AmeriCorps offers young adults valuable experiences while they are doing good for the country
Posted 7/22/10 (Thu)
AmeriCorps workers leave their mark on refuge
and Pioneer Village . . . Front (l-r): Kara Garvey (from
PA), Kara Hartnett (RI), Kelsey Gentilini (PA) and
Dan Putt (MD). Back row: Dave Elwood (MD),
Emily Kenetta (CA), Judie Murphy (NY), Lindsay Ward (CO),
Will Morris (MO) and Laura Chechette (MA) take a break from
their work at Pioneer Village in Kenmare, where they assisted
with the annual Pioneer Day festivities along with other projects.
Team spends six weeks in the area
By Caroline Downs
Kenmare’s Pioneer Village received some extra help sprucing up for their recent Pioneer Day festivities from a team of AmeriCorps/National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) volunteers. And while the Village looked better for the efforts, the NCCC team also benefited from their experiences in North Dakota.
The team, with 11 members, was requested by Jennifer Jewett at the Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge. Their project in North Dakota was scheduled to last about six weeks and included work at the Roosevelt Park Zoo in Minot and river debris cleanup in Carpio, along with a variety of assignments at the refuge and Pioneer Village.
Last week, half the team devoted their time to mowing, trimming, building a bridge, scraping and painting at the Village. They became recognizable around town by their gray T-shirts and khaki cargo shorts, which were paint-flecked before they even grabbed a brush at Pioneer Village.
“The paint spatters are a badge of honor,” said Judie Murphy of Brooklyn, NY.
The group also included Dan Putt of Germantown, MD, Emily Kenetta of Sonora, CA, Kara Garvey of Doylestown, PA, and Laura Chechette of Long Meadow, MA, who served as the media representative for the team.
None of the five had ever stepped foot in North Dakota prior to their AmeriCorps experience. “It’s funny, because when we started [in training], we were talking about where we really wanted to go,” said Emily, “and the two places we all wanted to go were New Orleans and North Dakota.”
Their first day in Kenmare was made memorable by the generosity of a woman wearing red. “We went to lunch at the Chinese restaurant,” said Laura, adding that patrons sitting near them asked about their uniforms and their presence in town. “When we left, we found out this woman had secretly paid for our meal. This was such a nice surprise!”
“We want to thank that anonymous woman,” Emily said.
“We don’t expect much thanks for our work,” added Judy, “so when we get it, it’s nice.”
Kara appreciated the genuine friendliness of North Dakota residents she’d met. “When it’s so consistent, then you notice,” she said.
“We’re required to do so much physical training in a week,” said Laura, “so when we go running here, people actually slow down and wave at us!”
Emily listened to the exchange among her teammates and laughed as she started her own story. “At the refuge, they’ve allowed us to use the kayaks and canoes,” she said, “and I went out on a very windy day. I was taking on water in the canoe, so I went across the lake and just started walking back, the two miles or whatever it was.”
She continued, “I’m sure I looked absurd, sopping wet with this vest on, but a fishing family stopped and picked me up, like it was normal to just pick up people.” She laughed again. “Some kindly person let me get their backseat wet!”
The prairie landscape is also making an impression on the volunteers, all of whom came from forested or urban places. “It’s truly beautiful here,” said Dan, who noted the late sunset times. “I like how if you stand on a hill, you can see for miles in any direction.”
“I’m definitely used to the mountains,” Emily said. “It’s beautiful here, but it’s flat.”
“You can see forever. It’s a vast landscape,” said Judie. “I think the wildlife is beautiful, all the different migratory birds.”
“There’s definitely the landscape and the beauty,” Kara said, “but isolation comes with it.” She described problems team members were having as they tried to call family on their cell phones or access the Internet, something that had been routine in other places.
“My boyfriend’s not too happy,” added Emily, with another laugh.
The North Dakota project was the last of five projects to which the team was assigned during ten months with AmeriCorps. After completing a month of training at the Vinton, IA, AmeriCorps campus, the group worked in New Orleans with Project Homecoming, in Oxford, MI, with Crossroads for Youth, in Mobile, AL, with Habitat for Humanity, and then a split round in Dubuque, IA, assisting the city with an energy efficiency project and back in Vinton, IA, for the Parks and Recreation District.
Have slept in church, dredge boat, and trailers
The other projects provided a range of living accommodations for the team, including an old church, a Missouri River dredge boat from the 1930s, and a double-wide trailer renovated to hold 20 people. At Upper Souris NWR, the team stayed in FEMA trailers and reveled in the space and comfortable beds.
“We have a couch and a kitchen table,” said Emily.
