AmeriCorps changed my life. Nearly 10 years after my first term of AmeriCorps service, I can still say, without hesitation, I am the person I am today because of the unexpected opportunities I experienced because of this program. This narrative is an account of how AmeriCorps allowed me to weave a thread of purpose through service over nearly a decade of my life.
Part I. AmeriCorps*NCCC
In 2005 I had recently finished college graduating with my Bachelor of Fine Art and found myself living with my parents after having my applications to a number of graduate schools rejected. Like 10. I was frustrated with the stagnation that I felt creeping into my life and I began to reevaluate my plans for the future. I was not brave enough to undertake a term of Peace Corps, but I needed an adventure. I needed a change. and I thought that surely there was a program that was a domestic equivalent. It turns out that, sure enough, there it was. Type in ‘Peace Corps’ and ‘America’ into Google and you get ‘AmeriCorps’. Motivated less by an altruistic desire to help my fellow man and more by a somewhat selfish desire to travel and take “interesting” and “meaningful” photos I applied to AmeriCorps*NCCC. AmeriCorps*NCCC is a team-based residential national service program for 18-24 year-olds where teams are stationed at one of several campuses across the US and during their service year they deploy on numerous 8-week project terms called ‘spikes.’ George W. Bush was President. Hurricane Katrina had struck the gulf coast the year before. Not that this really meant all that much to me at the time. But it would.
I wasn’t immediately accepted into the NCCC. I was initially placed on an alternate list and instructed to proceed with getting my finger prints and the remainder of the application process if I wanted to continue to be considered. This was really frustrating after the recent bout of rejection I had faced. “I had a college degree, I had volunteer experience and I’m not good enough to get into a program that accepts people who haven’t completed high school?”, this was the general line of thought that went through my head when I received that letter. I felt entitled to serve. At this point though, I didn’t have a lot of other prospects and I proceeded with my clearances. It was just a month or so out from the tentative start date in January that I received another letter and was offered the chance to serve and though I had already started to discount the opportunity in my mind, when I got the offer, all of that was washed away and I realized how deeply I wanted the experience and I accepted my invitation to serve at the Perry Point campus in Maryland.
When I was picked up at the airport in Baltimore I took my first of many trips in a 12 (or 15) passenger van. This first trip was to the Perry Point, MD campus that was also a VA facility sitting on the Chesapeake Bay. I was packed in with a group of new Corps Members and a second year corps member who’s wisdom from the previous year was essentially that the local pub had a great deal on alcohol if you bought the pub’s beer mug. At this point I don’t remember if this is a figment of my imagination, but I feel like he was actually brandishing the mug in the van and I remember judging him for his less than pure intent. Ironic.
When we arrived at what would become our home base for the year, we were given our uniforms and other essentials and a housing assignment. I was assigned to a house with 5 other guys. I got the top bunk in my shared bedroom and I remember my first night there thinking “I’m cold” and “What have I gotten myself into?” It was January in Maryland and I had failed to get/act on the memo that I should have brought a sleeping bag. Needless to say, with all the excitement and newness also came doubt and uncertainty. Early on you aren’t assigned to teams, you are simply getting setup for the year and getting to know the group as a whole and doing a lot of general in-processing which includes taking a pack test if you wanted to be considered for one of the firefighting teams, which a whole lot of people did. I wasn’t really sure, but I figured the point of the experience was to take on any opportunities I could so I gave it a go. The leadership at the campus really glorified what it meant to get to serve on a fire. In some of the early trainings and presentations, serving on a fire was a service opportunity that, in some ways, came across as more meaningful than others. More about that later.
The team I was assigned to was Fire II and my Team Leader was Chris Hall. This was Chris’s 3rd year of AmeriCorps and second year of AmeriCorps*NCCC. Chris was passionate for service and had a way of articulating and conveying that passion to others. Also on my team were Jimmy Kelly, Barb Crosby, Emily Celichowski, Mitch McLean, Laura Hoffman, Katie Irwin, Cory Price, Melissa Lee, Erin Jesberger and Nicole Buckner. All strangers who I would share one of the most important years of my life with. I remember when I was first assigned to this team being both thrilled to have been selected to be on 1 of 2 firefighting teams that year and being equally concerned about being on a team with so many “loud” personalities. With a disposition to introversion this would be a challenge. Check out our first team photo, I’m the only guy in the photo not smiling looking too cool for school with my Holga camera with a Polaroid Back.. Yup. That was me circa. January 2006. Coming out of art school where I had been allowed to self-select my peer group and work with generally similar people for a good 4-years on artwork that was largely self indulgent, this was a bit of a switch.
