Last week I had the opportunity to attend the National Leadership Institute, an intensive two-day experience for AmeriCorps Members in Iowa hosted by the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service .
Upon my arrival at the Wesley Woods Retreat Center near Indianola, Iowa, AmeriCorps Members from across the state were chatting casually and settling in to the campgrounds.
After a brief welcome to the grounds we were split into four teams comprised mostly of unacquainted members. Our first order of business: challenge games. The Wesley Woods camp staff provided four ‘stations’ of team-building activities for us to rotate through. Some of these were typical challenge games: the human knot, fit the entire team on a wooden platform, pass the hula-hoop around while holding hands, etc.
I don’t think the staff was prepared for us to be team-building professionals. We flew through many of the activities, often at ‘record speeds’ according to the camp staff. By the time our rounds were complete, we had begun to establish strong team dynamics. I credit our AmeriCorps mindsets for our natural aptitude for teamwork.
After each team’s initial bonding experience over challenge games, we moved on to our in-depth sessions. Each team rotated through four sessions over the two days.
The first session for Team 2 was lead by Tim Reed, a facilitator for The Project on Civic Reflection. Each of the reflection sessions were hosted by Reed and Adam Davis, Senior Research Associate with the Project on Civic Reflection.
The sessions were very straightforward, each beginning with a reading that inspired an analysis of our personal values related to service, service in general, or the actions of other. Reading included The Lovers of the Poor by Gwendolyn Brooks, excerpts from Earliest Impressions by Jane Addams and The Lamb and the Pinecone by Pablo Neruda (PDF).
Some questions that emerged from our conversations were more challenging to answer than others: How has your understanding of service changed over time? What are your earliest impressions of service? Does intention always matter when it comes to service? These discussions laid a steady foundation for our introspective look at service experiences for the rest of our time at the camp.
One of the most unique aspects of the conversation was that it was intergenerational. AmeriCorps is not limited to Generation Y (although the event did lean more in that direction) and offered several diverse perspectives in our discussions.
For example, in one exercise we literally mapped out our experiences with service over time and where we expect to see it go in the future. I focused on how I am eager to explore the way service will fit into my life after AmeriCorps. I had the chance to speak with a woman two generations ahead of me about how her colleagues’ approaches to service change as they progress in their careers. For instance, one individual works in journalism professionally, but sticks to hands-on activities for service, such as working in a soup kitchen.
In the afternoon our next undertaking was to complete a service project. Team 2’s task was to weatherproof all of the tables and benches on the campgrounds. Working in the sun gave us a chance to strengthen our bond as a team and chat about our individual areas of focus through AmeriCorps, but the best part of the project was hearing from Bill Tomlinson, who led the service project.
Bill is a retired pastor and has been a full-time volunteer at Wesley Woods for 18 years, specializing in handyman and woodworking tasks. After an hour of weatherproofing Bill began to pull large, mysterious contraptions out of a shelter and set them on display before us.
It wasn’t until the pieces were unfolded that we realized he was displaying handcrafted carnival games, including a reverse dunk tank, basketball game and a pie tossing set. Impressively, Bill had created nearly all of the pieces by hand, many out of bed frames, which has earned him the name ‘Bed Frame Bill’ around camp. This was the very epitome of service: a man who has spent nearly 20 years working at a camp for the simple pleasure of the act. The pieces he showed us were recent creations, each a quality device he had assembled himself. He was genuinely elated to be able to work at the camp, which was obvious to anyone who heard him talk about his projects.
The rest of the evening flew by with typical camp bonding activities: s’mores, campfire chats, a guided night hike through the woods, etc.
After a brisk early breakfast the next day, we set out to complete our second day. After our last session with the Project on Civic Reflection, the final Team 2 adventure was the low ropes course. Much like our performance of the challenge games, we seemed to fit in very naturally as a team, so much so that the leader of the activities had the impression that we had been working together for some time.
We worked our way through a variety of low ropes challenges and completed the ‘raging river’ in record time. The river was an open space in the trees with several tree stumps acting as ‘rocks’ in the ‘river.’ Our challenge was to get the entire team across the stumps using only three pieces of lumber to walk on. This exemplified our dynamics as a team, as our decision-making process came naturally and quickly. Each member participated whole-heartedly and recognized individual strengths. It was probably the most phenomenal and immediate teamwork I have ever experienced. Team 2 completed the challenge in about 15 minutes, giving us time to move on to a bonus challenge: the web.
The web is a giant web of rope. Our challenge was to move every member through a separate opening in the web, forcing us to lift many members and pass them through the top by hand. By the time we reached the web, the group shared a feeling of confidence that we could complete any of the challenges laid before us by the course.
It seemed to be a shame we don’t have the opportunity to work together on an actual project and one member even commented so. I responded (quite facetiously), “But guys…we’re working together to change America!” which was met by laughs and eye rolls. Despite the nonchalance of our discussion, with some reflection we found that the statement actually is quite true.
Although we do not work together or even necessarily on directly related issues, we are working toward change. I am a second year AmeriCorps State of Promise Member and do not necessarily work extensively with other members, but the National Service Leadership Institute showed me that there is a sense of unity amongst AmeriCorps Members.
For videos of my experience at the retreat, check out @IowaYouthPhil or @JosephPiearson Twitter updates marked with #INSLI. For more information on my work with AmeriCorps and the Iowa Council of Foundations, or visit our Facebook page.