Story last updated at 4/11/2012 - 11:36 am
It's been just about three years since I started my AmeriCorps journey by transferring my belongings from an Oakland, Calif. apartment into a hand-me-down pick-up truck and driving to Seattle. And that, I can safely say, has made all the difference.
I had recently been accepted as an AmeriCorps member on a crew with EarthCorps, a nonprofit dedicated to environmental service. On a Monday morning I found myself at my first "circle-up," holding hands with a group of relative strangers while staff made announcements, provided an overview of the upcoming activities and then led a series of yoga stretches to begin the day.
If I looked like a deer caught in headlights, it probably had something to do with the fact that just 72 hours prior, I had been starting my last day at a busy San Francisco law firm, filing documents, firing off emails and turning in my laptop and smartphone. I had entered a completely different world and I quickly realized that the change involved far more than trading high heels for steel toes and dress pants for Carhartts.
I immediately felt at home at EarthCorps and was utterly amazed at the smart, funny, kind, dedicated and intelligent people surrounding me. Daily, I found inspiration from the knowledgeable and dedicated staff, public land managers and community volunteers with whom I served side-by-side to complete environmental restoration projects. I knew without a doubt that even the most monotonous tasks (like removing hundreds of pounds of invasive weeds) were meaningful when friendly neighbors, grateful for our efforts, welcomed the crew into their homes for coffee and hot soup on cold, rainy days. I mastered the use of tools I had never seen before and I learned that moving just one stubborn rock with a rock bar and a fellow crew member's help is a lovely way to spend the afternoon if you know it's going to result in the perfect addition to a beloved hiking trail.
We worked hard for long hours but all the while I knew I was also being paid for some of the most enjoyable, life-affirming moments I have ever experienced. I will forever remember our crew hiking out to an invasive weed project site only to stop suddenly and utter a collective gasp as a pod of orcas surfaced in the distance off the shores of San Juan Island. How could I possibly forget tending brush fires on the beach, sipping morning coffee while gawking at Mount Rainier, or singing along to "Dancing Queen" at the top of my lungs with my entire crew?
After my season at EarthCorps I happily accepted another AmeriCorps position as a crew leader with Conservation Corps Minnesota. There, I learned countless new skills - I cut down trees, drove snowmobiles and shouldered a backpack sprayer and pounds of hose line to fight forest fires. I learned that leadership means being cheerful when it's 7:30 a.m., temperatures are below zero and you're facing thigh-high snowdrifts on the walk to a project site. I learned that leadership means being the one to say, "We're not done. We can do better. Let's try again," when it's hot, muggy and everyone has covered every inch of exposed skin because deer flies the size of our fists are circling thick overhead. I learned that leadership means making sure my crew members know how just how much I respect them and just how grateful I am for their skills, expertise, humor and intelligence.
Where many employers ask, "How well can you do this?" AmeriCorps asks, "Will you try this? We could really use your help!" AmeriCorps can open your eyes to needs in your community that you may never have even known existed while providing you with the tools to make a difference and the confidence to use them.
Today, as the Southeast regional manager for SAGA's Corps Program in Juneau, AK, I have a laptop once again and I'm happy to have it. With it, I correspond with AmeriCorps members, plan training sessions, make ferry reservations and discuss projects with our wonderful project sponsors. My job is to draw on what I learned as an AmeriCorps member so that SAGA AmeriCorps members have the opportunity to learn new skills and develop confidence, serve communities in Southeast Alaska in meaningful ways and, hopefully, sing together at the top of their lungs on the way there.
This is one in a series of installments written by former AmeriCorps volunteers who served as SAGA Connections members. Visit www.capitalcityweekly.com to read more from this series. For more information about SAGA, visit www.servealaska.org.