How a Summer Job Turned into a Life of Service and Conservation - Afton McKusick
Submitted by Hannah Traverse on Tue, 11/20/2012 - 16:38
Afton McKusick, a former member of the Coconino Rural Environment Corps, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2006 for her commitment to service and environmental conservation. Read below to find out what she's been up to since accepting her award, or find out more about Afton and her Corps experience by reading her bio from our 2006 National Conference.
Afton McKusick “caught the Corps bug” when she was a teenager, and she seems happy to have never been able to shake it. She started at the Coconino Rural Environment Corps (CREC) in 2001 as an AmeriCorps Corpsmember, and over the course of nine years she was an Assistant Crew Leader, a Crew Leader, an Assistant Field Coordinator and a staff member at CREC. Today, Afton continues her affiliation with Corps as an employee of American Conservation Experience (ACE). And to think, all of this commitment to service and conservation started in a high school chemistry class.
“I was a junior in high school and [CREC] had just started their first Youth Conservation Corps and they were looking for people. So they were going around to all the high schools to advertise it,” said Afton. “I thought that working outside would be a much better job than working at Burger King or flipping burgers somewhere else.”
Afton has always loved the landscape and natural beauty of her home state of Arizona. When she was growing up she spent a lot of time outdoors and she has fond memories of going hunting with her parents. It wasn’t until joining CREC, however, that Afton thought about how a love of the outdoors could translate into a career.
For Afton, it wasn’t just the chance to spend time outside that made her Corps experience so fulfilling. What really made her stick with the CREC was the sense of accomplishment she got from her work and the ability to spend time with like-minded people.
“You build a trail and you can see what you’ve done for all the people that are going to recreate there. I really loved that and it gave me a sense of ‘Hey – I’m really doing something good. I’m one person and this is a small crew, but look at what we’ve done together,’” said Afton. “I think AmeriCorps attracts a certain kind of person who is really enthusiastic and motivated and those are the kinds of people that I like to be around so that we can actually accomplish something.”
Afton, who is now 28, says that being a Crew Leader was the most rewarding experience she had with CREC. It was exciting to introduce Corpsmembers to the outdoors, teach them new skills and watch them grow. Seeing people she had trained apply their new skills and knowledge in subsequent jobs was very satisfying.
Overlapping with her years at CREC, Afton worked her way through school. She began at a community college where she earned an associate’s degree in environmental science. She then transferred to Northern Arizona University where she spent two years studying forestry. At this point, after six years of school, Afton decided to put down the books for a bit and work for the National Forest Service. She enjoyed working on a “fuel crew” that managed forest fire threats, but she realized working for the Forest Service was not her calling.
“I really liked it, but I really missed the camaraderie that you get within the Corps,” said Afton.
It was at this point that Afton was offered a job with American Conservation Experience. Her current job title is Chainsaw Coordinator and Trainer. She is responsible for overseeing the entire chainsaw program in the Arizona branch of ACE. She coordinates project logistics, trains new Corpsmembers on chainsaws, and supervises projects to make sure they’re up to her standards.
“Keeping everyone safe who’s running chainsaws is my number one goal!” said Afton. “Who knows what I’ll do when my body finally gives out and I can’t play around with a chainsaw anymore.”
ACE is just beginning an AmeriCorps program, and Afton is excited to be a part of its development.
“I really, really enjoy working with our AmeriCorps members and learning what they want to do with their lives,” said Afton. “We had a Corpsmember who was an architect and he got sick of it and came to ACE as an AmeriCorps member and he has totally changed his direction. Now he wants to be teaching people and working outside. I find that really exciting and I think that’s what AmeriCorps is all about.”
Afton hopes to eventually return to school so she can earn her bachelor’s degree, but for now she is very content with her job.
To young people thinking about joining a Corps, Afton says:
“Being in a Conservation Corps is definitely a lifestyle. And it’s a very rewarding lifestyle…. I think any Conservation Corps – especially the ones in the Southwest, with all the travelling you do and working in the national parks – you get to see things a normal tourist wouldn’t get to see. I personally think that’s pretty neat. And you’re also helping your community at the same time, which is really rewarding in itself…A lot of people who join AmeriCorps programs really do find friends that last them a lifetime. And at CREC, there are people who meet each other and get married. I just think it’s a great opportunity to meet people, to expand your horizons, to put yourself in situations that you might not be comfortable with, and learn how to cooperate with people you might not have met otherwise.”