CNCS leadership visits Florida disaster relief operations

By: Kristina Luotto

This week, leadership from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) came to visit & tour our disaster relief operations in Southwest Florida. The CNCS Senior Leaders were Chester Spellman, AmeriCorps State and National Director; Deborah Cox Roush, Senior Corps Director; and Gina Cross, Acting AmeriCorps NCCC Director. Chester and Deborah are both new to their positions, so this visit to SW Florida was their first orientation to the AmeriCorps Disaster Response Teams, services, structures, and programs.


Here in SW Florida, the CNCS leadership saw our AmeriCorps members running a command staff meeting and visited crews working in the field. After a tour of field operations, the CNCS leadership toured our base camp and ate dinner with us in our dining hall.


Being able to share our disaster relief and recovery experiences with senior AmeriCorps leadership was an incredible experience. I came away from the experience feeling proud and inspired to continue with national service. Thanks for making the trip down to SW Florida, Chester, Debbie, and Gina!

Learning through service

There is no one way to learn. Visual learners understand lessons best through images and spatial understanding, while auditory learners prefer sounds and music. A physical learner uses their hands, body and physical touch to learn, while logical learners prefer to use reasoning and systems. Individual learning needs are diverse so by offering options within educational settings, we are preparing young people for greater success.

Conservation Corps uses a variety of techniques to build participant knowledge and experience including hands-on practice, lecture-style training, and group learning. However, the one practice that is always present is service-learning. Service-learning is defined as an approach to teaching and learning in which students use academic knowledge and skills to address genuine community needs. Participants spend time outside of a traditional academic setting to learn and grow which leads to greater success in school and in life while benefiting the community.

Service-learning gives participants a chance to connect with their community and consequently see their part in it. They gain a deeper understanding of the complex causes of social problems while building leadership skills, social responsibility, and strong moral values. Academic outcomes are also impacted as school attendance and engagement often increases and access to college and careers widens.

‘Youth Outdoors’ is one example of a program that incorporates service learning. Youth Outdoors connects Twin Cities teens to the natural environment through hands-on conservation and neighborhood beautification projects. It empowers young people to become active, engaged citizens and leaders. Over 75% of projects focus on natural resources and 25% on community service. Youth gain job and career-planning skills and learn about natural resource management, ecology, science, technology, environmental conservation, and Minnesota natural and cultural history. They also learn to plan and execute community service projects and lead volunteers.

This spring, Youth Outdoors completed nine service projects. Each youth crew designed a service project for their community and completed it on the last Saturday of the term. Check out their projects listed below!

·         YO1 – Cleaned-up trash at Harriet Island.

·         YO2 – Made a bat house and created a mural at Frogtown Farm. 

·         YO3 – Built a bench and a bat house. 

·         YO4 - Made a bee hotel for Tamarack Nature Center.

·         YO5 – Built a little free library for Powderhorn Park, and a bench for a community garden in North Minneapolis.

“The two best things about Conservation Corps are that the community building is so strong and that the work is so worthwhile and meaningful.” –youth member, Katherine

Small moments, big impact

What are kids into these days? Video games, fidget spinners, Snapchat? There are always new and exciting toys and technology competing for young people’s attention. But what about good old fashioned ‘playing outside’? Our Conservation Interns know the importance of getting kids outside to learn and play and are working hard to re-spark their interest in the outdoors.

Elana Zien is a Conservation Intern at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge where she was trained to deliver interpretive programs to the public. Sophia Buysse is a Conservation Intern at Chippewa National Forest where she interacts with visitors and campers all day long.

See their stories below about those little moments that make a big impact.

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Elena’s Story:

“MOM! LOOK AT THIS! The iPad says we just saw a big brown bat!” This was the excited shouting that could be heard (perhaps for miles) in the woods of our refuge, at 9 pm on a weeknight during one of the bat hikes led by the staff of ecological services and a couple refuge interns. Ecstatic shouts might be a common sound on the refuge, and it won’t be the last time we find a bat or get kids excited about the creatures that share the refuge with us, but it was the one of FIRST times that I felt like a real naturalist while working at the refuge. It’s these kinds of small moments that can be significant if you let them be.

Now rewind about three weeks back from this moment, to a small conference room upstairs and a fresh faced group of interns going through Certified Interpretive Guide (CIG) training, in hopes that moments like this one could be a regular occurrence for them at Minnesota Valley. If you look closely, you’ll see that at least one of the interns has doubts about her skills as a naturalist and abilities as an interpretive guide. (Hint: if you couldn’t guess, that intern was me). Notice, however, that I said “was;” as in, when we go look at the intern with the iPad at the bat hike again, we notice that most of that first week anxiety and almost all of that trepidation is gone now.