After getting some time to get to know each other through team building and various independent service projects, we would soon be given our first project assignment. As I mentioned before, Hurricane Katrina had struck the gulf coast just the year before devastating cities like New Orleans, LA and Gulfport, MS and I had honestly not even given it a second thought before arriving at Perry Point. When Katrina had silenced the French Quarter, I had been in art school where my primary concern had been figuring out how to create the ultimate externalization of who I was as an artist and graduating. Somehow, something as devastating and relevant as Hurricane Katrina had totally missed my radar. But now, like most every other Corps Member, I wanted nothing more than to have the opportunity to have my first project round on a disaster recovery assignment. I wanted to serve in the place where the need was the greatest. If you had asked me during this period why I wanted to serve on disaster I would have talked about wanting to make the most difference I could. In my heart I also wanted to take the best pictures I could, the most meaningful. I was seeking glory and purpose as an artist.
For our first project round we were assigned to a Girl Scout Camp called Camp Iti Kana in Wiggins, MS. The site was a good ways from the coast where the major impacts of Katrina had been felt, but there was still some major damage that had occurred to some of the cabins and trees and as a wildland firefighting team the camp had need of some prescribed fire operations. For this project round Chris appointed me to the position of Assistant Team Leader. During my first day ‘in charge’ I had to call 911 because a cabin burned down in a neighboring camp ground. It turned out to be an electrical fire following an investigation by the local fire department. I was just glad nobody got hurt and that it wasn’t related to our work. Some days we would spend long hours watching over fire as it slowly burned the natural debris of the forest, others we might be demolishing/salvaging a structure, or rebuilding it. This project round was defined by the smell of scorched pine needles that saturated our clothing and skin, the walks through a charred forest back and forth between the cabins we lived in and the dining hall and hospitality (and lawn ornaments) of our project sponsors. Thus began a realization that service is really hard work, getting up day in and day out to do the labor that needs to be done to make the difference.
After Camp Iti Kana we were sent to our second project round further south to conduct FEMA survey’s with residents to assess their recovery needs. It was in the first week or two of this project that Erin, Nicole and Myself were selected to be on a newly formed composite team called the Gulf Liaison Team (GLT). Oh, and we met former President Bill Clinton. That was pretty neat, but I digress. Erin and I were sent to Louisiana and Nicole was sent the the GLT in Mississippi. On the GLT we served with Kate Vacanti, Eric Crawford and Cadi Poile. This separated us from Fire II for a project round, but I was looking forward to the unique opportunity to contribute on the operational end of the NCCC. The purpose of this team was to facilitate communication between NCCC field teams and rotating campus staff. At this point in time there was not an NCCC campus in the region and so staff and teams were cycling in and out from around the country which created several communication challenges. My primary job on the team was to produce a newsletter which we lovingly named “The Heat” while sitting around discussing the weather one humid and hot Louisiana day at some sort of coffee shop / eatery. During this period my team lived in a giant 500+ person circus tent at Camp Algiers and later a gutted out school where the walls were tarps and bathrooms were portable FEMA units called Camp Hope. During this period I would get up nearly every morning to cook grits and make coffee for the camp and I become lovingly known by the staff as the “Grits Guy.” After a morning of cooking I would serve the camp until I had to break away for my daily GLT tasks, but it was through this experience that I got to see how food could bring people together. How a sense of normal could be created by establishing every day habits. The GLT would travel around to the project sites of other NCCC teams in the region and we would serve with them for the day, documenting their good works, figuring out what resources they needed to accomplish their work and ultimately provide a means of sharing all of this information among teams and administration in the region. One of the last and most memorable projects we completed as a group was a special assignment where we were sent to a home in a rural community where we helped gut out the home of a little-old-lady made unlivable by the effects of the storm. We slept in her FEMA trailer where she had been living for over a year while she waited for help to get her life back on track. To return to a sense of normal. We got a taste of what it means to live in the wake of a disaster and be powerless to recover from it.
