Story last updated at 3/6/2013 - 1:41 pm
Five years ago next week, I stepped off the ferry and onto Alaskan soil for the first time. I sincerely hoped it was the right decision.
SAGA, a local nonprofit, accepted my application to be an AmeriCorps member in their Service Corps. It was my first time living far from Iowa. It was my first time handling a chainsaw, my first time encountering bears.
As an AmeriCorps member, I got a minimal living stipend, training, and an education award when I finished my term. I lead a crew and traveled to several communities in Southeast Alaska over the course of nine months. It was hard and I missed the Midwest.
It was also the best year of my life.
My crew saw Haines' beauty, Juneau's misty mornings, Ketchikan's relentless rain, and Gustavus' vast wetlands. We built trails. We decimated weeds. We cleared brush from roadsides. By the end of the season, the dirt and gouges on XtraTufs showcased our resolve.
It was hard to explain what I'd been through. On lonely nights, I had listened nervously in my tents for wild animals. Long days often drained my patience and tact. I'd learned to appreciate each crew member for their best and for their worst. Most of all, I'd seen the benevolence of kind Alaskans. We were thanked for our service, welcomed into cozy living rooms, and offered warm meals on shivered days.
My role with SAGA has changed and I no longer sleep in a tent every day. Last year, I was hired as the manager for SAGA's Connections Program. The Service Corps I was a part of in 2008 is still SAGA's key program, but the Connections program plays a different role in the community. AmeriCorps members in Connections help youth to get better grades and to make better life decisions. Through the Connections program, key community organizations partner with SAGA to support our kids.
AmeriCorps members in Alaska improve schools, respond to disasters, support veterans and military families, provide health services, fight poverty, and conserve and preserve natural resources. In 2011, 301 AmeriCorps members served in 66 Alaskan communities. Many AmeriCorps members are college graduates and yet, during their service, they earn only enough to scrape by.
Since AmeriCorps had such an impact on me, I tend to bring it up often. I've been surprised to discover how many Alaska folks got their start through AmeriCorps or through similar volunteer capacities. But it shouldn't surprise me. Alaska is full of people who want to make meaningful contributions in our villages, towns and cities.
Next week, as part of AmeriCorps Week, AmeriCorps members across the nation will speak out about the communities they support and the experiences that have impacted their lives. I want to say thank you to all the Alaskans who got their start serving in AmeriCorps. Many now hold prominent positions across the state and they continue to improve lives and communities. Also, thank you to the many organizations that support and mentor AmeriCorps members - you are invaluable to their experience.
And to the current cash-strapped AmeriCorps members committed to community service: Thank You. It's hard. It can be emotionally draining. It's daunting to realize all there is to accomplish. But you are very much appreciated. I sincerely hope, someday, you'll look back and think, "It was the right decision."
Ashley Peters lives in Juneau and manages SAGA's Connections program manager. She served AmeriCorps terms in Alaska and Minnesota and now oversees 21 AmeriCorps members serving statewide. To learn more about AmeriCorps, visit americorps.gov.