Hurricane Harvey Recovery: Firsthand Account of Relief Efforts in TX from Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa AmeriCorps Member Caleb Bell


AmeriCorps members gut homes damaged in Hurricane Harvey.
 

In response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, several member organizations of The Corps Network have sent crews to Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Cooridnation of most of these deployments has been through the AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team (A-DRT) program.

Corpsmembers from across the country have assisted with a range of activities, including clearing debris, coordinating volunteers and donations, conducting damage assessments, and helping muck, gut and tarp homes. Below, read the firsthand account of Caleb Bell, an AmeriCorps member from Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa who deployed to Texas.

 


By Caleb Bell

My name is Caleb Bell. I was born in Des Moines, IA, raised in Colorado, and I went to Iowa State University for college.

My AmeriCorps term this year has been great. I joined Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa (CCMI) for the professional experience of leading a crew and learning new land management skills. I wanted to get more field and leadership experience and I have received both during my AmeriCorps term.

One big reason I joined AmeriCorps is because I didn’t know what to expect. It was something new and unpredictable. My home base is in Western Iowa. All I knew going into my term was that I would be doing land management: using chainsaws, brush sawing, treating invasive species, and hopefully having the chance to work on prescribed burns. I ended up doing a lot of burning. My crew completed over 6,000 acres of prescribed burns in about three months. Before being deployed on disaster, my plant identification skills increased and my professional communication and leadership skills grew.

 


 

Heading to Texas

When I found out I would be deployed for disaster response, I was excited. I knew there would be a lot more to learn; that’s a huge reason I joined AmeriCorps.

Going into the disaster response deployment, all I knew was that I was leaving for Texas. I knew that I would be in Austin for training, but had no idea what would come after that. I was told either Corpus Christi or Houston were the most likely locations, but I wasn’t told what I would be doing. I left my shop in Honey Creek, IA at 7:00 am on September 5 for Ames, IA; then I drove from Ames to St. Louis, MO that same night. I arrived in Austin just before midnight on September 6.

When I got to Austin, I thought my deployment would only be for 30 days. Three weeks into my deployment I was told I could stay until November 13. This would make 72 days of deployment. When I arrived, six of the seven people from my crew were deployed to Texas. In total, there were 52 Corpsmembers from CCMI.

 


Houston

We were originally sent to Houston. We lived in an old Wal-Mart that had been turned into a FEMA responder camp. The space had a capacity of 1,400 cots and a small dining area. We had shower trailers and were doing laundry at the laundromat.

Houston was definitely different than I expected. It was a shock at first to see how much devastation the flooding caused. In the neighborhood where we served, there were people who had experienced four or five feet of water in their homes. The people we helped hadn’t started mucking and gutting at all; the water had just receded a few days prior to our arrival.

I was in one house that really needed help. The homeowner had belongings in every room, floor to ceiling. At first it was extremely difficult to work on her home. I had a really hard time believing what I was seeing, and she had a hard time letting things go. The more I worked on the home and talked to the owner, the easier it became to help her. She knew that things needed to go, and began to let us throw things away, even though it was hard for her.

The most rewarding part of helping this survivor was when she thanked my team for helping her. She told me she hadn’t seen her walls in 25 years. It was so moving for me when we finished the house. Just before I drove away, the trash collectors started picking up the 200+ cubic yards of debris we had moved. It really showed how 10 strong backs and three long days can really change someone’s life. In the case of this survivor, she would never have been able to remove everything herself. Both physically because of her health condition and mentally because it was so hard to let things go.

Around the time this house was being started, our living situation changed. We moved from the responder camp at Wal-Mart to Hilton Americas in downtown Houston. The Hilton had been rented out by another agency and they didn’t want the rooms to go to waste, so, for five days, all 52 of us had our own room in a Hilton. I would say the Hilton offered a huge attitude boost. I was exhausted. Mentally, it was hard to see everyone’s lives affected so much by the storm. Physically, I was tired from working 14-15 hour days with a 110+ heat index. I needed the break, and the rooftop pool didn’t hurt.

 


Brazoria County

Right before our day off, we were told that we would be leaving Houston and going south to Brazoria County. The news that we were leaving Houston was really hard for me. After canvassing and working in the neighborhood, I knew there was a huge need for us in Houston; it was really hard to wrap my head around the fact that we had to tell homeowners that we wouldn’t be able to stay in Houston. I know that Brazoria County fit with AmeriCorps’ mission, but I still had a hard time. I was happy being deployed because I had a really good chance to help people who truly needed our assistance, and in Houston we found just as much need as I found in Brazoria County.

In Brazoria County, it was definitely easier to find a place to stay, laundry facilities, food, and there was a very supportive community, but it was much harder to find people who needed help. The first day in Brazoria County, my team drove around for four hours canvassing and didn’t find any homeowners who needed our help. Part of this was because we were later in the recovery process in this county, and part was because it is a lot less densely populated than Houston.

We have been able to find survivors who needed assistance, it just took more looking to find the ones who were hardest hit. There are some homes in Brazoria County that had 10 - 11 feet of water in them. A lot of homes here had water sitting in them for 10 days before the flooding receded. These homes were in really rough shape; the ones we found in the last week that hadn’t been touched yet were so full of mold that even ceiling panels needed to come out. Most houses being mucked and gutted now need full floor to ceiling mucking.

 




Change of Responsibilities

With the move from Houston to Brazoria, I transitioned from strike team lead to the assessment team. As a member of the assessment team I was often one of the first AmeriCorps faces these survivors met. This was definitely a change of pace. In the city, there was an attitude that everyone was all promises; we definitely weren’t the first group that had showed up offering help. In the county, we were often the first group that had stopped to even ask if people needed assistance.

After a week or so, I switched from assessments to AmeriCorps Liaison. As Liaison I really helped to build relationships within the community. These relationships have led to continued community support and a lot of help from the community in feeding and housing the AmeriCorps members here, and helping find high-priority homes for us to clean.

