‘This Is a Good Place To Figure Things Out’

A team of AmeriCorps volunteers working at Shaw Nature Reserve in November and December planted some 2,500 trees across a 26-acre area of Missouri River floodplain. The trees will help slow erosion and, over time, improve soil quality by allowing silt to settle out more evenly throughout the watershed. Submitted Photos.

Before the team of AmeriCorps volunteers at Shaw Nature Reserve got to work on it, they jokingly referred to a 26-acre area of Meramec River floodplain as “the airstrip.”

“That’s what it looked like,” said team leader Arthur Knapp, 23, of Rochester, N.Y., “this long rectangular piece of land.”

That was then.

Now, 2,500 trees planted later, the land has been transformed into a budding hardwood forest that Shaw Nature Reserve staff expect will begin to slow erosion from floodwater and, over time, improve soil quality by allowing silt to settle out more evenly throughout the watershed.

It’s work that the SNR staff would have been able to complete eventually, but with a team of 10 motivated 20-somethings from AmeriCorps, the planting was finished in a matter of days.

That kind of productivity is the reason why SNR Director John Behrer has applied for an AmeriCorps team to help at the Nature Reserve for the last several years.

Previous AmeriCorps teams have worked at SNR in 2002, 2009, 2010 and 2011.

In 2009, the team assisted with ongoing glade restoration work. The 2010 and 2011 teams assisted with invasive plant species control, like cutting back bush honeysuckle, as well as prescribed burning and seed collecting.

This year’s team not only planted trees, it also did some prescribed burning (a critical tool for managing/maintaining native plant communities and enhancing biological diversity), which included preparing fire breaks, and seed collecting of native wildflowers, grasses and sedges for use in restoration projects.

“The SNR will be implementing an 85-acre wetland and prairie reconstruction project in 2013, and a large amount of seed will be needed,” Behrer wrote in his application for a 2012 AmeriCorps team.

What Is AmeriCorps?

The AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) is a full-time, residential, national service program “that combines the best practices of civilian service with the best aspects of military service,” the AmeriCorps literature notes.

“The mission is to strengthen communities and develop leaders through team-based national and community service.”

Volunteers are men and women, ages 18 to 24, who come from all over the country. They sign up for a 10-month commitment, serving on a team of eight to 12 members. Each team is assigned to complete various projects (each six to eight weeks long) in their region.

Projects help communities meet needs in the areas of natural and other disasters, infrastructure improvement, environmental stewardship and conservation, energy conservation, and urban and rural development.

In return for their service, AmeriCorps volunteers receive a $5,500 scholarship toward college tuition or to help pay down college loans. Equally as valuable are the varied work experiences and leadership skills they collect over their 10 months of service.

Volunteers have the option to reapply for a second year of service, which several of the SNR team said they planned to do.

Work Is Hands-On

Behrer said as much help as the AmeriCorps teams have been at SNR these past several years and as much as they have accomplished, he plans to keep on applying for a team to come each year.

This year’s group, as in years past, worked about six weeks, November into December.

The team members smiled as they talked about their experience at SNR.

Planting 2,500 trees in a matter of days was slow going at first, they admitted.

“Once we got a feel for it, though, it went fast,” one member said, noting the SNR staff kept a careful eye on them to make sure they were doing the work correctly.

A machine dug the holes for the trees, and the volunteers placed the trees.

The seed sorting work, which may sound extremely tedious, was actually “very pleasant,” said David Lynch, a 24-year-old volunteer from Cleveland, Ohio.

“You rub the seeds against this grey mesh screen to separate them . . . the seeds land in a box underneath.”

The work was quiet and gave the team members a chance to talk and get to know each other better, which they liked.

“It also always smelled really good,” one member remarked.

The work was varied — some days out in the field, others indoors due to rain or extreme temperatures — but it was always hands-on and never boring, members said.

“The work became easy when we were with each other,” said Christy McDonald, a 22-year-old volunteer from outside of Philadelphia, Pa.. “It was more fun.”

Workdays were full, beginning at 7:30 a.m. and ending around 4 p.m. with just a half-hour lunch break.

