Expect the Unexpected with National Service

Article Author:
Lauren Parker, CAC AmeriCorps Member 2015-2016 ; 2016-2017

I wish I could say that my introduction to AmeriCorps was born from a burning desire to improve my community and engage in environmental service. It was the result of a hasty post-graduation job search as I knew my laboratory technician job at UT had an imminent expiration date.

In early July I had my interview, and a month later I began my AmeriCorps journey. For my first year I was placed at the Little River Watershed Association as the Outreach Coordinator. The first several weeks, my primary goal was just to figure out what exactly I needed to do on a day-to-day basis. The job description covered everything from administrative office work to educational program design.

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My second year, I was offered a position at Ijams Nature Center. This year has been more hands on; removing floating mats of garbage in Knoxville’s urban streams to helping kids catch aquatic bugs in the pond outside of Ijams.  I have had entirely too much fun at this AmeriCorps position, which has fortunately also helped kids learn and become closer to their environment.

I’ll admit, writing about my two years of AmeriCorps service is not easy. It has been a consistently dynamic experience. I do what my service site or my community needs at any given day. Whether that means hauling dead animals away from the water treatment plant or sifting through house fire rubble in Gatlinburg, every day offers a new opportunity to grow and change your character. Every day is a new adventure and a new series of challenges to overcome.

I won’t sugar coat it for prospective members: Environmental Service (really service in general) is tough work. Sure people will notice and appreciate your effort, but it is hard to keep that in mind as you haul a car axel out of a stream, with the wheels still attached.

The question I face as I near the end of my AmeriCorps service: was it worth it? Was it worth devoting my time to educating a populace who, at times, seem to not fully value National Service? Has my limited time on this Earth been spent in vain cleaning waterways which will inevitably become trashed again?

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The easy answer would be to say, “Of course every single day you are improving your community.” But AmeriCorps service does not always have easy answers. For me, uncertainty lies at the heart of my service with AmeriCorps. You can see yourself making a tangible difference some days. A mountain of garbage piled up by the road after a clean-up. Happy kids after a fun day of learning and games. However, the everyday grind can wear you down. I felt this most acutely after I had tried for the third time to transfer donor information into a new software system, and I was already tired from calling people on the volunteer list. When I found myself tired and frustrated, I wrote down two things I loved about AmeriCorps service and one thing I hated, and then I threw the note away. I told myself, if I ever struggled to think of two things I loved about service, and then I would need to quit. Fortunately, I never did (though I did get close once).

While I don’t know for certain where I will go from here, I do know that I want to continue investing community and environmental service. AmeriCorps has been such a transformative experience for me, I’m nervous about looking for other jobs as I feel I may not be able to have the same impact in community service, and the awesome and encouraging team mindset that AmeriCorps has.

Service is about giving your time and energy knowing that even in some small way you are slowly making your community a better place. Through the early morning slog of a stream trash pick-up to the frenzy of a kid-friendly educational event.

If I had any advice for aspiring AmeriCorps members, it would be this:

Relax. Focus. Everything will be fine.  Work hard and be happy.