They come looking for experience in serving others and improving our landscape, but they leave having learned and imparted much more.
Since 2018, AmeriCorps volunteers have literally been changing the landscape in Winnebago and Boone counties while introducing residents to the wonders of the natural world at the same time.
The number of volunteers has grown through the years. Currently, 14 people are serving full- or part-time and are mainly college students who have a degree or are in the process of getting one. They are seeking professional experience and a way to “give back” to local communities, says Ann Wasser, Director of Severson Dells Nature Center, the host site for this AmeriCorps program.
“The hardest thing for me is that I don’t get to keep them,” she says. “If I could, I would hire every one of them.”
The Environmental Education program is just one of many ways volunteers can serve through AmeriCorps. Locally, they help with habitat restoration, seed collection, bird-watching hikes, guided nature hikes, school field trips, summer nature camps, and classes for children and adults.
“Because of the AmeriCorps members, we are able to expand programming and do more educational programs and habitat restoration,” Wasser says. “The members get valuable experience, a stipend and a federal education award, but mostly members want to learn and make a valuable impact on their own communities.”
In her second year as an AmeriCorps volunteer, Megan Bertucci, 24, is an environmental educator at Severson Dells, hosting educational programming and leading outdoor adventures. She’s passionate about conservation, restoration and hiking and other outdoor sports. The 2020 graduate of Northern Michigan University has a degree in biology and ecology.
During her first year as a volunteer, she worked to protect Pacific Salmon in Puget Sound in the state of Washington through education, restoration and research. She applied to be an AmeriCorps volunteer when her plans for graduate school were put on hold because of the pandemic. She says the experience has been “life-changing.”
“The program has given me so much good experience and has better prepared me for the future,” she says. “I especially like to see the immediate results of doing restoration and what a big difference it makes.”
Her assignment is finished in December, so she is applying for jobs in natural resources, hoping to find a project management position in conservation. Other plans include getting a master’s degree in environmental science.
Ashlyn Rogers, 23, is from New Jersey and graduated from Unity College in 2021 with a degree in wildlife biology and a minor in applied mathematics and statistics. She describes herself as an “all-around animal lover, lifelong volunteer and outdoor enthusiast.”
At Severson Dells, she serves with the Community Science Program, habitat restoration, and recruiting and training volunteers for those programs. Her assignment began in March and ends in November. She is currently looking at other AmeriCorps opportunities across the country for next spring.
“Being in this program has given me a lot of experience and the chance to explore new places and meet new people,” she says. “It’s important to step outside of your comfort zone to learn about yourself and the world we live in.”
Not only has she enjoyed being a volunteer, but she has also added skill sets to her resume and paved the way for more opportunities for the future. Eventually, she plans to go to graduate school and work as a research assistant.
Wasser was an AmeriCorps volunteer in 2009, doing environmental education in the state of Washington. She took her current position in 2016.
AmeriCorps is a 30-year-old federal and state program that has served as a modern-day Civilian Conservation Corps for people of all ages. It awards grants to organizations, works to alleviate the impact of poverty, builds homes for families in need, engages low-income older Americans in mentoring and tutoring school children, and helps other seniors maintain their independence.
States apply for the federal money and host sites apply for grants from the state every three years. Organizations have to say how they will use the grant money and how they use their own funds. Members search the positions available throughout the country and apply for the service opportunities they are interested in doing. Part of the volunteer application asks why the person wants to serve.
Wasser says there is a wide range of reasons why people are motivated to take a position with AmeriCorps. She recalls a political science student wanting to eventually work in shaping environmental policies. Another student wanted to be a park ranger, but wanted some first-hand experience in habitat restoration to have as a foundation.
“The program is designed for people who want to have an impact. It’s like a Peace Corps at home,” Wasser says.