It was this small moment with a little brown bat and the excited little boy who had spotted it that I realized small moments can be such a big deal. This one was a big deal because it warmed my heart to see the curiosity and sheer joy exuding from a student and future steward. It was a big deal because this moment had come about so easily, and it felt so natural to me; without even thinking about it, I had guided the learning of someone in a way that had given them a greater appreciation for and understanding of something on our refuge. It was a big deal because I got to observe firsthand the positive impact that a “light bulb moment” can have, on anyone, no matter how small it may be. Perhaps most importantly, it was a big deal because I was helping to advance the work and mission of the refuge, which is to not only preserve and protect wildlife and critical habitat, but to make it accessible for all those who wish to experience it.

Most of all, though, that small moment was a big deal to me in terms of personal growth and what I can look forward to. It meant that I’m getting better at my job, and growing more confident in my position as what I like to think of as an inspired guide of sorts. It meant that the enthusiasm and passion for conservation that I have is something that I’m able to share with everyone who comes to the refuge. And really, what more could I possibly ask for?

 

Sophia’s Story:

As a Naturalist on Chippewa National Forest, my position involves many hours spent talking with visitors and campers on Chippewa National Forest, planning for programs, and exploring the forest. My week starts with a visit to the Boys and Girls Club on Wednesday mornings. There is usually a group of 15-20 students waiting when I arrive. Though it takes a few minutes to convince them to clean up their toys or put away their books and come into the classroom, telling them what we are going to talk about or hinting at the activity usually works! (If you have a bat skeleton, they are very interested in the program). My challenge begins once I start my program. There are always about five kids who are very excited to learn about the given naturalist topic, whether it is bees, bats, trees, or the water cycle. These kids help to keep others quiet and listening, and already know the answers to many of my questions. The Boys and Girls Club has pushed me to learn how to control a classroom. As a more reserved individual, it is a challenge for me to go beyond raising my voice while fighting with fidget spinners and other distractions for attention. As the summer has gone on, I have gotten better at controlling the classroom, but the Boys and Girls Club presents a challenge that I will continue working on. I have started to plan a shorter program to be done with the whole group with an optional extension program for those who are further interested. I have only tried this for two weeks, but it has worked well.

The rest of my week is filled with a Naturalist Meeting on Wednesday afternoons, and working in the visitor center Thursday through Sunday. My time in the visitor center is spent preparing for programs, presenting programs, organizing educational crafts, and talking with visitors. I am also finding larger projects to work on, such as brainstorming ideas for a natural playground. This experience has confirmed that I enjoy working with people, and pushed me to consider careers that would allow me to spend time out of an office or laboratory and with the community.

This position has already taught me many lessons, and we are only half way through! It has been a learning process from figuring out how to plan a program and write lesson plans to marketing my programs and creating displays for the visitor center. I have had many new exciting new experiences, such as seeing my first Showy Lady’s Slipper in person, and exploring new places, such as restored CCC Camp Rabideau. Everyone I have met on Chippewa National Forest has been welcoming and excited for me to be here. The work atmosphere has encouraged me to work hard, ask questions, and take advantage of this unique opportunity as a CCMI Conservation Intern and a Chippewa National Forest Naturalist.

Maintaining a high standard

Impressions count – and they last. Minnesota has a well-earned reputation as a great place to enjoy the out-of-doors, and part of the mission of Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa (CCMI) is to help the state keep that lofty standing. 

After a day on the Mississippi, hiking or enjoying other recreational activities, no one wants to encounter a campground that’s been neglected, without expected amenities or otherwise in disrepair. Lynzi Daly, 23, leads a young adult field crew that recently did a three-day sweep of eight Mississippi River campgrounds in the Bemidji area. They loaded canoes with chain saws, lawn mowers, other landscaping equipment and assorted supplies. At each campground, they cut downed trees into firewood; cleaned fire pits, stocked amenities with supplies (toilet paper, for example) and otherwise made each a welcoming place. The job even included removing graffiti.

These campground facelifts might not be glamourous work, but Lynzi appreciates their importance.

The eight-campground cleanup included manicuring around various amenities.

The eight-campground cleanup included manicuring around various amenities.

“Camping – and the recreation that happens around it – is about the total experience,” she says. “CCMI and other groups do great work restoring shorelines, building rain gardens, eradicating invasive species – the list goes on – but that’s all compromised if the camper has a bad experience somewhere along the line.”

Lynzi sees a bigger picture, too.

