AmeriCorps changes lives

By: Rafa Contreras-Rangel

After being an AmeriCorps member for over a year now, I can honestly say the program has changed my life. Many of the closest friends I have now I met through the program, without the connections I’ve made through the program I would not have my current position as an Aquatic Invasive Species Specialist with Conservation Corps, and I also would not have met the academic adviser I will be starting my Master’s program with in the fall. Many of my views have changed and continue to change during my time with the program. Looking through my old blogs, I can already see how I am different now compared to when I had just started. In this blog I will try to show an example of how I have changed during my time with AmeriCorps.

Last year I wrote a blog describing a typical day for a conservation worker. I explained how I only shared the cool stuff that happened during my workdays, such as cutting down huge trees and administering prescribed burns, while leaving out all the uninteresting parts that usually required hard work. I also happened to make fun of friends that hold office jobs, mentioning how we all know that “my job is still cooler than yours.” When I made that statement, I never would have expected that the following year I’d be working in an office.

This year I am still working with Conservation Corps. While last year I was a Crew Leader, this year I am working as an Individual Placement with the Department of Natural Resources’ Aquatic Invasive Species Program. I signed up for this job mostly to do aquatic invasive species surveys, which would mostly involve me going to lakes and rivers to look for invasive species. This meant I would be able to brag to my friends how now I was scuba diving and snorkeling in lakes and rivers for my new job. Having been born in Mexico, seasonal variation still does not register in my mind, so it did not occur to me that the lakes and rivers I would be working on would be frozen when I started my position in January. So here I am now behind a desk typing up this blog. If you’re one of my friends that I’ve been bragging about my job to, I guess the cat is out of the bag.

Having been part of a crew working in the field for the past two years, I often heard from project managers how they missed being out in the field and how now they are stuck behind a desk. After hearing this from most project managers, it made me start dreading the day when I would get an office job. I remember wondering why someone would ever want to get an office job when you could be working in lakes, forest, and rivers.

Now that I have been working in an office for the past few months, I have changed my views towards working in an office. I have accepted that the feeling of working in the field will never be replaced, but I have also learned to appreciate the work that happens at the office. For my position I have been able to attend senate meetings where various natural resource organization and non-profits make their case to get funding for their projects. Funding that is often used to hire crews like the one I worked on last year. I’ve attended county meetings, where counties meet with DNR experts to come up with the best approaches to manage and restore their lands. Again, these plans often include crews like the one I have previously worked on.

If you don’t work in an office, it is easy to lump all the work that they do as just “office work.” Even if you do work in an office, when explaining to people what you do, it is sometimes easier to just say “office work” as well. While it might be easy to dislike an office job since you’re mostly working behind a desk, I have found that an office job is just as essential as a job in the field. Without one, the other one would cease exist.

As can be seen from my blog last year, I used to not think too highly of office jobs, being stuck behind a desk would be too boring for me, I wanted to be working out in nature and getting the “real” work done. Now that I am working in an office, I don’t see my job as boring and unfulfilling as I thought I would. I am excited to come to work every morning because I know that what I am doing is setting the board for future conservation work. What I do now in the office today will affect what people do in the field tomorrow. I now think of office workers as the master minds working behind the scenes, the people that set the stage so that the actors can shine during the play. 

I can honestly say that if I had not become an AmeriCorps member last year, I would not be the person I am today. All the career goals I have set for myself were created while I’ve been an AmeriCorps member. Fifty years from now I can see myself looking back at my time with AmeriCorps and confidently say that is the place where it all started.

More than a year of service

By: Kristina Luotto

We are celebrating AmeriCorps week. AmeriCorps and other national service programs have recently been in the news for potentially being on the budget cut chopping block. As a current second year AmeriCorps member, I find myself full of pride this week. My time with AmeriCorps has already been extremely beneficial to my personal and professional life.

Initially, AmeriCorps pulled me out of a post-graduation slump. After completing a Bachelors degree in Biology, I began looking for a job in the natural resources field. However, I could not land my first job because I lacked the typical two years of experience preferred by most employers. While working a couple of retail jobs to make ends meet, I found AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps is the perfect first job. They promise to inspire leaders to "improve lives, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering.” Over the past year, I feel this promise has been delivered. I have learned to operate a chainsaw, control prairie fire, and become a hardworking team player, all while working to better myself, my community, and my country.

Through AmeriCorps, I have begun to establish my independence as a young adult. I have struggled and also thrived as I learn to balance living on a small stipend and paying rent and utility bills with traveling and making budget meals. I have learned practical job skills. I have worked outdoors in all four seasons and become more aware of my personal impact on the environment. I have given it my all, giving my weekends, my ego, and my energy to being an environmental steward. In return, I have developed strong muscles, close friendships, and humility.

My community has benefited from the improvement of a handful of parks, public land, and waterways which have been made more accessible and sustainable throughout my year with AmeriCorps. I have planted trees, pulled invasive weeds, set fire burning up a hillside, surveyed bluffs for rare wildlife, and protected turtle nests along the Mississippi River. AmeriCorps has provided me with the unique opportunity to get my hands dirty and restore the well being of plant, animal, and human lives within my community.

My country has also seen the benefits of AmeriCorps volunteer work. AmeriCorps has allowed for me to be an employed, taxpaying citizen. My teammates have volunteered on wildfire suppression and disaster relief efforts. AmeriCorps helps me feel connected to my country. As I have invested in the natural resources and public spaces of my country, my country has also invested in me. For completing an AmeriCorps term of service, I received an education award. This financial asset will pay to further my education as I plan to pursue a Master’s degree in the coming years. 

