Story last updated at 6/24/2009 - 10:45 am
Editor's note: This is part of a series of essays about the experiences of AmeriCorps volunteers in Southeast Alaska.
While serving with SAGA and AmeriCorps, I've learned the importance of meaningful labor (and wool socks), the subtle benefits of escaping my customer service-centric comfort zone, and the grander sense of accomplishment I've achieved in working together with others from varying backgrounds to complete daunting tasks.
I discovered AmeriCorps on a pure whim, perusing through craigslist.com on an unbearably hot Florida day. While scouring the website for a job that matched my strong suits, I encountered a somewhat suspicious and vague posting seeking people to work with disconnected youth in Alaska. I quickly applied, completely convinced that I would never receive a reply.
Shortly after answering the ad, I received a call from SAGA in Anchorage and was interviewed the same day. I arrived in Alaska completely unprepared - without a tent, warm clothing or sleeping bag. A night of torrential downpours and violent winds in a borrowed tent flattened by rain confirmed that Alaska is not the place to test your luck.
When I arrived at my service site in Cordova, the disconnected youth I was to work with were already notorious amongst SAGA staff for their unruliness and intimidation tactics. Thankfully, my Team Leaders shared my enthusiasm for education and helped enforce study times and education sessions. In return, my crew members regaled me with stories of wayward polar bears and heart pounding whale hunts. Whether building bridges and geo track ATV trails in Kodiak, working on guardrail detail in Cordova or chain sawing a snow mobile path on the side of a mountain ten miles into the wilderness in Chena, I quickly adapted a survivor-like lifestyle and profoundly deeper appreciation of nature.
After finishing my term of service as a Serve Alaska Youth Corps field educator and later as an Alaska Service Corps crew member, I was extremely reluctant to join the Connections program to serve at the Department of Transportation (DOT) in Juneau, where I thought I would endure grueling office hours and monotonous tasks. Who could make an easy, undisturbed transition after a year of constant travel to gaze-grabbing locations, hard work aimed at preserving the natural beauty of Alaska, and a colorful cast of characters?
Fortunately, DOT has provided various challenges. And although the first couple weeks were tiring exercises in patience and restraint, we all pulled through to enlist in community outreach - creating safety education curriculums and healthy lifestyle promoting partnerships. I found the time to create our Safe Routes to School mascot, Reflectorsaurus. We also partnered with the Juneau Rotary Club to lead guided safety tours at their Safe Kid Saturday event. For our multiple bicycle rodeos throughout May and June, I managed to gather volunteers from the Zach Gordon Center, Juneau Police Department, the Wal-Mart Safety Team, Cycle Alaska, the UAS Bicycle Club, SAGA, Dolphin Tours and the Juneau Freewheelers.
As an outreach specialist, I work hard to reach our ultimate goal of establishing a Safe Routes to School Program in Juneau. My service at DOT has reminded me that hard work has no substitute and that the benefits of community service are not monetary but spirit restoring and personal growth inducing. I would encourage anyone interested to invest a second of their time and consider signing up for AmeriCorps as the opportunity will provide enough memorable moments and lessons learned to ruminate upon for an entire lifetime.
Daniel Fernandez is an AmeriCorps volunteer from Sunrise, Fla.