“The crew and I are learning new skills, having new experiences and gaining a real respect for the land and the environment,” she continues. “We’re also learning to work with others, and – most important – we’re learning about ourselves.”

 

Maintaining a high standard

Impressions count – and they last. Minnesota has a well-earned reputation as a great place to enjoy the out-of-doors, and part of the mission of Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa (CCMI) is to help the state keep that lofty standing. 

After a day on the Mississippi, hiking or enjoying other recreational activities, no one wants to encounter a campground that’s been neglected, without expected amenities or otherwise in disrepair. Lynzi Daly, 23, leads a young adult field crew that recently did a three-day sweep of eight Mississippi River campgrounds in the Bemidji area. They loaded canoes with chain saws, lawn mowers, other landscaping equipment and assorted supplies. At each campground, they cut downed trees into firewood; cleaned fire pits, stocked amenities with supplies (toilet paper, for example) and otherwise made each a welcoming place. The job even included removing graffiti.

The eight-campground cleanup included manicuring around various amenities.

The eight-campground cleanup included manicuring around various amenities.

These campground facelifts might not be glamourous work, but Lynzi appreciates their importance.

“Camping – and the recreation that happens around it – is about the total experience,” she says. “CCMI and other groups do great work restoring shorelines, building rain gardens, eradicating invasive species – the list goes on – but that’s all compromised if the camper has a bad experience somewhere along the line.”

Lynzi sees a bigger picture, too.

“The crew and I are learning new skills, having new experiences and gaining a real respect for the land and the environment,” she continues. “We’re also learning to work with others, and – most important – we’re learning about ourselves.”

 

Summer Youth Corps: Fluberance

By: Teresa Butel

In the spring of 2014, I applied to be a crew leader for Conservation Corps MN on a whim. My sister was working in St. Paul at the time for an organization that worked in the same building as the Corps and she recommended that I look into their summer program. SYC was the first job I applied to without having personal connections to tell me about what I was getting myself into or to recommend me to the organization. I didn’t know anything about the program beyond the Corps’ website’s advertisement to “provide hands-on environmental stewardship and service-learning opportunities” and my sister’s impression that “they seem to have a ton of fun” from her limited creeping on their work in her shared office building. To my amazement, I was accepted. I began joking with my parents about how I was heading back to summer camp, which, in some ways, I was.

My memories of summer camp are fleeting but surrounded by the happy haze of recalling how the one or two weeks I spent living in cabins with complete strangers upended my daily routine. Fortunately, it is a feeling I am able to share with other people I went to camp with or really almost anyone who has ever been to camp. The feeling that ‘camp is magic’ resonates with so many people that it has become cliché. The feeling is unique for each person who experiences it; yet, it is one of the most common descriptions of camp.
Many camps develop distinct language in order to avoid describing such an incredible feeling in generic terms. For SYC, the word is fluberance.

To be clear, SYC is not actually a summer camp. Instead, it is a three-month program that hires around 140 high school students and 20 AmeriCorps members each summer to tackle conservation projects in state and national parks, forests, and recreation areas across Minnesota and neighboring states. High school students are hired for one-month sessions and assigned to crews with two AmeriCorps leaders alongside seven to eight other crewmembers. For the first few days of each session, these crews come together to train at SYC’s base camp in St. Croix State Park. This base camp at St. John’s Landing has been the home of the program for over 30 years. Each session, 70 high school students arrive at St. John’s from across the Midwest to live with complete strangers in cabins. For many youth, as it was for me back in 2014, this is the first job they’ve gotten outside of a family connection. For some, it is their first job period. 58% of program participants come from greater Minnesota. For some, it is also their first time meeting people from a different background – backgrounds they may have only learned about through the media. I have heard students shocked when people from the cities are not like Keeping Up with the Kardashians or when people from small towns are not like Duck Dynasty.

The introduction to diverse people that happens at camp strengthens when the youth are sent out to accomplish a variety of natural resource projects on assigned crews. The small size of each crew allows youth to receive an incredible amount of professional development while working directly with their AmeriCorps supervisors. The small size also allows youth to really get to know everyone on their crew. At the end of the 2015 program, one youth told the story of how they were initially waitlisted, until the day the program actually began and then got a surprise phone call saying they were hired! The youth was not mentally prepared nor particularly enthused about the prospect of working. They also had autism and were concerned about struggling with social cues as folks on a crew spend significant time together – working, learning, playing, and living in close community for four weeks. For most of the session, that youth adopted the refrain, “GUESS WHAT, I don’t care,” when asked about work or engaging in other activities. Nonetheless, their crew leaders and peers recall “bombarding them with enthusiasm” every day until the end of session when this youth shared about how much the program had meant to them. Wrapping up their reflection, they said, “and GUESS WHAT…” to which his crew shouted in unison “I don’t care” – he paused and corrected them, “no, I do care.”

