As part of our AmeriCorps Week Interviews, I’m sharing stories of current or former AmeriCorps members, about their service, and its impact on their communities and their careers. This interview is with my colleague Erin Barnhart who served with AmeriCorps NCCC. NCCC stands for the National Civilian Conservation Corps.
Where did you serve?
I served with AmeriCorps NCCC at their Central Region campus in Denver from 1997-98.
What do you do now?
I’m the Director of Volunteerism Initiatives for an international NGO, Idealist.org.
What were you doing before you joined AmeriCorps NCCC?
I had just graduated with my BA in Geography from the University of Oregon and was unsure what to do next.
Why did you join NCCC? What did you hope to accomplish?
I was looking for an opportunity to get hands-on experience, see a bit more of the country, and explore different ways to get involved, both as a volunteer and in my career (the path of which I was still trying to determine).
What did you do during your term of service?
My team completed five projects over the course of ten months: 1) installing smoke detectors and assisting with fire safety education in lower income communities in Denver, 2) restoring wildlife habitat outside of Austin, Texas, 3) tutoring first-grade students in inner-city Detroit schools, 4) rebuilding basements for victims of flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and 5) trailbuilding in the mountains just outside Denver. I also served on our campus’s disaster response team (although we fortunately were not needed that year) and completed something like 80 individual hours of service.
How many other NCCC members served on your team?
We were a team of fifteen 18-24 years olds from around the country.
What impact did your work have on the communities you served?
Some projects had immediate impact — for example, leaving a home with a smoke detector installed or completing the drywall work at a house in North Dakota; others were part of a longer-term continuum of change — the restoration we did in Texas was just the beginning of a long process and, while we only spent two months with our students in Detroit, other AmeriCorps teams were coming in throughout the year to provide a steady stream of support. That said, the feedback we got — from community partners, residents, organizations, and even our first grade students — was that we helped. However small our real impact, receiving that feedback from those we worked with was incredibly meaningful.
What was the greatest challenge?
With such short projects, one didn’t really ever get to see a project through to conclusion. We also had minimal training, particularly for the tutoring project, and so were often flying a bit blind in our efforts. Most importantly, while this was one of the most invaluable parts of serving in AmeriCorps, it was challenging to process and understand some of the difficult things we saw and experienced: extreme poverty, an educational system in distress, environmental degradation, inequality.
How else has your NCCC service helped you?
The lessons learned from the challenges we experienced — whether it was a greater understanding of social justice or even just the rare opportunity to learn more from, and work alongside, community partners whose lives and everyday realities were different from your own — were invaluable. I count my AmeriCorps year as one in which I truly grew, both in terms of maturity and awareness. I also credit it with launching my career path in the world of social good as, from that point forward, I was invested in helping to make a difference however I can.