The relationship with United Way has been extremely helpful. The Long Term Recovery Executive Committee voted to donate money towards our food needs, helped us relocate a survivor whose home hadn’t been worked on at all, and continues to help us with our needs. We also help them by doing assessments and muck-and-guts for some of their cases. This kind of teamwork is making it so this community has a really good chance at recovery. As Liaison I have also really learned to talk to people. Whether it is asking for help, asking someone if they need help, or just starting small talk, I have definitely grown as a communicator because of my role with A-DRT (AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team).

One role I’m really proud of is helping to create an AmeriCorps presence in Little Cambodia. Some of the connections I made at the Long Term Recovery meetings asked me one day if I could help bring some pallets of food to the refugee village. The process of moving the food and helping the survivors unload the food was amazing. It really felt like I was doing something meaningful. Since the first food delivery, I have helped with a water delivery and a second food delivery. Each time I went to the village, more of the residents recognized me, and I just felt like I was doing the right thing. Between my donation visits and the assessment team spending time there, we were beginning to gain the trust of the village. I believe A-DRT has a few houses scheduled for roof tarps in Little Cambodia soon. I’m definitely glad that I was able to be part of such a unique opportunity.

 


A Learning Experience

In the community, I have met people from all walks of life. There have been people who always see the positive, even though their life was flipped upside down, and there are also those who only see the negative, even when their lives haven’t changed a lot. It is really interesting to see the effect that just listening to people’s stories has on their outlook. I have definitely found that some people who are having a hard time with everything that has happened tend to do a lot better after you just listen to their story. This is definitely something I will try and take with me after deployment.

My interactions with survivors have been really good for the most part. Most people are really happy to receive help, and I had only a couple of negative encounters. I think the people who I had rough encounters with were just at a really tough point; after we helped them, they really opened up and were very happy with the work we were able to do.

I think I have learned a lot about people during this deployment. I’ve learned that a lot of people who seem strong and confident have a hard time during times of crisis because they aren’t used to things not going well. I’ve also learned that a lot of quiet, more reserved people really shine during situations like this. However, I’ve also learned that neither of these things are true for everyone. Each person deals with stress differently.

I’ve become a lot more comfortable talking with people I don’t know. I can talk to someone I meet on the street about the work that A-DRT is doing here, or just about how their day is going. Before deployment I wasn’t much for small talk. I tended to avoid social events and had a really hard time talking to strangers. Now I can talk to anyone about almost anything.

I think that everyone should take the opportunity to help with disaster response if they have the chance. This deployment has definitely been life-changing for me. I wish that I had been able to stay longer. It’s hard for me to know that there is no more work to do here, but I have to go home and have three weeks off. I think there is a lot I would change about this deployment, but I am really happy with the difference I feel that I’ve made here.

Single Identity-Based Crews Research: Update from the Road No. 1

As part of her studies at the University of Oregon, graduate student Jordan Katcher plans to create a toolkit that provides resources for increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (D,E,I) within Conservation Corps programming. To do this, Jordan hopes to combine academic research with insights from the field.

During the summer of 2017, Jordan is traveling throughout the country to visit several Corps that operate identity-based programs (e.g. Veterans Crews, ASL Inclusion Crews, Native Youth Crews, LGBTQ Crews, All-Female Crews, etc.). She'll be conducting interviews and gathering information about innovative and effective practices. The Corps Network is hosting a blog where Jordan will share her experiences.

 


By Jordan Katcher - submitted July 7, 2017

Background:

Hello all! My name is Jordan Katcher and I am a current Community & Regional Planning graduate student at the University of Oregon. For my master’s degree, I have the opportunity to complete a professional project of my own choosing; given my background serving with AmeriCorps and working for Conservation Legacy, I knew I wanted to focus my research on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (D,E,I) within the outdoors.

Coming from the Conservation Corps family, I know how difficult it can be to oversee program logistics while maintaining sustainable relationships with members, team leaders, community partners, and funders. It’s a lot to juggle, and being able to perform thorough program evaluations and share what’s happening throughout the larger network of Conservation Corps can also be a struggle, too.

Knowing the limitations that face Conservation Corps led me to think more about D, E, I practices within these organizations, especially as I started to learn more about “single identity-based crew” models. Throughout the country, several Conservation Corps have initiated single identity-based crews that not only create access for traditionally marginalized populations within the Conservation Corps world, but also integrate and share the identities of these members within the larger environmental movement.

Knowing about several single identity-based crews, such as the Utah Conservation Corps Disability Inclusion Crew, the Northwest Youth Corps American Sign Language Inclusion Crew, and the Idaho Conservation Corps All-Women Crew, led me to think more about how important these crews are and how crucial it is that the evolution of these crews be shared throughout the larger Conservation Corps network. I decided to create a toolkit that combines both on-the-ground experience as well as academic research centering on single identity-based crews.

Once I solidified my professional project scope, I partnered with The Corps Network to set up site visits with Conservation Corps across the country. I was also honored to speak with Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin and Ava Holliday from The Avarna Group (who recently published a blog post on the importance of supporting single identity spaces), who assisted me in creating a list of interview questions for each of these site visits.

Two weeks ago, I embarked on my first of three road trips this summer. My first road trip covered the upper Midwest region, where I had the honor of visiting: Montana Conservation Corps in Bozeman, MT; Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa in St. Paul, MN; and SEEDS Youth Conservation Corps in Traverse City, MI. My second road trip will focus on the Northeast region, and my third will focus on the Southwest region. For each of these trips, I’ll be guest blogging for The Corps Network, and sharing bits of my findings with all of you. I want these blog posts to serve as a catalyst for ongoing conversation related to D,E,I initiatives, so definitely reach out to these conservation corps to keep the conversations going!

 

Visits in the Midwest:

Montana Conservation Corps (MCC) Site Visit – Bozeman, Montana

MCC implements single identity-based crews for Native American youth and veterans. Both of these programs formed out of funding opportunities that came up in the past. For MCC, initiating and supporting these crews takes a great amount of work, but, if you qualify the assets and opportunities of these crews, it’s an incredibly important part of their D,E,I goals and objectives. These programs offer so much value to program participants and staff, and MCC highly values the new perspectives that come from these crews.