As our world becomes increasingly regulated by technology, SYC holds onto a value of disconnecting from the outside world in a way that allows these month-long communities to truly support, challenge, and grow together. In some ways the camp culture can feel exclusive – especially if you end up alone around several people reminiscing about camp. The memory sharing can make it feel like only the people who experienced the program understand the feeling of fluberance. In spite of that hazard, I believe that fluberance in its mixture of fun and flexible exuberance has an incredible power to bring people together. In my third summer with the Conservation Corps, I am still awed by the moments where I witness youth joking with people they would have never met outside of SYC. I have seen fluberance aid in the transformation of youth and staff alike, allowing them to embrace enthusiasm, to foster inclusion, and to leave behind their feeling of needing to be cool. As one of the youth I worked with in 2014 asserted with an end-of-session poem,
“Nothing & definitely no one is excluded from the great feeling of what we call fluberance.”

Our favorite places to get outdoors

Check out where our staff love to spend time outdoors! Where are your favorite places to get outside? GO EXPLORE!

Carrie Danner: My favorite outdoor destination is the bank of the Chippewa River on which my uncles cabin sits in Ojibwa, Wisconsin. It’s my favorite place because it’s the perfect place for fishing, tubing, canoeing, and every time I go I see at least 3 bald eagles and approximately one gazillion stars.

 

 

Brian Hubbard: Minnesota has world class parks and trails! My favorite place to hike with Monty and Vahti is Split Rock River Trail, Two Harbors, Minn. We love the trail, access to the river and awesome views! 

 

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Dorian Hasselmann: Bryant Lake Regional Park has a recycling container at all the tee-pads for my excessive “soda” consumption! It is also well marked, and has a good mix of open and wooded holes. Also, some of the views almost make up for the number of extra throws I need to finish a round of disc golf.

 

 

Megan Zeiher: Butterwort Cliffs Scientific and Natural Area: During my service term with the SNA Program of the MN DNR I got to visit several SNAs across the state and see so many of Minnesota’s most wild places, but this was the most enchanting of them all. The crayon box of colors certainly added to its charm, but the peaceful crashing of waves and solitude of the space is what makes it one of my favorite places to get outside.

 

Eric Antonson: My favorite place to get outside is the back 40 acres at my parents’ house. I grew up playing and exploring in those woods. Much of my sense of where I came from and who I am is rooted there. It is good for my soul to get back there and wander around. As John Burroughs said, “I come here often to find myself. It is so easy to get lost in the world.”

Jerry Buker: BWCA – Peace and quiet, and great scenery and fishing.

Hollis Emery: Lots of places I love, but one of my favorites is still Banning State Park. One of the first parks I really explored in Minnesota when I moved to Moose Lake to be part of the Corps. And also one of the first times I hung out with my husband. Of course, I really really love Lake Superior. However, it’s hard to beat some of my favorite places back home in California – especially the ocean and mountains! – and Southeast Alaska, which is a place I got to live because of working for another Corps!

Andrew Dale: Superior Hiking Trail! Challenging, rewarding, rugged and mostly remote, yet not too far from creature comforts (great restaurants and breweries) in Grand Marais, Two Harbors and Duluth. I spend every spare weekend that I can up there. In the photo my dog Sam and I are overlooking Bean Lake, a couple trail miles into Tettegouche State Park. Sam is looking the wrong way as usual.

Kellie Lager: I love living in Minneapolis, because there are so many great places to get outdoors right in my backyard! Lake of the Isles is one of my favorite places. That rainbow was captured perfectly over the shoreline, and the flowers and rushes are beautiful this year. But of course, I can’t get out of here without a single picture of northern Minnesota! The sunset in the last picture looks like fire over the snow.

Bailey Erickson: I love going to the North Shore! My favorite thing is hiking up creeks and rivers to find waterfalls. Being by the water makes me feel more content, creative, relaxed and happy. I also love picking wild blueberries on Palisade Head, having bonfires on the beach and kayaking on Lake Superior. Photo taken by my favorite travel partner, Paul!

Nicole Zyvoloski: One of my favorite outdoor places is Eagle Mountain, near Grand Marais. It's the highest point in Minnesota, and I love the view! Another spot near and dear to my heart is Cascade River State Park - the river, Lookout Mountain, and Lake Superior all in one :-)