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Happy to help: the spirit of volunteerism

Posted: April 28, 2012 - 11:01pm  |  Updated: April 29, 2012 - 1:48am
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Gastineau Elementary students and teachers helped collect books for a city-wide book drive culminating April 20. More than 7,000 books were collected and they will be distributed throughout Southeast Alaska.  Courtesy of SAGA
Courtesy of SAGA
Gastineau Elementary students and teachers helped collect books for a city-wide book drive culminating April 20. More than 7,000 books were collected and they will be distributed throughout Southeast Alaska.

Many great things happen in this community, and there are no magical elves involved. A lot of times, we can thank the many SAGA and Americorps volunteers who help staff non-profit organizations, who help lead trail crews and who help instill that spirit of service in the community and in schools.

April 20 was National Youth Service Day and SAGA engaged every school in the district to improve the community in Juneau and Southeast Alaska.

Americorps Connections Community Service Specialist Cody Koebnick organized a district-wide book drive and, with the regional manager of SAGA’s Corps program for Southeast, Hollis Emery, two outdoors service projects.

“In years past it’s been more of an outdoors event, then we discovered it’s really hard for the schools to commit to because it requires so many students being out of the classroom. So we kinda changed gears this year and … decided to do a book drive and engage the student councils at the various schools and really get the schools to take leadership and ownership of each project. And the students did a great job doing that, too.” Koebnick said, “ We saw student councils jump into action and design and implement their own programs and reach out to other community members. And through this new program, we were able to get every school in the Juneau School District involved, plus others in the Southeast area. And where Hollis comes in too, she helps without the Gastineau (Elementary) and Yakoosge (Daakahidi) projects — we teamed up with the schools there to do work outside. “

The Corps program has SAGA crew leaders, Americorps volunteers, lead trail crews throughout Southeast Alaska. They spend time in Juneau for training at the beginning of their term of service and Emery coordinates their training and community involvement.

“Our crew leaders did have some outdoor projects, so it was a good opportunity for them to put some of the training we’ve been doing to work, but again, also to do it in a meaningful way that interacts with (community) members and youth in the community. At Gastineau Elementary we worked — the teachers there have organized year after year to maintain a little trail that goes through the property, so we had our leaders out there to help with some of the technical aspects of it, and we were working with the Forest Service too. We put in a bridge and stuff like that. But also (we) keep the students engaged, talking about why we’re doing this and what does it mean to build a sustainable trail. So they had a great time. They said the kids had so much energy and so much enthusiasm, running around them hauling buckets of gravel.” Emery said.

“The other half of our crew leaders worked with students from Yakoosge (Daakahidi) and we partnered with the City and Borough of Juneau, which was great, to clean up at the Evergreen Cemetery. And it’s been done year after year, again, and I was blown away by these students, they did so much work in two hours and the city crew was really, really impressed. And everyone had a great time. It was great for our leaders, they were able to lead little work groups and could start practicing and learn, ‘what does it mean to lead a crew?’”

Between the outdoor activities and the book drive that had every school working together, National Youth Service Day was a real success for Koebnick and Emery. The book drive raised an impressive number of books.

“With the book drive, we collected over 7,000, which was an unprecedented volume. I did not foresee 7,000 books coming in that day, and I don’t think anyone else predicted it either. And our first trip’s going to be next week, we’ll be going to Angoon and Sitka, we’ll be going with some other Americorps members and meeting some there too. And we’re working with the school districts there to drop of thousands of books that the students here raised.”

Koebnick said he was impressed with the schools and their commitment to the project.

“I got a chance to go through the Charter School while they were still finishing up and the teachers and students were doing a great job sorting through the books, looking at the binding, seeing if it was appropriate and if the quality matched their self-imposed standards, which was all part of that student leadership I mentioned earlier, which is really what Global Youth Service Day is all about.”

National Youth Service Day is one of four major events Koebnick organized as part of his position and he and Emery said there are occasionally other major service projects, like the 9/11 Day of Rememberance, but that SAGA and Americorps Connections volunteers are out serving in the communities all year.

Tthrough my program, Connections, there’re 12 of us here in the community and even more in Yakutat, Ketchikan, Anchorage that are less visible, but still there. We’re placed in non-profits throughout the city from AWARE to AEYC, Department of Transportation, and these are all very well educated people with Bachelors degrees who work in non-profits here for a year-long term of service.” Koebnick said.

“It’s really neat, our Americorps members are engaged in service all the time, but having a day like this — this celebration of service, and it really is global, there are events going on all over — that sort of reenergizes our Corps members and it’s a catalyst to start talking about service and service learning with students in the community.” Emery said, and she says she hopes people recognize the positive impact of volunteers in the communities. “Hopefully when people see the SAGA crews, you know, the van and the hardhats, they know that they’re there knocking on your door and asking what they can do - tell them. We’re ready to help.”

Neither Koebnick nor Emery are content with resting on their laurels as service coordinators. Koebnick made it his goal to expand upon the work of his predecessor and challenges his replacement, once his one year term of service is up, to outdo him. He’d like to see service events and the impact on the community be “bigger, better (and) stronger than last year.”

Similarly, Emery has ideas for getting crew leaders engaged in the community earlier in their terms, possibly helping students to design their own community service projects to culminate on National Youth Service Day.

Books from the book drive will be distributed throughout Southeast Alaska community schools, shelters and potentially through the Imagination Library. If you know of a school, community or organization in Southeast Alaska that could use some books, contact Koebnick at Volunteer@ServeAlaska.org.

• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

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