Spotting a large, decaying log just off the trail during our nature walk, I stopped walking and directed the kids to gather around. I asked them why fallen trees are important in a forest, expecting to hear silence or an answer like “they’re good for firewood!” However, the kids interrupted each other in their excitement, telling me how fallen trees provide homes and food for a variety of forest creatures. As we gently rocked the log backwards to look underneath, the kids confidently and comfortably began to make observations about the creatures we found. “Oooh look, an earthworm!” someone shouted, holding up a wriggling worm. Another mused, “I don’t see any of those black beetles; we usually see a lot of those.” Amazed, I asked the group how they already knew so much about these creatures. They told me that they had learned all these things during field trips with the Triangle Land Conservancy’s Americorps members.
Throughout 2016 and 2017, TLC Americorps members have led outdoor programs focusing on underserved groups – children who might not have ready access to a nature preserve and for whom the idea of enjoying nature might be an unfamiliar concept. A lot of the kids from the East Durham Children’s Initiative on our field trip that day had participated in programs that Barbara Goldentyer, TLC’s first Americorps member, had led and learned a lot about the Piedmont forest in the process. While they might someday forget facts and animal names, I believe that the connection these kids foster with the outdoors will remain with them for much longer.
While over 80,000 Americorps members like Barbara and I serve at sites across the U.S. every year, many of the people I talk to have never heard of Americorps. The idea behind this 24 year-old program is that the government pays people (usually young adults) a small living stipend in exchange for a “year of service.” They often serve at nonprofits that could not accomplish all of the work they do without the help of Americorps members. This focus on service is prevalent throughout Americorps – we aren’t “working” at our host sites, but “serving” instead.
While my Americorps program, a North Carolina-specific program run through the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, is focused on conservation and environmental education, Americorps members do all kinds of things. They help to rebuild towns and cities after natural disasters, work as teachers and tutors in schools, do conservation work in national parks, work in homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and in any other service-oriented or nonprofit sector you can think of. We have Americorps pins and posters and try to make sure people know who we are, but I think that it’s often not obvious how deeply Americorps is entwined with local and national nonprofit organizations.
Over the past year, Americorps members serving at the Triangle Land Conservancy have coordinated, planned, and led 44 educational programs with nonprofit partners, including the East Durham Children’s Initiative (EDCI), Big Brothers Big Sisters, The Carying Place, Hike It Baby, Partners for Youth Opportunities, The Boys and Girls Club, Wake County Salvation Army, and local libraries. These programs have reached over 715 participants and totaled to almost 87 hours of environmental education programming. These numbers don’t include the 21 outreach events Americorps members have assisted with or led, and the over 500 hours of volunteer work that have been indirectly or directly coordinated by TLC Americorps members.
As Triangle Land Conservancy’s Americorps program gets into its second year, we’re hoping to continue expanding the groups we reach and the areas of the Triangle we cover. Spring and summer will bring partnerships with local afterschool programs, Girl Scout Silver Award projects, Citizen Science initiatives, and participation in Durham Public School’s summer camp programs. As always, our aim is to connect people with nature and to open up TLC’s public preserves to a wider audience. As an Americorps member, I’m hopeful that TLC’s Americorps program will continue to grow and establish itself as a source of fun, hands-on environmental education in the Triangle area. And, to quote the Americorps motto, we’ll continue to “get things done!”
Interested in applying for Americorps? Visit the Americorps website for details about the whole gamut of Americorps programs, or the CTNC website for details about their North Carolina-specific Americorps program.