Corpsmember Spotlight: Margaret Krueger

By Gina Hatch, AmeriCorps member – February 14, 2019

Margaret’s 2013 Wilderness Crew on Mott Island off the coast of Isle Royale National Park.

Margaret’s 2013 Wilderness Crew on Mott Island off the coast of Isle Royale National Park.

Margaret Krueger’s time with the Conservation Corps has taken her on adventures to places that natural resource professionals might dream of – from remote lakes and islands within Isle Royale National Park, to far reaches of the Lake Superior Hiking Trail, to a National Wildlife Refuge home to the largest breeding colony of American White pelicans on the continent.

And that was all while she was still in high school.

Today, having earned a degree in Environmental Studies from Hamline University, Margaret has returned to the Corps under the Individual Placement program and landed in another haven of outdoor enthusiasts – although one with markedly different scenery: the offices of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Saint Paul. Switching from the field to the office for this position is an adjustment, she admits. But she’s excited and ready for the growth it will bring. “It’s great practice to hone new skills and gain professional development, as opposed to focusing mainly on technical skills. It’s been challenging so far but I’m looking forward to it.”

Margaret’s story, from age 16 to 24, exemplifies the arc of personal and professional development that serving with the Conservation Corps can provide. And throughout this story, she has modeled the open-mindedness, flexibility and adventurousness needed to seize these opportunities for expansion and fully reap the rewards.

So how did it all start?

Margaret first joined the Corps at age 16, after watching her older sister participate in Summer Youth Corps (SYC), a program that takes youth ages 15 to 18 camping around the Midwest to complete hands-on conservation projects. “As a little sister I watched her go through the program and really got interested. She returned to it for three years in a row and I got to see her gain networking skills and make lifelong friends.” Following in her sister’s footsteps, Margaret also completed three terms of SYC taking her through the end of high school.

Each of her terms with SYC was a different experience, but the value and pay-off of adaptability was a common theme throughout. During her first term as a youth crew member in 2012, wind storm damage from the previous year left SYC participants at a back-up base camp and changed the operation of the program so that crews were sent on service trips longer and more far-flung than usual. Margaret’s crew ended up on a two-week trip in the Chase Lake area of North Dakota. The first part of the trip was spent on a prairie restoration project, while the latter part had the crew banding American White pelicans at the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Margaret with her Summer Youth Corps crew at the entrance to the Chase Lake Prairie Project in 2012.

Margaret with her Summer Youth Corps crew at the entrance to the Chase Lake Prairie Project in 2012.

“It was a really unique experience! The pelicans mainly nest on this one island so we took a small paddle boat out and banded the birds that were still adolescents and couldn’t fly yet. (The adults just see you and fly away.) You have to move very slowly there because there are several thousand birds nesting and you don’t want anything to get trampled.” Margaret’s crew was indeed in a very special place; the island is designated as one of the top 100 Globally Important Birding Areas in the United States. “It was incredible research that we got to help out with, and that research has helped restore the pelican population on that island. That was definitely a highlight of the program – and a very exceptional opportunity that we had because of the unusual circumstances of SYC that year.”

For her second term with the Summer Youth Corps, Margaret took advantage of her previous experience to join the Wilderness Crew, which is an option specifically for returning youth members. The Wilderness Crew brought her to Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior to work with the National Park Service on maintenance of the Greenstone Ridge Trail.

“That summer was structured so that we had 10-day increments of work and then four or five days off. The National Park Service schedules their work that way because it can take so long to get to work sites there; sometimes you have to bushwack and portage in.” Still, the atypical schedule came with its perks. During their long periods off the crew got to go on extended hikes around the park and enjoy their time relaxing in the company of National Park Service staff. And of course, all that time spent working and wandering the remote island resulted in some enviable wildlife encounters! “There were several times when were just hiking or working and would see a moose and her babies or something else incredible.” Margaret and her crew even got to meet the researchers studying the island’s wolf and moose populations.

Margaret’s 2013 Wilderness Crew near the Greenstone Ridge Trail on Isle Royale National Park.

Margaret’s 2013 Wilderness Crew near the Greenstone Ridge Trail on Isle Royale National Park.

Finally, during her third term with SYC, Margaret ventured into a somewhat different role and served as a “swamper.” “A swamper is essentially a gopher, so that position requires an incredibly flexible person. American Sign Language is a significant part of SYC and the sign for swamper is essentially ‘doer person,’ and that’s exactly right.” As a swamper Margaret spent much of her time either filling in for Crew Leaders or back at the base camp running the kitchen and managing other logistics. Acting as a Crew Leader, she got to lead trail maintenance work along the north shore of Lake Superior, at Tettegouche and Gooseberry Falls state parks, as well as on the Superior Hiking Trail, a portion of the term that she remembers very fondly.