“We’re used to rickety bunkbeds,” Kara added.
Refuge personnel put the volunteers to work collecting flea beetles and releasing them to control stands of leafy spurge, cleaning areas at the dam, counting fish, and spraying noxious weeds. In fact, Judie earned a certificate as a pesticide applicator in the state of North Dakota.
“I tested for it,” she said as her teammates teased her about reading aloud to them from the manual as she studied. “Being from New York City, I never would have had the opportunity to do that if it hadn’t been for this project!”
The team will stay at the refuge until July 26th, when they will load their 15-passenger van for one last drive back to the Vinton campus for debriefing and feedback sessions as well as workshops about college and career planning and the rest of life after AmeriCorps. “There’s a lot of emphasis on how to take your AmeriCorps experience into your future,” said Emily.
Graduation from the program will take place August 5th. With that date less than a month away, the NCCC members all viewed their AmeriCorps experience as a positive step toward their futures.
Laura, 23, has a bachelor’s degree in communications with a journalism minor from Stone Hill College in Massachusetts. She participated in volunteer service during college, including stints in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and in Peru.
“I wanted to continue doing that and helping out,” she said. “I loved every second of this year. It was a great decision.”
She plans to make a career in public relations and is now considering work with non-profit organizations, even taking courses online to earn a certificate in non-profit management through the AmeriCorps program.
“This experience has opened my eyes to non-profits,” Laura said. “Everybody has a great cause. It will be a matter of finding one that would fit.”
Dan, 19, graduated from high school and chose to join AmeriCorps before attending college. He plans to start his core classes at Montgomery College in Germantown and work part-time for an outdoor adventure camp when he returns.
“I felt like I wasn’t ready for college and I wanted to help out,” he said. “AmeriCorps let me explore the country. I was hoping it would broaden my ideas about what I wanted to do. There are a lot of opportunities out there for me.”
Emily, 24, was working full-time and taking classes for a philosophy degree at Sacramento State University. “I enjoy traveling,” she said. “I wanted to see the country and find a way of serving that didn’t involve the military.”
She intends to return on a part-time basis to the real estate company that employed her before. “My focus will be on finishing school now, not work,” she said.
“I’d watch the news and hear about these disasters,” Judie, 20, said about her decision to join AmeriCorps. “I wanted to find a hands-on way to give back. This was also a way to know my country better and to go to states I’d never go to otherwise.”
She plans to become a massage therapist and will attend the program at Finger Lake School of Massage when she returns to New York, as well as return to her part-time job at a rock and roll museum.
Kara, 23, will be leaving for France within a few weeks after finishing her AmeriCorps deployment. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English from St. Michael’s College in Vermont and has accepted a position with the French Ministry of Education to teach in the Alps for the Grenoble public school system.
“AmeriCorps was a chance to travel and try new things,” she said, “to be exposed to new vocations and different communities.”
Team recommends the program for other youth
All five team members recommended AmeriCorps service, including NCCC for persons ages 18-24, VISTA for ages 18 and older, and AmeriCorps State and National. Room and board is paid during the service, as well as a small living stipend, and all training, including first aid and disaster aid, is provided.
“You live and work, eat, sleep, cook and clean together,” Emily said. “You learn how to interact with people you never would have had the opportunity to interact with otherwise.”
Young adults in the NCCC program receive a $5000 education award after finishing their service, which several colleges across the country match with another $5000. “You can use it to pay off loans or for college tuition,” said Laura. “You can also defer your loans while you’re in AmeriCorps.”
Once applicants are accepted into the NCCC, they are assigned to one of five campuses in Sacramento, CA, Denver, CO, Vicksburg, MS, and Perry Point, MD, as well as the Vinton campus. New volunteers have no choice in which campus they attend, other than selecting their starting date. “AmeriCorps makes an effort to diversify the ages and locations for the teams,” explained Emily.
Judie emphasized that communities and local organizations could host NCCC teams for projects. “Any non-profit or government agency can apply for a team,” she said. “AmeriCorps will help them find a program, and it’s not too hard to get a team.”
“Especially in the north central region,” added Emily, who explained the Vinton campus covered projects from Ohio to the Dakotas. “There isn’t a lot of competition for teams right now.”
The group recommended that anyone interested in serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer in the NCCC program visit the organization’s website at www.americorps.gov/NCCC.
The five team members working at the Pioneer Village had expected and even hoped to attend campuses closer to their hometowns when they first applied, but their time in the Gulf states and the Midwest has become valuable to them.
“I’m grateful for the experiences we’ve had in the Midwest,” said Kara. “Sometimes, that most important experience is when you experience things you wouldn’t do otherwise.”