For their veterans crew, MCC invested in a number of resources for their members, including paying veterans a higher stipend ($150 more each paycheck), providing housing, offering a scholarship program, and giving actual certification for post-service job opportunities. For their initiatives with Native American youth, MCC would like to eventually create an advisory committee of Native American youth that would involve members, alumni, and partners deciding what crews need and want for their crew experiences. MCC has also been able to implement increased resources for their single identity-based crews through The Kendeda Fund.

For MCC, they would like to define the success of their crews from more of a quality than a quantity standpoint. One of their questions is, “outside of numbers, how do we tell the stories of these programs to funders?” Additionally, what recruitment and retention strategies are there for single identity-based crews?

 

Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa (CCMI) Site Visit – St. Paul, Minnesota

CCMI implements a Native American crew, called Restoring Relations, which began in the summer of 2015 in partnership with local community stakeholders. Additionally, while CCMI does not run a single identity-based American Sign Language Inclusion (ASL) Crew, they do provide many opportunities to ASL crew members within their existing crews.

The Restoring Relations Crew evolved out of CCMI asking how they can change their program models and their assumptions to genuinely provide worthwhile opportunities for Native American youth. CCMI hopes that, through Restoring Relations, there is a space for Native American youth to dive into nature through their own identity and history; this starts from in the very beginning of the program when, during training, crew members take a trip down the Mississippi River in traditional boats.

Like MCC, CCMI wants to strengthen more relationships with Native American leaders and have more voices at the table. Currently, their program is based in the Twin Cities, but they’re thinking about expanding in northern Minnesota once they reach capacity.

With Restoring Relations, CCMI provides time for smudging in the morning. The Corps really focuses on reflection across the board, working with crew leaders to decide what kind of reflection activities make the most sense. CCMI strives to be flexible and ready to listen in order to understand what may or may not work for the crew each year.

For CCMI, they would like more resources to educate their staff to feel more knowledgeable about multiple historical narratives of the land, places, and people that they’re working with. They’d also like to know more about recruitment and retention strategies, as well as ways to talk with staff, crew members, and youth about identities within the outdoor environment.

 

SEEDS Youth Conservation Corps (SEEDS) Visit – Traverse City, Michigan

SEEDS noticed that the majority of their crew members were male. In response, they decided to launch an all-women crew, called GURLS Corps (Girls United in Resilience, Leadership and Service), in hopes that this initiative would integrate more females into their organization. All the crew members identified as female and came from the foster care system.

Since SEEDS knew many of these crew members had difficult pasts, they wanted to invest in a well-trained, considerate, and understanding team leader, so they hired a woman with experience as an after-school educator. The crew model allowed for crew members to organically share stories about their foster care experiences and connect with one another. The focus of the program was not only about job experience, but also about providing an opportunity for female crew members to be in a healthy environment.

SEEDS also partners with local tribes for crew model development. Local tribes assist in recruitment and provide half the funding for the initiatives. SEEDS provides the training and materials needed for the service experiences.

Most of SEEDS’ single identity-based crew initiatives, whether focused on female, Native American, or foster care identities, form out of their partnerships with social services, schools, family courts, and tribes. SEEDS is also very conscious about how they approach their crew experiences; they’ve invested in a holistic approach that focuses on integration between social and ecological aspects (including all species).

For SEEDS, they would like resources on understanding the respective benefits of integrated and single identity-based spaces; what unique experiences come from each model, and how do you decide on one model or the other? They’d also like to see stories on how other Conservation Corps approach the work they need to do with an ecological, social, and/or STEM focus; how are Corps integrating STEM into their every day practices? Additionally, SEEDS is interested in comparing price points for their crew expenses; how much are Corps spending on training, uniforms, and supplies?

 

Thank you for reading! Stay tuned for my next blog post in a few weeks. If you have any questions about my research, have D, E, I resources that have worked for your crews, or would like to set up a potential site visit, please reach out to me via email at jkatcher@uoregon.edu

Engaging Deaf & Hard-of-Hearing Youth in the Outdoors



Inclusivity in the Corps World

Everyone faces small daily challenges and uncertainties. Fortunately, for many of us in this country, our troubles are relatively trivial. For those in the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community, however, communication barriers can make it prohibitively difficult to participate in basic interactions. In recognition of Deaf History Month, we’re looking at steps taken by America’s service and conservation Corps to make the workplace and the outdoors more accessible for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing.

Unfortunately, Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing individuals have fewer employment options due to a lack of resources in the workplace and preconceived notions about their abilities. It can be particularly difficult for a Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing young person with limited job experience to gain a foothold in the workforce. Recognizing this issue, the Corps community has gradually increased the presence of inclusive crews since the mid-1970’s and early 1980’s.

Based on the model of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, modern Corps are locally-based organizations that engage youth and recent veterans in service projects that address conservation and community needs. Through their service, Corps participants – or “Corpsmembers” – gain work experience and develop in-demand skills. Corpsmembers are compensated with a modest stipend and have access to mentors and counselors.

There are over 130 Corps across the country. While not all Corps have the resources to offer disability inclusion programs, several have made concerted efforts to expand their inclusivity. There are currently five Corps across the nation that provide employment, service, and volunteering opportunities for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing youth and young adults. Corps with such programs include, Northwest Youth Corps (OR/WA), Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa (MN), Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (NM), Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VT), and Utah Conservation Corps (UT). We reached out to these organizations, as well as CorpsTHAT, a non-profit specializing in helping Corps develop ASL-inclusion programs.

How it Works

Corps typically operate under a “crew model” in which Corpsmembers serve together in small teams under the supervision of trained adults. ASL inclusive crews typically consist of hearing participants, Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing participants, and ASL interpreters. Members of these crews work together on building and improving trails, restoring habitats, removing invasive species, and numerous other conservation projects. Projects usually take place on public lands and waters, including properties managed by agencies like the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service.