For the third project round we reunited with Fire II in Maryland where we were working to paint schools in Baltimore as well as do some demolition work for a local nature center. On the drive back to Perry Point I remember looking out of the window of the 15-passenger van and thinking how odd it seemed that everything was moving. The fast-food restaurants were open for business. Buildings were serving their intended functions. People were coming and going from work. Life was normal, as if nothing had happened in Louisiana. As if Hurricane Katrina had never happened. It was a jarring juxtaposition. The world was on fire, and the people were asleep and blissfully unaware of the suffering around them. I focused on reconnecting with Fire II and getting the work at hand done. It was during this project round that something really special happened. One day while I was painting at one of the schools, Chris took me aside and told me that a call had been made to put someone on a national wildfire crew in Idaho and because I currently had the most Independent Service Project (ISP) hours at our campus, I was on the top of the list for deployment if I wanted it. I had worked really hard all year to be in this position completing over 300 independent service hours beyond the 1,700 required of AmeriCorps Service. As you might recall from earlier in this narrative, a great deal of emphasis had been placed on how awesome serving on a wildfire was. Interestingly enough, this was not a clear decision to make. I had also recently applied for the opportunity to fill a TL position for the final project round of the year.
It’s kind of remarkable, but to this day I credit who I am today to this choice. I was presented with a decision to choose a path that was filled with short-term perceived excitement and glory, which was honestly the reason I joined the NCCC in the first place, or a path that would be wrought with challenge, but with the opportunity to do something really special. Help other people find the value in their own service experience. This wasn’t a decision I could make on the spot. There was no guarantee that I would even get the Team Leader opportunity, interviews had not been conducted, and if I did become a Team Leader, It was made clear that I would not be able to serve on a wildfire or disaster operation for the rest of the year because my responsibility would be to my new team. People talk about defining moments and following your heart, but it was the moment that I chose to trade someone else’s definition of what constitutes meaningful service for for the chance to make my own definition, not for the communities we were serving, but for the people making the difference for these communities. This was the moment that I understood selfless service and what it meant to be a leader.
My assimilation into Fire IV wasn’t easy. To be perfectly honest, it was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be. As my first real leadership opportunity, I would learn more in this project round than I had in the rest of the year combined. I met my new team for the first time in Mississippi. After the exciting glow wore off, much like the beginning of the year, the pit of my stomach was filled with unease. My team was tired, frustrated and ready to get out of the south, and for some, they were ready to be done with AmeriCorps and eachother. Their year had been challenging in ways I could not fully understand, but I would have to try to be able to make the difference they would need from me. My job wasn’t to change the past. It was to help them find value in the service they had already completed and embrace the final project round bringing their service year to a meaningful closure.
For our final project round we were sent north to Wells, Maine to work for Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve. In addition we had project assignments with Kennebunk Land Trust and Mount Agamenticus Conservation Region. The logistics of this round essentially split apart my team to accomplish different project tasks for different partners. One team worked on estuary assessments for Wells NERR, another worked on trail maintenance and bridge building. I would rotate between work groups to make sure things were moving along, but I depended on my Assistant Team Leader (ATL) for day-to-day support of the Estuary team. Despite the relatively serene and pastoral nature of our surroundings and the physical separation from the disaster recovery work in the coastal southeast, Fire IV was carrying with them the weight of the year and more than once I was caught off guard when my Corps Members would come to me at the end of their wits ready to go home and I had to convince them to keep on pushing. Despite the adversity that Fire IV had faced throughout their service year, they worked with me to get things done for our partners well above expectation and persevered through the remainder of the year. Each and every one of them would complete the Corps year with me. I was proud of them, I was proud of myself. Because of their perseverance, Fire IV completed over 18,000 hours of national service during their service year with and without my assistance. While every team and every individual will have a different service experience, and while the motivations of the service member can be as varied as night and day. The service is real and so are the impacts on the communities served and the people that serve them.
Part II. AmeriCorps Florida State Parks – Talbot Islands State Parks
Like my first AmeriCorps experience, I entered into my second, again, with a less than 100% altruistic sense of service. I had been accepted to serve in Morocco as an Environmental Educator for the Peace Corps at the end of my NCCC year as well as into SUNY Cortland for Outdoor Recreation when I had an epiphone on a rather bumpy plane ride after coming back from visiting with someone I had met at the end of my last Corps year. I want to marry that girl. At the end of the NCCC year I had the opportunity to spend some time with a team leader named Sara and, long story short as it can be, I told my parents over Chinese food I was moving to Florida to marry her. I told her I was coming down to visit. So began my whirlwind application to AmeriCorps Florida State Parks. The Florida State Parks AmeriCorps program had sites all over the state for individually placed Corps Members as well as a couple team based groups similar to NCCC. I was applying a little late in the game and it was by a stroke of luck that beautiful Talbot Islands State Parks in Jacksonville was in immediate need for an AmeriCorps member. The member they had selected had, in-fact, injured himself over the summer in an unrelated roofing accident and would not be able to participate in the upcoming service year. Unlike my NCCC experience, I applied in December 2006 and started on January 1st 2007 moving myself and all the important things (mostly my car, computer and some bedding) down to my new home in Jacksonville. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it didn’t really matter because I was driven by the unwavering confidence that I would propose to Sara, she would say yes and it would all work out. Because this is an AmeriCorps story, that’s all I will say about that.