Margaret’s service with the Conservation Corps paused here while she went on to Hamline University to pursue a degree in Environmental Studies with a minor in Biology and a focus in Secondary Education. Although, in some sense, her experience with the Corps never really left her, because the work she did as a youth corpsmember strongly guided her academic trajectory. “Coming into college I knew exactly what I wanted to get my degree in and that was because of the Corps. I’d always had an interest in the environment and natural resources, but that got much more specific through the Summer Youth Corps and that experience helped me make a lot of decisions. I definitely would not be where I am had it not been for those service terms in high school.”

Back to the present, Margaret has returned once again to the Conservation Corps seeking the next step to build on her field skills and academic background in environmental education. In January of this year she began a year-long Individual Placement position serving as a Youth Outreach Specialist with the Parks and Trails division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). And that SYC experience from high school is still proving foundational as she builds her professional network: “One of the main things I learned with the Corps was how to meet and connect to new people, and that’s exactly what I’m doing now. It’s a slightly different context, but that’s a lifelong skill that I’m definitely carrying into this job.”

In addition to those general networking skills, Margaret’s work with SYC is helping her out in more specific and specialized ways as she starts to build curricula for the DNR’s I Can Camp! and I Can Paddle! programs. These summer offerings introduce Minnesota families to various outdoor recreation activities while also educating them about local ecology and natural resources. To get launched on this ambitious project, Margaret will be connecting with Corps staff to access some of the environmental education resources she used as an SYC member and essentially facilitating a collaboration between the Corps and the DNR.

Reflecting back on her experience with the Corps so far, Margaret can easily pick out another key way in which her service experience has stuck with her and exerted far-reaching influence: “SYC taught me how to maintain a positive mental attitude in any situation – not just through physical challenges, but also through changing mental and emotional conditions, and that’s something I still carry with me. It’s a skill that has applied not just to my work experience but to my whole life.”

To new members just embarking on their service term, she advises practicing this positive mental attitude through thick and thin. “If you focus on doing that the experience will be so much better. And it effects what you’re physically capable of doing.” The triumphs you achieve in the face of apparently impossible tasks, she explains, are “humbling and incredibly valuable.”

She also strongly encourages members to return for multiple terms and stay engaged even after their service. “It’s something incredibly important to what we do at the Corps. We rely a lot on involved alumni and we highly value that network. Plus you’ll come out of it with lifelong friendships.”

Her advice to people who might still be contemplating service with the Conservation Corps?

“Do it! Absolutely do it! I’ve loved my time working for the Conservation Corps so far; it’s probably been the best job I’ve had in my entire life and I’m not exaggerating.”

Reflections on disaster deployment: every disaster is different

By Erin Bjork, AmeriCorps member, Young Adult Program 2017-18 – 1/29/2019

Conservation Corps MN & IA members with Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) members on their last morning.

Conservation Corps MN & IA members with Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) members on their last morning.

The one constant in disaster response is that every disaster is different. All AmeriCorps Disaster Response Teams (A-DRTs) operate under the same systems of command and organization, but the scope of work, the people who make up the team, and the communities where we work all contribute to making a completely new experience every time. I tried to keep this in mind preparing to leave for my second deployment to North Carolina in mid-December 2018 but couldn’t help thinking about the experiences I had in Puerto Rico, in response to Hurricane Maria.

My first disaster deployment sent me to Puerto Rico in the fall of 2017, just a month after Maria had devastated the island. I hadn’t been initially slotted to be a part of the response team from Minnesota, but while attending a reception of members returning from an A-DRT in Texas, my supervisors found out that I speak Spanish and asked if I would be ready to leave for Puerto Rico within the week. When we arrived on the island, utilities were out over much of the island and the hillsides were brown where evergreen tress had been stripped of their leaves and many had fallen. Though roads had been cleared and most trees had been removed from power lines, hundreds of trees remained on homes. Our teams assessed damaged homes and cleared trees so we could help homeowners sign up for roof repair and roof tarp installation. While the island still had a long way to go when we left just after Thanksgiving 2017, some of the island now had electricity, and once-brown hillsides were resurging with leaves and bright blooms.

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Back to 2018: our Conservation Corps MN & IA team left for North Carolina in December after our end-of-year celebrations. After the designated time for community and closure had ended for the week, we packed our bags and got back into the trucks to which we had already said goodbye, launching back into work and into forming community again. Seven of us built a new crew and new dynamic, forming bonds with people from Washington, Utah, North Carolina, and all over the country. For me, this was an emotional time; not only as an opportunity to help in communities still deeply affected by Hurricane Florence three months after it made landfall, but also as a capstone on my two years with Conservation Corps, an organization that has come to feel like home.