Through inclusive crews, Corps help people in the Deaf community explore the outdoors in a safe, welcoming manner. In addition to learning about cultural differences, participants in inclusive crews gain valuable leadership and communication skills as they create bonds with those who may be different from themselves.

“It gives members a chance to gain empowering real-life skills through a meaningful employment experience,” said Sean Damitz, Director of Utah Conservation Corps.  

The primary goal for Corps that provide these programs is to diversify populations they serve and promote cultural exchange among youth in their programs. Although some youth are pushed out of their comfort zones, learning new ways to communicate and work with others is extremely valuable.

Progression of Inclusion Practices

In the Midwest

Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa has served youth in the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community since the mid-1970s. What started as a business relationship between the Corps and local summer camps for the Deaf, flourished into the inclusion of Deaf individuals in CCMI programs over the last thirty years.

Under CCMI's crew model, the majority of Corpsmembers and crew leaders are Deaf, but there are a few hearing youth, as well as a crew leader who interprets. Other Corps, such as Northwest Youth Corps, have crews comprised entirely of Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing youth, with the occasional participant who is the child of Deaf adults. Still other programs incorporate a few Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing youth into a crew comprised predominately of hearing youth. All of these models provide participants of different abilities the opportunity to teach one another about their different cultures while working towards the common goal of completing the conservation project at hand.

Keeping Deaf individuals in leadership positons has proven to be a challenge for CCMI. Jonathan Goldenberg, CCMI’s Summer Youth Corps Program Manager explains, “As we do not have a full-time office staff member who is fluent in ASL, it becomes harder to share our program with the Deaf community.”

Working with new project sponsors has also been somewhat of a challenge. Project sponsors are usually local, state and federal resource management agencies that engage the Corps in conservation service. In the beginning, sponsors are a little unsure how to interact with the inclusive crews. After that initial awkwardness, however, a comfort level develops between both groups. The essential goal for CCMI’s inclusion program is to transcend fear of communication with those of various backgrounds.

“Many hearing youth have never had the opportunity to interact with Deaf youth, and the Deaf youth have the opportunity to share their language and culture with hearing youth who are super excited to learn (and in that, the Deaf youth learn from the hearing youth as well),” said Goldberg.

In the Pacific Northwest

In 2013, with the help of CorpsTHAT founders Emma Bixler and Sachiko Flores, Northwest Youth Corps (NYC) began their first disability inclusion crew. Although the first season was small, over the years it has grown into a renowned program, winning The Corps Network’s 2017 Project of the Year Award.

NYC’s success comes from offering two programs: one consisting of youth ages 16-19, the second with adults ages 19-24. Participants in each session work for five to eight weeks, which allows two sessions each summer. Crews travel throughout Washington, doing various types of restoration work in state and national parks and forests. The initial goal of starting a program like this was to provide Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing individuals support, a comfortable space, and an equitable environment to experience the outdoors in our hearing-dominant world.

Even though NYC has experienced many successes with this program, they continue to face lack of support. Inclusion Coordinator, Darian Lightfoot states, “The largest challenge I’ve seen is people being unaware of Deaf culture and how to support equitable communication. All the information that hearing people are exposed to should be accessible to people using ASL, and that doesn’t always happen.”

Despite the communication barrier, hearing youth request to be on the ASL inclusion crew. This is a prime example of how valuable inclusive crews are to everyone involved. Lightfoot explains, “These hearing youth are able to see that the participants in the ASL inclusion crew are their peers and enjoy all the same things as them.”

In New England

Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC) continues the progression of inclusive crews, recently winning a Public Lands Alliance Award for their partnership with the US Forest Service (USFS) to engage the Deaf community. Last year, VYCC expanded their partnership with USFS through a collaboration with the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, NY. Through these partnerships, VYCC provided a cutting-edge inclusive conservation program. Youth completed various conservation projects at Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests in Vermont and New York.

During the four-week program, hearing members quickly adapted to using sign language, and Hard-of-Hearing youth were provided the support to successfully complete the projects at hand. Executive Director Breck Knauft states, “Having Deaf and hearing Corpsmembers work side-by-side exemplifies our belief that bringing people from different backgrounds together in service creates conditions for powerful learning.” VYCC also serves youth with different types of disabilities, including those with learning disabilities, vision impairment and blindness.

“The most rewarding aspect is watching people grow through their experience and overcome challenges they found daunting at the start of their service. Seeing the changes someone may go through in just 4 weeks is amazing. Also, talking with people whose lives were impacted be the program in the past, I often hear stories of people who were on a crew long ago and it changed their outlook on life”, Patrick Pfeifer, Conservation Program Director.

Barriers to Inclusion

“Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Corps programs are very important because Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people are often excluded from serving country and community due to the barriers and lack of opportunities,” said Emma Bixler and Sachiko Flores, founders of CorpsTHAT. “Corps programs help open great opportunities for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people to volunteer, show their community involvement on their résumés, and use their experience to obtain jobs.”

However, developing a successful inclusion program is not easy. Created in 2007, the Utah Conservation Corps (UCC) inclusive crew has seen its fair share of setbacks in terms of procuring funding and sponsors to run their program on an annual basis. Even so, their main challenge continues to be the accessibility of recreational sites. Their program engages individuals with various types of physical disabilities, not just those from the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community.

UCC developed a disability inclusion toolkit to inspire Corps around the country to develop their own inclusive programs. UCC credits accessibility condition surveys as the critical first step in determining if spaces are safe and welcoming for disabled participants on their crew. These surveys include a variety of tests and measurements: Are trails passable by a wheelchair? Do videos in the interpretation center have closed captions? In 2009, UCC assisted the U.S. Forest Service in developing a national database of information on the accessibility of public lands.

