "fresh-Mex" place, etc etc). We've got members who do community theater, volunteer at the museum, etc etc. All good ways to find an escape from work, and also to get tapped into your community, beyond your site/project.
4)How old is the average volunteer? How about the current "life situation"? I'm 20, finished two years at the University of Florida, took a year off to work, and then now am taking another year off for Americorps. I'm not worried about "fitting the standard" I'm just wondering why other people decide to devote a year to this.
Of the 20 some VISTAs I have right now, most of them are right out of college or a year or two out. I do have one VISTA who's got junior-high age children, and another who's got a daughter a few years younger than me (I'm 26), and one who's almost 30. I'd guess about 90% of the volunteers in Montana are recent college grads (though all of the programs in MT require a 4-year degree). In Missouri, the average age seemed older as there were more "non-traditional" VISTAs. The diversity of people who volunteer is impressive - I remember meeting a woman at the Leader training who must have been 60 or 70, who had just finished a term with the Peace Corps and had decided she was going to be a VISTA Leader. I'm doing interviews for our positions right now, and the most common response to our first question of why Montana, and why VISTA, is that this is a point in their life where they can do this - where they don't have a lot of obligations. This is often due to graduation, but also divorce/separation, retirement, and career changes.
As for your encouragement to form a support group - I think most of us have support groups - It's the only way to make it through your VISTA year. We all have peaks and valleys, and w/o support groups, most of us would cave and have miserable years. Like I said, I'm fortunate that Helena has a large VISTA community, but I know during my year in Missouri, the VISTAnet listserv was useful, as were the local friends I made. The MSN group here in Montana is pretty nice too, as people post local events happening in their communities, use it to find places to crash when road tripping, camping buddies, etc etc. I know at least two VISTAs in Montana read my LJ (and they may babble a bit about this topic as well . . . though I doubt it . . . they don't tend to comment much), so writing for me is part of my support system as well.
The last bit I'm going to leave you with is what I tell all the potential VISTAs I interview, before I forward their applications on to our sites for second interviews: Have as many questions for the site as they're going to have for you. VISTA is a big deal - it's a year of your life, for considerably less than minimum wage, and often in a new community. The last thing you want to do is find out a month into your service that you hate it, that the project isn't what you thought it would be, and your expectations were totally different from what the site/project wanted. If you have a bad experience and leave VISTA, you end up screwing yourself out of an ed. award, leaving the site in a lurch, which often can't fill the position you just vacated till several months down the line, and it's a lose-lose for all the parties involved . . .