I am proud to celebrate AmeriCorps this week and I hope that my two years of service are just the first stepping-stone in a happy life and successful career in the outdoors.

The importance of AmeriCorps

By: Erika Birnbaum

         Once upon a time there were six lost strangers. The first had traveled across the country from the middle to the west and to the east. One grew up in a small town learning to live off the land. Another lived in the same city she was born in, trying to figure out where she fit. The fourth was constantly on the move, from place to place, living for the next adventure. The other girl had traveled the world looking for a place to call home. The last, but not least, was a young boy just starting out. These six very different lives collided because they all shared the dream of making the world a little bit better than they found it. They found their place, at least for a little while, in Northeast Minnesota working for Conservation Corps. Here they found a place that would let them be themselves, give them work making the Earth cleaner, and train them for life as conservationists.

         For ten months these six lost strangers would give back to their community and gain more skills, knowledge and wisdom than could have ever been expressed in an interview or on a resume.  For the two out of high school, it became the foundation of what they would live their lives for. For one, it was a new adventure, one that he had not experienced during all his travels. Another was looking for something new after his time at college. The other two new college grads were ready to get their feet in the door of their professions. None of them understood exactly how important this year would be for them.

         The biggest gain was the service learning. While their skills and knowledge at the beginning may have been different, by the end they had all accomplished more than they ever knew they could. One month they spent building bridges, another a roof. Some days they were miserable and wet but when they looked back over a project, their hearts soared with pride. Everyday they were making a difference, to people, animals and plants alike. They were testing out new ideas, ones that were unable to be tested by those fearing for job security. Learning practical skills they would use everyday for the rest of their lives. All the while, making a drastic positive influence in their community.

         To them, this community included more then just people. It was the trees struggling for a foothold, the flowers that were hiding under the buckthorn and the animals searching for a home. All these beings and more made up the larger community the six conservationists worked to save. Sometimes they joined others like them who were working towards these same goals--another Conservation Corps crew, or a project host that wanted to make sure the resource was there for their great-grandkids’ grandkids. Working together, these like-minded individuals built and restored state parks, national monuments, prairies, and so much more.

         The six saw themselves as examples, much like a person who joins the military to fight for their country. Only these six were fighting to save it within, with axes and hammers, chainsaws and laughter, hammers and nails. While appreciating the men and women who served their country in their own way, these six strived for a different view. One that showed others, within and outside of America, that this country strived for the best of all beings. That there was a pride for the abundant resources like national parks, scenic byways and our own backyard.

            Today these six continue to be not lost, but thriving with a strong purpose to continue being the individuals that accomplished so much saving in less than a year. They also are thankful that their country understood their sacrifices by forbearing loans, giving them a bit of money for their education, and making sure they had enough to feed and house themselves. Their one wish is that every year a new group of lost strangers has the opportunity they had to make both themselves and the world a bit better than when they started.

Why I serve: an AmeriCorps story

By: Eric Chien

“We have another clone over here!” My crew and I followed the sound of the exclamation, slipping our way through a group of small trees and into a wet meadow. Across the clearing stood another a member of our Brainerd, MN based Conservation Corps Field Crew. As we sloshed through ankle deep puddles rimmed with early summer orchids, I could see that every one of us had a sizable cohort of mosquitoes trailing our fluorescent helmets. “Here it is, looks pretty manageable if we all tackle it at once.” Soon the dull thud of steel against bark mixed with the soft clattering of aspen leaves twisting in the wind. Shwwwwk. As we all focused in on our work, it was only the sound of our draw knives stripping the bark from trees for the next hour. The kind of ambient silence that builds and becomes so dense it stifles the thought of breaking it. “Best job I ever had!” Without any apparent prompt or to anyone in particular, one of the crew had mustered up the wherewithal to shatter the silence. “Best job I ever had!” rang out the staggered reply from throughout the trees.

Americorps program work is often not glamorous. It is the type of stuff you might like to learn about on television, and maybe even jump in on for a day or two, but seven days into a typical ten-day project trip and even those with well suited constitutions start looking beyond their current lot in life. Every person picks something to return to in the hardest stretches; during those hours when all you can see is a mountain of challenge in front of you, it is necessary to have some sort of ideological anchor for the decision to serve. Whatever it is, it has to be held close, and believed with fervor.

Growing up in Minnesota, I learned to love our native and wild places. I grew aware of how the integrity, health, and existence of such places formed the foundation of our thriving, uniquely Minnesotan human communities. I also came to see that foundation had cracks that have long been expanding. I found a regrettable found truth in Aldo Leopold’s warning that “to gain an ecological conscience means to live alone in a world of wounds.” That would be a dismal road to travel, but for programs like the Conservation Corps. It offered me a place “to get things done.”- the promise made in the Americorps creed by all program service members. With the Corps I often woke up tired, sore, missing home, but I also woke up with the gratification that I would get to spend the day affecting something that foundationally matters to me, and I believe to so many of us that call Minnesota home. In the hard times of my service, that was my keep.

For seven days my crew roamed acres of Northwestern Minnesota Aspen Parkland, girdling the bark from distinct groups of aspen trees. Working for the State Scientific and Natural Areas Program we were tasked with stripping the bark from these “clones,” to allow for the recovery of a severely imperiled prairie ecosystem that was being starved of light by aggressively expanding trees. It would be an early test of each of our resolve and commitment. In that mosquito choked, sopping afternoon, the affirming exclamations of our desire to be there, knowing that we each had returned to our internal firewall and found it intact, shines clearly in my mind. Best job I ever had.