As opposed to more obvious structural issues that may limit the work of other inclusive crews, CorpsTHAT considers people’s assumptions and misunderstandings as the major barriers faced by Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing crews specifically. For the most part, the average hearing person has limited or no experience working with Deaf individuals. Both parties face fears of miscommunication, inaccurate assumptions, and lack of confidence in their ability to perform.

“When Deaf participants have full access to communication and are on the crews with other Deaf participants, the uncertainty is removed and all participants are able to have a barrier-free experience,” Said Bixler and Flores.

CorpsTHAT believes inclusion crews have unique benefits hearing crews lack. For example, inclusion crews’ productivity and attention level is at a higher rate than hearing crews. Due to their inability to comfortably communicate and work at the same time or hold side conversations, interruptions are scarce; all their focus and energy is geared towards completing the task at hand. Another benefit of inclusion crews is the strength of Deaf crew members’ visual-spatial abilities, which aid in solving problems or completing projects faster.

Though inclusive crews offer numerous benefits, one of the most rewarding aspects is providing all individuals – regardless of their abilities – the opportunity to serve our country through conservation efforts. Feeling safe and comfortable working outdoors is something many of us take for granted; these programs make conservation work something that more people can experience. Inclusive crews at Corps demonstrate that any workplace can adjust be more inclusive. The young people on these crews start off as strangers, but they face communication barriers head on and take the time to understand one another, despite cultural differences.

An Interview with Len Price, a 2016 Corps Legacy Achievement Award Winner

Len Price of Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa was selected as a 2016 Corps Legacy Achivement Award Winner. We interviewed Len to learn more about him and his experience in the Corps movement. Click here to read Len's bio. 
 


How did you become involved in Service and Conservation Corps?  What were you doing before?

My knowledge of the Conservation Corps did not occur until my Legislative days. In the 1990s, the Corps ( known then as MCC or Minnesota Conservation Corps) was part of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and as such was funded through the budgeting process for that State Agency. As a committee member of the Minnesota State Senate Finance Division that had jurisdiction over that budget, I heard about the program and supported its funding. In the state budget proposal for the 2001-2003 budget there was no funding offered for the Minnesota Conservation Corps. I was approached by Corps members at one of my senate Legislative Town meetings to try to figure out how to prevent the proposed cut to the funding and in essence end the Corps’ existence.

I was then Chairman of the Senate Finance Division for Natural Resources and championed the Corps funding and held the position through the Legislative process and conference committee  for the State Budget and the Corps emerged with funding to keep it intact as a 501 c 3 nonprofit and saved from extinction.

I was not reelected to the State Senate in the next election (2002), and  was asked to join the Corps Board of Directors in 2003. With a bleak outlook for funding, the Executive Director for the Corps left.  I was asked to apply for the position, was hired, and began work as the Executive Director in January of 2005. I am retiring December 31, 2015 after 11 years of service.

Prior to the ED position at the Corps (2005-2011), I was a classroom teacher at a suburban high school for 34 years (1965-1999) and concurrently a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives and Senate for 20 years (1983-2002). I have always had an interest in youth issues-employment and training. The Corps work seemed like a good fit.

 

Who are some of your heroes?  What did they do to inspire you? 

Among my heroes are my parents, both hard working Greatest Generation individuals who lived through the Great Depression and World War Two. They gave me the values and ethics that have guided my life. The late Minnesota State Representative Willard Munger gave me the inspiration and tenacity to use the legislative process to help protect and sustain natural resources. I was also inspired by President John Kennedy’s challenge, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. I took that to heart and became a social studies teacher.

 

Describe some of your most memorable experiences working with Corps programs.

Every day there are memorable experiences associated with the Corps and Corps’ programs. To see first hand the change in youth and young adults after their term of service or completion of a project or a days’ work provides me with great satisfaction. To give individuals a chance to have new experiences outdoors and be involved in a tactile manner; to see the personal growth, the skill changes, the attitude changes and the appreciation of caring for the environment and each other; and the improvements made to a stream, trail, shoreline, forest, landscape, or a public place and the team spirit that develops in the process provides me with a very warm feeling. As an example, I’ll not forget the day a crew of six teenagers, including two deaf corps members, successfully and safely dismantled a problematic beaver dam in the Minnesota wilderness. They carefully and strategically repositioned themselves in order to extract each carefully constructed stick in the beaver dam. They emerged from the water coated with mud, filthy and smelling like the rank water in which they toiled for about 45 minutes. The joy on their faces of such an accomplishment is etched in my mind. They wore the mud proudly like medals for the rest of the day. Together with their crew companions they had experienced a once in a life time activity. The face of the crew leader reflected the elation of a job well done…of what a successful day had become.

 

Given your experience, what is the primary piece of wisdom you could provide to Corpsmembers?

As a corpsmember, remember it is okay to ask questions, to learn new things, to be supportive of team members, and to relish the new things that you can experience. You are not alone in not knowing. Embrace the chance, the adventure and be supportive of others.

 

What is the primary piece of wisdom you would provide to staff at Corps?

As a staff person, you have the chance to influence your charges, your crew, in so many ways. You are a mentor, a role model, an authority figure, a counselor, and an influence for life. Ask participants in programs from the past and they will likely share the profound ways that you affected them emotionally. Staff in leadership positions, carry the burden of perpetuating the reputation of the Corps movement and sometimes the sustainability of the Corps mission. It is you that must take up the mantle for the future of the Corps and national service- you must be an advocate, an educator to the public, that does not know or understand what the Corps is and what impacts it has on individual lives and the social good and value-added that Corps programs produce. You must be the storyteller and the role model.

 

In the future, what developments would you like to see happen in the Corps movement?

If I were king, I would require all high school graduates and school drop-outs to serve at least one year of service in a community and service activity before they pursue post- secondary schooling or work related training. Ideally it would not necessarily need to be just in the natural resource world. It would allow time for many young people to have some world experience, grow up a bit, and help many worthy causes and the needs of communities. Exception to the requirement would be for military service. As king I would not hesitate to provide the necessary funding to make such a worthy and noble cause become reality.

 

What do you hope your legacy will be?

