It was exactly what I was looking for.. and exactly what I needed..

Article Author:
Katie Walberg, CAC AmeriCorps Alum 2011-2012 & 2012-2013

Imagine an art student, obsessed with the implications human development has on our natural resources, coming out of graduate school and searching for a job. I thought teaching college art courses would be the next logical step, but during the 2009-10 economic downturn these jobs were scarce and seemingly impossible to land.

Learning_water_qualityI was beginning to worry my interest in finding work that contributed to the betterment of our community was quickly becoming unrealistic. It seemed a shame. I had all this creative energy and education to contribute to art and environmentalism but seemingly nowhere to put it. It was around this time that I heard about the AmeriCorps program in my community from a dear friend of mine. It turned out it was a conservation service corps which sparked my interest immediately. I readily applied.

UT_raingardenWhen I received the CAC AmeriCorps position working with a University of Tennessee led program called Tennessee Smart Yards (formerly Tennessee Yards and Neighborhoods), I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting into. Here I was working in an office situation and coordinating a program that I was just learning about. However, my coworkers were amazing! They were devoted to the program’s goals, and their enthusiasm was contagious. The program objectives were to provide workshops and materials to homeowners about sustainable landscaping practices that protect our local waterways and preserve our natural resources.  It embodied all the things I was interested in learning more about:

Environmentalism -Check

Landscaping and native plants -Check

Education on preservation practices -Check!

Sign me up!

In the beginning, I needed to learn about the program, how to organize workshops, keep track of attendees and contacts, and use programs like Excel, PowerPoint, SharePoint, and Constant Contact while also assisting with my fellow CAC AmeriCorps members in water quality training and projects. I was diving into a world I didn’t know much about technically, but I loved it. I learned so much and had such a great experience that first year that when the time came to consider a second year of service I applied without hesitation.

The_magic_is_in_the_water_barrelYear two furthered my education and experience in the world of non-profit environmentalism. I became comfortable with my understanding of the program and started investigating more creative pursuits to promote the program at conferences and events. Slowly but steadily my skills with website maintenance and graphic art improved, and I began taking on bigger projects like designing rain gardens, illustrating native plants, and creating marketing materials and kiosks for our rain garden installations. There was always a way to apply a creative approach to the educational materials we provided, and I was encouraged to use my strengths as an artist to fulfill these goals. A side-effect of all this work was I became proficient in the use of Illustrator and Photoshop and started creating a competent graphic art portfolio that I can use to pursue future jobs.

Native plantings also became a huge interest of mine after learning more about them and promoting their use in home landscapes. I couldn’t get enough, and I ended up collaborating on a native plant website (tynnativeplants.wordpress.com) with a master gardener to provide homeowners with information and resources for their home landscaping. The more I learned the more I wanted to know, and working with this program forever changed my understanding of how a healthy environment functions and how we can work to recreate and enhance these ecosystems in our own tiny part of the watershed. (i.e. our home landscape.)

PrintEventually, after completing my second year, I was hired on full time to work with Tennessee Smart Yards. I have been working there ever since.  I’ve made great contacts through this program and have had the opportunity to take on additional freelance work. Some of these projects include the design of a logo and booklet for North Carolina State University’s annual EcoStream conference and collaborating with the Water Research Resource Center in creating graphics for a “Riparian Buffer Handbook” funded by the Tennessee Department of Forestry. All of these experiences bleed into my personal artwork as I now incorporate a deeper understanding of the importance of our natural world into my work. It’s been a very rewarding experience to know that what I’m doing has a positive impact on the community and to see the connections it has to all aspects of my life and work.

Iowa_Prairie_RestorationCurrently, I am working part-time for the Tennessee Smart Yards program after relocating to Iowa for my husband’s job. I am lucky to be able to continue much of the work I was doing from afar and feel confident that this experience will help me find new work in a similar field here in Iowa.  In retrospect, CAC AmeriCorps provided me with training, experience, enthusiasm, and support in a field that I had always been interested in but never knew how to pursue. It also enhanced my conviction as an artist and continues to fuel my creative pursuits today. In retrospect it was exactly what I needed as a graduate student venturing out into the professional world…exactly.

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This blog post is a collection of personal reflections and expressions. All opinions represented are those of the author and do not represent the official opinion or views of the Knoxville – Knox County Community Action Committee, CAC AmeriCorps or any other party referenced.