The Service Learning Initiators

Whether it’s to gain professional experience in a career field, to spend a year gaining “Real World” experience before going back to school, or simply to take time to serve a community, everyone has their own motivations for embarking on an AmeriCorps journey. Often, members find that throughout their year of service their motivations change, or that they gain something from their year of service that they were not anticipating.

This is one of the reasons CAC AmeriCorps has the Service Learning Initiators, which are a group of members who volunteer their time to plan and execute several optional events for other corps members. These events allow them space to explore their motivations for service, what they’ve learned so far, and to think critically about how they can have a meaningful and responsible impact on the communities they serve – we believe it’s important to provide context to frame service as well as have difficult but important conversations about what service is, and isn’t.

Because it’s around the halfway point for this group of members, we thought we’d ask them to reflect on what serving in CAC AmeriCorps means to them. Here is what they had to say:

Erica Lisowe

“Service can be a complicated idea to explain. Occasionally, my students ask me about AmeriCorps. After explaining the year of service as quickly and appropriately as I can, I always get the same question: “Why?” With one word they ask so much – why here? Why now? Why this? Why us? 

Truthfully, there are a lot of moments that make me ask those same questions. Service can feel like the most challenging summit imaginable: clambering over rocks and rubble that slip out from under you; falling with skinned knees and aching limbs; gazing up at the peak that is always just out of reach. It is undeniably tough. 

Here’s the challenge: you keep climbing. You climb because you believe so strongly in the view. You climb for the smaller vistas, for the tiny gemstones and wildflowers you find along the way. You climb and remember to turn around, to appreciate how far you’ve come. You realize that there’s not one true “peak”, but a series of endless summits in a magnificent mountain range. 

It’s hard to explain to a nine-year-old that you can love something and struggle. That while you may be a “grown-up”, “grow” should really be in the present tense. I have learned so much in this position and am still learning. I am learning to give grace, to myself and others, but to still seek out the challenge. I am learning to advocate for my skills, pushing past barriers so I can meaningfully connect with my community. I am learning that “best” is not a constant term, but that I can have seasons of growth and lull and still be of value. I am learning that people are people, no matter how young or how daunting. I am learning how best to listen, to love, and to live with gentle tenacity and steadfast compassion. I am growing. I am failing. And I am getting back up to try again.”

– Erica Lisowe, UT Assisted Community Schools Member

Cele Weakfall

“What I’ve learned from this year and a half of service is infinite. Bob Ross sums up my feelings about what service means to me perfectly while painting a winter landscape with happy little Evergreens. He plainly states, “The point isn’t to become a perfect painter of trees. I don’t teach you to copy me but to come up with your own version, where you explored and were brave enough to make your own beautiful landscape. This experience of painting with me will hopefully get you to look at things differently. If you look at nature, you’ll see all kinds of wonderful things. If I changed your perspective to help you see nature for the awe striking beautiful wonder that it is, then I did my job and I’d say that’s a pretty good thing.”

This golden nugget of Bob’s wisdom in particular left me reflecting on how fortunate I am to be where I’m at today. I’m struck with complete and total awe when I think about all of the experiences I’ve gained from this journey of service. It’s hard to quantify but I feel like Bob does it justice. Here’s what I thought Bob was trying to help me see. One, there’s beauty everywhere, it’s all around me, I just have to look and keep looking! Secondly, I tapped into unlimited amounts of joy when I realized how important it is to slow down and appreciate the little things because life is a journey. Third, being brave enough to be new at something is uncomfortable and scary to my ego because it involves happy little accidents, but we’re all human so perfection is unattainable. Fourth, once I realized that the act of getting back up after getting knocked down repeatedly is success in itself, you’ll gain superhero like confidence. Fifth, remain humble and never stop learning. Lastly, service has taught me that one of the most satisfying things on Earth comes from lifting others up and watching them bloom.”

-Cele Weakfall, CAC AmeriCorps VISTA Leader

Saylor White

“When referring to east Tennessee, depending on who you ask, this place could be one of two things, the Great Smoky Mountains or the southern region of Appalachia. Those two names are the same in many ways. Both the region/culture of the Great Smoky Mountains and Southern Appalachia have a history that strives to be conserved. Although, depending on which reference you use, the stories you’ll be told could differ greatly. The people of Appalachia have roots in shaping some of the most iconic things about East TN like music, food, drink, and art. Although, in an everchanging standard of society Appalachians have been considered a people stricken by poverty and in need of help. Are they people in need of help or just misunderstood? Americorp has taught to be open to learn from others.

Terms like Urban Forestry or Urban Wilderness were coined in the City of Knoxville to somehow reach for the benefits that open wilderness can offer and bring it to an urban city. In a way, preserving and expanding the vast wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains by boarding the plain with parks that feature more open space and multi-use trails. The Smokies are, in the grand scheme of things, a young forest. Much of the vegetation that is there now, is new due to a large-scale clearing of the trees by loggers and settlers looking to set up a new home front that happened almost 100 years ago. It was change and development that brought those grand trees to the ground and it is development still that threatens this ecosystem. When you plant a tree, it is usually meant to outlive us. AmeriCorps have been given the opportunity to learn about proper tree care and planting. Therefore, the trees that we have planted could outlive us in the long run.

East Tennessee tells the stories of a unique and diverse ecosystem and the culture of the people who settled here. AmeriCorps serves as a bridge to hopefully become interpreters for this area. To help preserve and nourish what is already here by clearing the invasive species so the naïve vegetation can thrive and giving this region’s people a voice. Acting as almost a Lorax and speak up for the area really needs. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” – Dr. Seuss The Lorax”

– Saylor White, City of Knoxville Parks and Recreation

Madeleine Williamson

One of the biggest things I’ve learned about service this year is how to find meaning in indirect service. Prior to AmeriCorps, I had only completed direct service, like giving people food donations or clearing farmland. These activities had a visible impact: food in people’s hands or land no longer covered in brush. My service this year is different. I am serving as a VISTA, which means that my service is indirect. At my site, Tennessee RiverLine, this can look like recruiting and managing volunteers to clean up a river, rather than cleaning up a river myself. 
Sometimes it can be hard not to see immediate, tangible results of my service, and until recently, I doubted my effectiveness. I think this was because I expected my VISTA service to fit into the framework of my previous experiences with direct service. Unlike before, I couldn’t see who my service was helping or how. But over time, this helped me to decenter myself. Being able to quickly see my impact in the past made it easy to focus on my individual role in the work. As a VISTA, however, I am a piece of a much larger puzzle. Nobody creates a volunteer program or secures a grant overnight, and nobody does it alone. That might sound discouraging, but for me, it’s been freeing to realize how much this isn’t about me. Instead of worrying about being the absolute best ever and saving the entire world, I can just focus on doing the best I can, making my piece fit within the puzzle.

-Madeleine Williamson, Tennessee RiverLine

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.

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