I hope my legacy is that I was part of caring for others and my community and that programs like Corps will be in existence for opportunities forever. Participation to that end will help us take care of public places and spaces and” restore resources and change lives”.

 

 

1,100 Tires and Counting: Volunteers Reach Milestone in Cleaning the Cedar River

Article, written by Jenae Peterson, appears in the Austin Daily Herald. Published August 15, 2014.

Volunteers working with the Cedar River Watershed District have pulled more than 1,100 tires out of the Cedar River in Mower County since 2011.

“To have this major initiative with the Conservation Corps of Minnesota & Iowa and Adopt-A-River folks cleaning it up, we’re really excited about the state of the river right now,” CRWD resource specialist Justin Hanson said.

On Thursday afternoon, a group of about eight volunteers from the Conservation Corps helped pick tires out of the Cedar River for the seventh straight day and crossed the 1,000-tire mark. Crew leader Travis Wilder was excited about their progress.

“We’ve pulled out 431 [tires], and that number let us exceed 1,100 tires pulled out of the river by volunteers,” Wilder said. “It’s very gratifying to see all the tires piled up that we pull out each day.”

Another Conservation Corps group pulled about 220 tires from the river last fall during a two-day cleanup. The group worked in October last year, but water levels have been fairly low this August, allowing the group to find more tires.

“At this time of year the water’s low enough where we can see most of them and be able to get them out,” Wilder said.

The group covered a stretch of river about 19 miles from Austin to the state line, according to Wilder.

Although the number of tires is high, Hanson was pleased that many of the tires they found were not new.

“Almost all of these tires have been here for many years, probably 50 years plus,” Hanson said. “I think that’s a really good sign that there’s been some education and that people are better informed.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, large numbers of tires being found in the state’s waterways stem from a tire disposal problem in the state during the 1970s and 1980s.

With all the cleanup initiatives, Hanson said this is the cleanest the river has been in a while. Yet it’s not just cleaning tires from the river. There have also been pollution control efforts to limit what runs into the river farther upstream.

Tim Ruzek, CRWD’s public-outreach coordinator and co-chair of the Austin Vision 2020 Waterways Committee, said the cleanup efforts have made the Cedar River the cleanest that it has been in likely many decades.

“All of us Vision 2020 Waterways volunteers greatly appreciate these cleanup efforts as they further improve our local, scenic waterway and help our work to enhance and promote the recreational opportunities on the Cedar River State Water Trail,” Ruzek said in a press release.

Hanson has hopes the CRWD will get a break from cleaning up the tires.

“We’ve been at it pretty intensely now for a few years, and the idea is that there won’t be new added tires thrown in,” Hanson said. “We’ve gotten the major part of the problem addressed.”

The Conservation Corps is one of about 11 groups that have worked to clean the river, as Hanson said the Adopt-A-River program has been successful since it’s start in 2011.

“We’ve had members that have adopted every section from the top of the county and the watershed all the way down to the border,” Hanson said. “We’ve been really excited about that.”

Hanson was thankful for all the groups that spent time to help clean the river, especially the Conservation Corps.

“We’ve had really good guys and gals that have come down here,” Hanson said. “We’ve been really lucky and fortunate to have as much time down here, dedicated to our resource.”

Although the group saw other items in the river, such as a pontoon, burning barrels, scrap iron and a pay phone, this cleanup focused specifically on tires. The group plans to return Monday to clean the same stretch of river again, but with a focus on scrap metal.

In Mower County, the Cedar River is designated as a State Water Trail under a DNR program after the CRWD successfully proposed and secured the legislative approval in 2011.

Earlier this summer, Conservation Corps members, working with CRWD, cleared several log jams on the Cedar along a stretch in the Wildwood Park area in Austin that is prone to jams. That stretch from Ramsey Dam to the Downtown Mill Pond now should be portage-free for canoeists and kayakers thanks to the crew’s work. Read more about that project here.

Resources Restored, Lives Changed... World Saved by Corps

Article, written by Conservation Corps Minnesota corpsmember Nick Cox, appears in Crew Blog. Published July 15, 2014.

It’s unfortunate that the phrase 'Save the World' isn’t taken seriously. There should be how-to books, college courses, job descriptions, marketing campaigns that all don the phrase. Of course, serious use of the phrase would require popular agreement that we live in a world that needs saving. Plausible, at least until you ask the follow up question, “Saving from what?” Well, since I’m the only one here, I’m going to take the liberty to define some terms and make some assumptions. Because I’m here to save the world, and I know plenty of other folks who share that exact mission.

The 'world' that needs saving is Minnesota, it’s the Midwest, it’s North America and it’s the entire planet; it’s our world. It’s the stuff that we depend on for food, shelter, water, fresh air, but also for recreation, inspiration, beauty, sanity.

 

Now for the tricky part. From what does the world need to be saved? You pick. It’s really that easy. Point at something near you and I bet you there’s something that can be done to save the world from that thing. There’s a refrigerator nearby and I can hear it hum as it plots to destroy the world, it’s already started and I’m helping it. If it’s not stopped, it will rot in a landfill and leach chemicals for years. Without a master plan for packing it in an energy efficient way, I can’t stop it from sucking extra unnecessary electricity for years to come. It chuckles as mountain tops explode and coal is extracted for power to keep an ice cube tray and a bag of strawberries frozen in my otherwise empty freezer. Curse you, refrigerator.

 

Something must be done. Something is being done.  In my time with the Conservation Corps field crews, I’ve met so many people who share this world-saving mission with a specific focus on repairing the negative effects we have had on our natural world. Recently, we had the chance to meet some fellow world savers in other programs within the Corps. 

 

 ●     There are folks imbedded in soil and water conservation districts that work with communities and landowners to create lasting solutions that protect those precious resources.

●     Amy F. from Project Get Outdoors is working to navigate barriers that obstruct children in urban environments from getting outdoors, by helping facilitate a lifelong connection with nature and healthy, active lifestyles.

