Story last updated at 5/13/2009 - 11:29 am
JUNEAU - Mary Ullman, SAGA recruiter and hiring manager, said she feels "like destiny" when she recruits people from the lower 48 because "it's a life changing experience." Ullman herself came to Alaska from Montana to be a team leader for the Youth Corps. She originally planned to stay for six months while leading a crew of at-risk youth.
"It was profound," Ullman said. "It was the most difficult thing I've ever done but it was the best thing I've ever done. A lot of kids have problems in the standard school system. (SAGA's Youth Corps) is a chance for them to prove themselves to themselves and their peers outside of the clique system in the schools."
Ullman has now been in Alaska for three years and has no plans to leave. She said her favorite part about SAGA is that it builds more active and engaged citizens.
"It teaches you a level of citizenship that I think is sort of lacking in everyday education and life," Ullman said. "It puts focus on what you can do and the changes you can make in your community and in the world."
It's easy to fall in love with Alaska while taking a leisurely stroll along one of its many outdoor trails, but an even deeper appreciation comes to those who cut the trees and moved the earth to blaze the trail. Hundreds of people have voluntarily signed up to perform backbreaking tasks like trail building, often far from the comforts of the civilized world. Despite the hard work, pain and fatigue, many of these volunteers say that their term of service was the highlight of their life.
SAGA is a Juneau-based organization that recruits and places volunteers in positions around the state. Founded in 1986, the organization's mission is to improve lives, lands and communities throughout Alaska through service learning. They do so through several programs that focus on job training, experiential education and leadership development in youth and adults.
SAGA became Alaska's first AmeriCorps grantee in 1993. Currently, the organization receives about a quarter of their annual funding from AmeriCorps.
AmeriCorps is a federally funded program that provides opportunities for thousands of people to serve their country through non-military means. During their term of service, full-time members are provided with a stipend based on the cost of living in the community in which they are based.
At the end of a full-time term, members receive a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award of almost $5,000, which they can put toward student loans or continuing education. Joe Parrish, SAGA founder and executive director, said it's not uncommon for volunteers to come up from the lower 48, fall in love with Alaska, earn their education award and use it at one of the University of Alaska campuses or at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage (APU). APU is one of a few schools around the country that will match the amount of the education award in tuition credit.
While Parrish said he is always pleased to see SAGA alumni succeed in higher education, he is even more pleased to see troubled lives turned around by SAGA's programs.
"There are a lot of at-risk kids that we work with," Parrish said. "When we take a kid who is on a path to institutionalization through the juvenile justice system or adult corrections and we turn them around, that's the coolest."
SAGA has five programs aimed at fulfilling their mission: Young Alaskans Building Affordable Housing (YABAH), Connections, Eagle Valley Center (EVC), Serve Alaska Youth Corps and Alaska Service Corps.
YABAH is based in Sitka and provides job training and education for Alaskans aged 16-24. Participants spend six to nine months learning construction skills in conjunction with earning their GED or high school diploma. Upon completion, each member also earns an education award.
The Connections program is an individual placement program where members provide up to 12 months of service in educational, nonprofit and government organizations.
Andrew Vidal is a Connections member who accepted a full-year term as retreat coordinator with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in Juneau. Having come from southern California, Vidal said he was looking for a new adventure and a way to give something back to society.
"Whether putting together curriculum for retreat activities and lessons or learning how to adjust to living in snow, recruiting youth and adult presenters or learning how to drive a manual stick-shift, I can now say with pride that I have developed much more self-trust and confidence," Vidal said. "Most importantly, however, I am beginning to learn how to be a mentor to youth who need it most. Without AmeriCorps, I doubt this process would have had such an impact."
Ashley Saupe, another Connections volunteer, is in the midst of serving a term of service with Discovery Southeast in Juneau. She has been active in providing hands-on nature education for children and adults through classroom teachings and outdoor activities.
"Being an AmeriCorps volunteer has really opened my eyes to the things that are most important," Saupe said. "There are things that no one can teach you and instead you learn from firsthand experience."
MORE THAN JUST KAYAKING
Nate Heck is the manager of the Eagle Valley Center (EVC), an adventure-based program and retreat facility located on Amalga Harbor Road. According to Heck, the EVC is the facet of SAGA that is most well known in Juneau, as most middle-schoolers visit the facility during school field trips.
The EVC has a retreat lodge equipped with sleeping quarters, a kitchen, living area and entertainment center. The lodge is used during various camps throughout the year and is also available for rental. There is also an outdoor ropes course that aims at building both team and individual skills.
The EVC is surrounded by hiking trails and is a great base for sea kayaking. Beginning on May 30, the facility will host a Community Sunset Paddle program. All gear, guides and instruction are included for a fee.
But, Heck said, SAGA "isn't just about going kayaking."
"It's about building skills and capacities for other things," Heck said. "You're learning skills that will be applicable in any situation. The essence is having an experience of being responsible and self-reliant, then transferring that back to the community where you live."
IN THE FIELDS
In the Serve Alaska Youth Corps and Alaska Service Corps programs, members work in teams around the state performing service projects such as trail work, recreation site repair and maintenance, fish and wildlife habitat restoration, public safety enhancements and invasive plant species removal. Teams are often in the field for days or weeks at a time living in tents in remote locations.
Noel Farevaag, a former business owner from Washington, is one of many Service Corps members who have fallen in love with Alaska while working in less-than-leisurely conditions. She is currently serving a nine-month term in the Corps.
"I've always wanted to serve my country in a manner and AmeriCorps seemed like a really good fit," Farevaag said. "I figured two years in the Peace Corps without my dog would be too much. I can live without my dog for nine months, I think."
AmeriCorps week is May 9-16. The week is designed as a recruitment and recognition event designed to bring more volunteers into service and recognize those who are currently serving or have served in the past. In addition to recruitment efforts, SAGA is celebrating the week by creating a quilt with squares made by volunteers. When finished, it will hang in the Office of the Commissioner in Anchorage.
With the recently passed Serve America Act, AmeriCorps will expand from 75,000 nation-wide volunteers per year to 250,000. Since 1994, 574,000 members have served with AmeriCorps, 60 percent of whom have gone on to public service careers. According to Parrish, hundreds of AmeriCorps and SAGA alumni are currently in educational, nonprofit and service positions around the state.
Parrish said he often receives calls from SAGA alumni thanking him for the impact that the organization has made in their lives. Last week, one of those calls came from a former SAGA member who had enrolled in a program in the early nineties. This former member had recently hit rock bottom and was searching for a reason to keep living.
"He said, 'I thought about what was the greatest time in my life and it was SAGA,'" Parrish said. "He called to say, 'Thanks.'"
For more information about SAGA, visit servealaska.org.