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It’s hard to quickly summarize our month in North Carolina, or any disaster response experience (every disaster is different!). We had the opportunity to contribute our physical labor in removing damaged building materials, installing roof tarps, scraping glue and mold from homes, and spraying mold-suppressing chemicals; to offer emotional support to the community and get to know their neighborhoods months after Florence devastated the area; and to make deep connections with crews from other AmeriCorps programs who share our same values. I personally had the chance to work with the Incident Command team in a planning and operations capacity supporting our field teams and working on our data and reporting systems. While it may not seem exciting to work with spreadsheets all day, I thoroughly enjoyed working to clarify our reporting systems and making sure all accomplishments since October 2018 were properly documented.

I’m incredibly proud of my crew and their hard work and dedication—looking out at the world at-large can be scary and uncertain, but these folks have energized me with their care, love, and belief in the value of hard work. It was beautiful to be a part of a small but strong coalition in North Carolina dedicated simply to doing good, placing all our weight on supporting recovery, community, and making a difference. While I am still working out how to think about this single month in the grand scheme, I am immensely grateful for the experience and the passion of those who have worked alongside me—and for the Corps experience overall. I don’t know exactly where I’m going next, but Conservation Corps, and especially the individuals I have met and served with over the last two years, have changed my outlook and my life for the better.

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The end of a good year

By Kelsey Brock, Southern District, Mankato Crew - 12/6/2018

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It’s hard to believe that our term is already coming to an end, but somehow it is. It has been a year full of amazing views, challenging but rewarding work, and some really good connections. There have been a lot of successes, along with some difficulties and tough days (where humor comes in handy). The number of positive things I can take away from the experience are too many to mention, but the thing I will take away most is the relationships I’ve built with other crew members. It’s such a valuable skill to learn how to work as part of a team, and I got really lucky with my crew, who I’ve come to learn a lot about over the last ten months.

First, there’s our crew leader, Micheal (first from left). Superpower: able to take (and give) a joke well. Weakness: prone to ripping his pants.

Next, Melissa (second from left). Superpower: tree climbing. Weakness: likes pineapple pizza.

Followed by Kayla (third from left). Superpower: making you laugh until you cry/getting you to see the humor in every situation. Weakness: she has none.

And last but not least, Gabe (fourth from left). Superpower: being the true muscle of our crew. Weakness: an unhealthy hot Cheetos obsession.

The crew is one of the biggest parts of the experience as a Corps member, I’m with these people more than I’m with family or friends and I’ve loved working with every one of them. You’re all beautiful human beings and I hope you get all the opportunities you’re seeking.

Lastly, I’d like to thank all the animals we’ve met during the year. We’ve had the unexpected surprise of meeting many private owner’s pets, stray cats, and even the occasional sleeping fawn. You were my favorite part.

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The Humanity In-Between

By Caroline Fazzio, Individual Placement Program – 12/3/2018

If working with the Corps has taught me one universal lesson, it’s that I will not always agree with my coworkers. Invariably there is disagreement on some level, whether it be as simple as a personality variance, or as complex as opposing core beliefs. Either way, the result is the same—I must work with this person, often every day, regardless. Typically all is fine, until that inevitable day when something comes up in conversation—a current event, a political stance, a religious belief, even a backhand comment—and suddenly those differences are triggered.

I guarantee I’m not the only one who’s ever faced this scenario.

Often in our work places, we play polite until our differences begin butting heads. Then, we usually decide to merely tolerate our coworkers out of necessity, or to vehemently avoid any subject that may underscore our differences. Neither is particularly healthy.

When we choose to simply tolerate someone, our attitude toward them can quickly shift. We begin to subconsciously, or even consciously, respect them less, disregard their ideas, or zone-in on their faults and forget their strengths. There is a fine line between a tolerating workplace and an unwelcoming one.

Avoiding subjects that highlight fundamental differences doesn’t always work either. It’s exhausting constantly trying to predict and avoid any potential conflict. I have found that even the smallest, seemingly insignificant comment from a coworker can trigger me. Unintentional as it may be, it reminds me of the differences that exist between myself and those I am surrounded by every day.

So how do we find success and joy in a job and a world where we may disagree with those with whom we constantly interact? I have pondered this dilemma since I started my position in January and found myself surrounded by a cohort of coworkers with whom I sometimes disagree. Now, ten months later, I still do not have an answer, nor do I believe that anyone is capable of getting along with others, hiccup-free, all the time.

So why do I bring this issue up?—because we cannot afford to be afraid of it. We cannot dismiss it, nor can we hope for a positive outcome if we are willing to settle for tolerance or avoidance. Now more than ever, we must not run away from the issue of how to work with and connect with someone fundamentally different from us.

I don’t have the solution, just what I have learned throughout my life, and especially the past two years as a Corpsmember. We cannot avoid the inevitable differences that will arise between us, but we can choose to consider each other’s humanity above our core differences. We can elect to recognize our divisions and the issues they produce, and be open to letting those differences inspire us and teach us.

Who knows, that person who bugs you the most may just be the source of your greatest growth.