●     Mike R. Patrick D. and Mike W. are corps members with the Home Energy Squad and are working to educate and assist homeowners on the simple and immediate changes that can be made in their homes to save energy. Visiting about 200 homes per month, the total amount of energy saved due to these changes is astonishing.

●     Ana and Ana are corps members working to create best management practices for dealing with aquatic invasive species in Minnesota’s almost 12,000 lakes, as well as the Adopt-a-River program which activates volunteers that have cleaned up millions of pounds of trash out of the Mississippi River over the years.

●     Kristi L. and Brooke M. are working to make sure that the DNR is able to effectively reach younger generations that are increasingly using technology to facilitate and enhance their relationships with nature.

●     Adam M. and Ryan M. both work with RREAL (Rural Renewable Energy Alliance) to increase awareness of the availability of solar energy, helping to reduce dependance on fossil fuels for folks at all income levels.

The Corps attracts young world savers (alright, call us superheroes if you must) because it gives us the training and the opportunity to be effective in our world saving efforts, now and beyond our time as corps members. Whatever thing you pointed at earlier, I’m almost sure you could find a corps member who can discover and foil its plot to destroy the world.  Maybe it’ll even be added to our job descriptions.  I’d sure love to put “Save the World” under the Conservation Corps section of my resume.

Crews from Conservation Corps Minnesota Break Up Jay Cooke State Park Logjam Created by 2012 Flood

Article, written by John Myers, appears in the Pioneer Press. Published July 10, 2014.

JAY COOKE STATE PARK, Minn. -- There were no bulldozers or backhoes here, along the rocky banks of the St. Louis River, just a few chain saws, picks and pitchforks.

And lots of muscle power.

Crews from Conservation Corps Minnesota were busy Wednesday tearing down a literal logjam that settled during the great flood of June 2012.

Hundreds of tons of debris plugged a channel along the river, creating not just a blockage for the water but also a safety concern for park visitors.

Park staff members have been removing garbage and other flotsam from the scene for two years. But only this year did they get the crews needed to start on the huge pile of tree trunks, limbs and branches that covered what had been a popular photo-snapping spot just across the famous swinging bridge near the park's headquarters.

"The debris was stacked above the rocks, maybe 15, 20 feet high. We've been working on it since May, and steady for the last week or so,'' said Mitch Pauly of Superior, a Minnesota State Parks building and grounds crew worker. "It's slow going... But having the Conservation Corps crews here has really helped. This is the kind of work where we can't get big machines in here. So we need bodies to dig in and get dirty."

That's exactly what adult and youth Conservation Corps crew members were doing Wednesday: sawing and hauling logs and limbs up to a four-wheel utility vehicle that brought them to a dumping spot. The wood is being used to fill-in where the 20102 flood caused a landslide at another location in the park.

Most of the adult crew members are full-time, yearlong positions. Funding comes for the federal AmeriCorps program and from fees paid by the state, county, local, federal or private property manager where the crews perform their work. Trail associations and "friends of'' groups are frequent employers of corps crews, as are state parks.

"A lot of us are in outdoor and conservation fields, but not everybody. We have an art major who wasn't sure what she was doing and so is spending the year doing this,'' said Josh Andreska, an adult crew leader and geology/environmental science graduate of the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. "It's a lot of work. But it's a good foot in the door for natural resource jobs."

Conservation Corps members are trained to build all sorts of recreation trails and foot bridges, clear invasive species, trim trees, clean campgrounds and respond to a list of natural disasters including wildfires, floods and even hurricanes. Already this summer, Conservation Corps Minnesota crews have responded to floods and other disasters, including efforts in recent weeks to protect homes and lodges along Lake Kabetogama.

This year, there are 31, five-person adult field crews working across the state. But they also have been as far away as Alaska in recent years.

"We had crews out helping right away after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast. We have a schedule full of natural resource jobs lined up, but the understanding is that, if a disaster hits, our crews are ready to go,'' said Connie Lanphear, communications director for the corps. "Usually they are pulled off to help fight forest fires. But this year it's been more floods than fires."

Conservation Corps Minnesota has roots back to the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided natural resource jobs to unemployed young men so they could support their families during the Great Depression. In the 1970s the federal government launched the Youth Conservation Corps and the year-round Young Adult Conservation Corps. When funding for those ended in 1981, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources took over the effort, creating the Minnesota Conservation Corps.

In 1999, the Friends of the Minnesota Conservation Corps was incorporated as a private, nonprofit that took over the Minnesota Conservation Corps in 2003. The name changed to Conservation Corps Minnesota in 2010. The effort provides outdoor work for about 550 teens and young adults each year.

The six-person youth crews involve four-week stints that pay high schoolers $200 per week (and free food) to camp in the outdoors and travel to wild places in the state that many of them had never seen before. In addition to the debris pile, two youth crews also have helped move rip-rap boulders at Jay Cooke to buttress a new hiking trail bridge. They also have worked in the Gilbert ATV park as well as St. Croix and Banning State Parks.

Many of the youth participants have never been camping, never been to a state park, and some have never been out of their city, Lanphear noted. Many also have never had a hard-work job. Many of them end up bringing family back to show off the work they had accomplished.

"You gain a lot of confidence in what you can do. But I think the big thing is the sense of community you build with each other," said Jonathan Goldenberg, a youth crew leader. Participants develop "the sense that, when people work together, you can get a lot more done."

CONSERVATION CORPS MINNESOTA

For more information on how to join Conservation Corps Minnesota, or to hire a crew for a natural resource or recreation project, go to www.conservationcorps.org.

A Day In The Life Of Conservation Corps Minnesota's Ottertail Crew

Article, written by Maureen Hanlon, appears on the Crew Blog.

June has meant the return of real warm weather, and with that, some of our favorite work. The Ottertail crew spent two weeks in Becker County this month on the beautiful North Country Trail, a long-distance trail that will eventually stretch from New York to North Dakota. We had the pleasure of working with Ray Vlasek, volunteer coordinator for the Laurentian Lakes chapter of the North Country Trail Association, who graciously put down his pulaski for a few minutes one lunchtime to talk about life, trails, and what it’s like to work with the Corps.