Learning While They Work

In working with the AmeriCorps volunteers, the SNR staff always makes a special effort to explain/interpret the ecological reasons for why they are doing the projects that they are.

The staff also gave Power Point presentations on the three major focuses of the SNR: education, native plant horticulture and ecological restoration.

The team was given a behind-the-scenes tour of the Missouri Botanical Garden, a world leader in botanical research, particularly in diverse tropical regions of the world, to provide them a greater understanding of the important role botanical gardens play in preserving plants and our environment.

They also toured the Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House (part of the Missouri Botanical Garden) in Chesterfield, which included a stop in the lab.

Leadership Skills

In addition to the work they do for SNR, the AmeriCorps team has other requirements to fulfill each week, like physical training.

“We have to train three times a week for 45 minutes,” said Knapp, noting team members will do things like run distances, do pushups and sit-ups.

Once a week, team members are expected to spend some time reflecting on the service learning aspects of their projects. They may write poetry or have a group discussion, for example.

Francesco Kaner, a team member from San Francisco, Calif., oversees the weekly reflection time.

Because building leadership skills is one of the goals of AmeriCorps, each team member is assigned a role within the group.

Timothy Palmer, a 20-year-old from Niagara Falls, and Macey Franklin, a 20-year-old from Washington, D.C., oversee the physical training.

Other leadership roles in the group are:

Independent Service Project coordinators (Franklin, Kaner and McDonald), who do outreach calls to area nonprofits once they arrive in the area to arrange for the team to volunteer;

Project Outreach Liaisons (Emily Gordon, a 23-year-old from Baltimore, Md., and Roxanne Hudgens, an 18-year-old from Riverside, Calif.), who research potential new sponsors, places where future AmeriCorps teams can come to work;

Media reps (Lynch and Palmer);

CAPers (Corps Ambassador Program reps), who seek out local high school or college classes where they can give presentations on AmeriCorps; this team gave presentations at Pacific High School and Covenant House for disadvantaged youth in St. Louis.

Other jobs include portfolio editor, someone who puts together a report on each team project; a vehicle and safety tools coordinator who keep the team’s two government vehicles running; and a food point of contact, someone who manages the grocery shopping for group meals.

During their service at SNR, the team members were provided accommodations at the Diamonds Inn Motel just across the street.

Mix of Backgrounds

The 2012 team members, like others that have worked at SNR, come from a mix of backgrounds with varying levels of education and reasons for volunteering.

“I joined to do something that would have a positive impact on the world,” said Lynch, who said he was playing in a rock band, working in landscaping and other odd jobs before joining AmeriCorps.

He wants to go back to college to study music therapy, so the $5,500 scholarship award will help with that.

Emily Gordon, a team member who is one year out of college, was working in social work with plans to go to graduate school, but wanted to try something different first. Being at SNR and working outdoors has been a change for her, but one that she enjoys.

“I’m more people-oriented . . . but I like doing this kind of work, being surrounded by nature, being around people who are so invested. It makes me more excited,” she said.

“This is a good place to figure things out.”

Kaner said he joined AmeriCorps because he likes the idea of living and working as part of a team.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for a career, so I’m hoping this experience will help me figure out my passion,” he said. “I feel really lucky to be brought here.”

Roxanne Hudgens, one of the team’s recent high school graduates, said she was surprised by the amount of hands-on work, but has also surprised herself by what she has accomplished and new things she has tried.

“It’s neat to see how much you can make an impact,” she said.

Hudgens, who likes to bake a lot and has been keeping her teammates supplied with cookies and pies, said since she’s taking a year off between high school and college, AmeriCorps has been the perfect thing to keep her active.

Shelby Chamberlain, a 19-year-old from Arcata, Calif., agreed. One year after graduating high school she was still trying to decide what to do with her life when her doctor suggested she look into AmeriCorps.

“I’m so glad I came,” she said. “I really, really like it, and I really like the work we’re doing here.”

For more information about AmeriCorps, people can call 1-800-731-0002 or visit www.americorps.gov.