My time in Florida was a stark contrast to my previous Corps year. My NCCC year had been chaotic, exciting and characterized by teamwork and an intensity unlike anything I had ever experienced. I had found purpose in serving others. My experience with Talbot Islands State Parks was defined much more by a sort of silent introspection. Though I would get to spend some time in team situations and experience other parts of the state intermittently for special events or tornado recovery, for the most part I had the opportunity to become a part of what felt like the end of the earth. To reconnect with the natural world and the wonders around me. Digging post holes for protective bird fencing on the beach while the birds sat outside of their designated area staring, contemplating why I would be doing such an absurd thing. Walking blindly through a sea of jagged palmetto plants in hopes of stumbling into a depression marsh where I would be able to take GPS points of pitcher plant populations or be eaten by a giant man eating serpent of some sort. Tracking down and documenting gopher tortoise holes. This is the type of work that defined my second year of AmeriCorps and it allowed me the clarity of thought to reflect on my future and further solidify my confidence in what I would want to do as a career.
By the time I left the state parks, I was quite certain I wanted to make my life’s work something that protected and improved the environment. Fortunately, during the Corps year, I had the forethought that I would need to supplement my undergraduate education to be competitive in the environmental field and I used my education awards to pay for my Master’s Degree in Environmental Policy & Management which I finished about 6 months after my second service year in 2008 because I had completed most of it while serving my second term. This work and education, made possible by AmeriCorps, established the foundation on which I would start my career.
Part III. AmeriCorps – Stormwater Matters, Town of Farragut, TN
About 3 years after starting work with the Town of Farragut, TN, I had the opportunity to again reconnect with AmeriCorps, but this time as a site supervisor with the Knoxville Community Action Committee’s (CAC) Environmental Corps. I was looking for assistance in implementing parts of the Town of Farragut’s Stormwater Matters water quality program and I was able to illustrate the undeniable value of AmeriCorps Service Members to the Town’s leadership.
Through a combination of grand funding and partner match, members receive a living stipend, health insurance, training, and so much more. The living stipend combined with the education award and training provide basic sustenance and incentive to the service member while they work full-time at a site to get things done and make a difference for their community partner. In addition, the on-the-job training the service member receives is a critical step in making them competitive for graduate school and/or the professional opportunities they aspire to hold in the future. For a modest contribution, the CAC AmeriCorps program provides a college educated 18-24 year old who is ready to bring passion, purpose and their own unique vision to the mission of an organization. Unlike a volunteer or intern, an AmeriCorps Member works full-time at their site to accomplish a comparable body of work to a regular full-time employee significantly increasing an organization’s capacity to pursue it’s mission.
Since 2011, I have had the opportunity to work on a one-on-one basis with a young professional to get things done for water quality in the Town of Farragut and believe it is my responsibility to offer to them what was once offered to me, the opportunity to discover purpose in service.
The presence of the AmeriCorps member injects new life into the Stormwater Program on an annual basis by introducing new dreams, aspirations and talents to our program and work group. Members have been male and female, have come from North Carolina, Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania and have had backgrounds in Environmental Policy, Anthropology and even Food Service Management. Every member has brought something unique to the program and has left the community better off than when they arrived. AmeriCorps is the best investment a non-profit or government can make.
Part IV. Ready To Write Your Own Story?
If my musings, adventures and/or mishaps have had given you even a hint of curiosity about national service through AmeriCorps and what it can mean for you, I encourage you to explore www.AmeriCorps.Gov and search for a service opportunity that lines up with your own personal and professional aspirations. There are service opportunities in everything from Environment and Disaster Recovery to Economic Development and Public Safety. Some are team based, some are not. You can have an adventure far away from home or serve in the community you grew up in. There is an opportunity to serve out there waiting for you.