Maureen: Ray, why did you get involved with the trail in the first place?

Ray: Payback! Payback for all the trails I hiked in my youth. And I’ve always liked the outdoors, and working hard. It just made sense to come out and work on trails.

M: Me too! When did you get involved?

R: Well, I became a member of the NCTA back in 1987, but I really got active after my retirement in ‘99. We [members of the Laurentian Lakes Chapter] have been working to complete our section for over seven years, and this summer’s work with you all [the Corps] is our big final push.

 

M: It’s been great getting to work with you on this section! Why do you work with the Corps?

R: You guys do the hard work! [Laughs.] No, of course, we do lots of that too. But you do work very hard, and it’s clear that you enjoy it too. We enjoy the social aspect of all you young people coming out, and it’s just that many more hands to get a hard job done. We really appreciate it.

M: Hey, we appreciate you having us, too. Ray, if someone wanted to come out and work on the North Country Trail, who should they get a hold of?

R: I guess that’d be me! We welcome volunteers; there’s certainly plenty to do.

Ray can be reached by e-mail at llc@nct.org. And learn more about the trail at www.northcountrytrail.org. We’ve had a blast this past month, and we’d love to see new faces out using the trail this summer.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Employees Teamed Up With Conservation Corps Minnesota to Plant Seed Bombs

Photo: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota employees planted seed bombs at Patrick Eagan Park. Article appeared in Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa's newsletter.

On the sunny afternoon of May, 13 Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota employees teamed up with Conservation Corps and the City of Eagan to plant more than 100 dozen seed bombs at Patrick Eagan Park in Eagan. The Corps’ first and largest seed bomb making event took place at the Blue Cross CareFest last fall where employees made more than 70 dozen seed bombs, and other native seed balls were created by more than 200 volunteers in 2013. Seeds in the 'bombs' (which were stored over the winter) contain more than a dozen varieties of native flowers and grasses that attract honeybees and butterflies and prevent soil erosion ― perfect for the park’s native habitat. The area planted was recently treated with a prescribed burn to remove invasive species.


Thanks to Blue Cross employees and Gregg Hove, Supervisor of Forestry for the City of Eagan, for all their hard work. Check out a photo gallery of the event.

North to Alaska! Corps Helping with Flood Relief Efforts in Remote Village

Editor's Note: Over the summer, numerous Corps and partners have been assisting with flood relief efforts in the remote village of Galena, Alaska as part of a FEMA - AmeriCorps mission assignment. To date, among The Corps Network's membership, Washington Conservation Corps, Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa, and American YouthWorks have sent crews. In addition to the excellent story below that we are republishing courtesy of AmeriCorps and the National Service Blog, FEMA has an excellent resource page that includes items like a pair of striking before and after satellite images that show the rapid extent of flooding. There is also a Yukon AmeriCorps response Facebook page that includes photos and regular updates. As usual, we are proud of our members and partners for their excellent work to help out in a time of need, no matter how challenging the logistics or how far the distance!

By Paula Katrina Drago

On June 25, President Obama made a federal disaster declaration for parts of Alaska along the Yukon River due to ice jam-related flooding from May 17 to June 11. On cue, a team of AmeriCorps members soon arrived in the remote village of Galena to help people there begin to recover.

Flooding affected villages along a 1,200-mile stretch of the Yukon in the United States – a distance roughly the length of the Mississippi River from Minneapolis, MN, to Vicksburg, MS. The ice blockage sent water flowing into Galena and other villages along the river, flooding homes, schools, and other critical infrastructure.

Response efforts to Galena were unlike any other flood response as the town is only accessible by plane and barge (and only plane once the river freezes up in early fall). The logistics of moving people and resources in and out of the village poses some unique challenges, and any work that isn’t complete by the time winter arrives in late September won’t be resumed until May.

AmeriCorps members arrived in Galena on July 13, two weeks after FEMA made the official federal disaster declaration. Within an hour of landing, they were in the field beginning the critical work of repairing the community. Since their arrival, AmeriCorps members have:

  • Gathered more than 100 homeowner work-order requests for volunteer assistance and established a collaborative work order and dispatch process for the Galena area.
  • Completed more than 70 work orders.
  • Collected and distributed 500+ pounds of food, 40+ pounds of clothes, and 5,600+ pounds of other supplies.
  • Provided direct volunteer management support to over 30 volunteers.

AmeriCorps members are supporting shelter operations and helping residents muck and gut, remove debris, and repair their homes, but that’s only a snapshot of the national service response. For a more detailed picture of what AmeriCorps is doing in Galena, watch the video below and read a member’s account of her team’s experience. 

Going to the Dogs

AmeriCorps has also played a critical role in addressing the impact of the flood on animals there because Galena’s dogs are more than pets—they’re integral to survival.

Dogs help residents find their way home in poor weather conditions, and they alert owners to predators and other dangers. Many are part of dog sled teams that are an important form of transportation – especially when temperatures fall below the point where fuel freezes and render motorized vehicles useless – in a town that is also a stop for the famous Iditarod race. 

Compared to many of the disasters AmeriCorps members have responded to in the last two years, Galena, Alaska, is small in size. Yet whether a disaster impacts millions, thousands, or hundreds, each family receives the same response whenever their world gets turned upside down.

When the work orders arrive, our teams don’t refer to them by a number or even a last name. They see instead that “Allison’s sister” needs some trees removed or that “John’s father” needs his home mucked and gutted. By connecting on this intimate level, AmeriCorps is able to do an even-better job with what we do best: getting things done.

To view the original version of this story and see additional photos and the short video, please click here to journey to the National Service blog.

Boiler Plate: 
Over the summer, numerous Corps and partners have been assisting with flood relief efforts in the remote village of Galena, Alaska as part of a FEMA - AmeriCorps mission assignment.

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