At 4 p.m. Thursday, 30 new Americorps volunteers were sworn into the program following a week of intensive training to prepare them for service. The ceremony took place at the Juneau Ranger District Office on Mendenhall Loop Road.
For the volunteers, the ceremony marked the beginning of a five- to seven-month stint of "on spike" - or outdoor - living. Some will serve in the wilds of Admiralty Island, while others will travel to Sitka, Ketchikan or Glacier Bay to prevent the propagation of invasive species. Still, others will assist the Department of Transportation with work on the roads in Southeast. Later in the fall, some may even find themselves bucking firewood for Juneau locals. Service will conclude in October for crew members and in November for team leaders.
The volunteers are from all over the country, from Maine to California, and their ages range between 17 and 35. It is a diverse group of individuals; some are Alaskan high schoolers, some are part of the youth crews and others are repeat volunteers who have served in the program before. However, they all share a common purpose. As their pledge taken on Thursday states, they are working "to make our people safer, smarter and healthier (and to) strengthen our communities."
Team leader Neal Lowery, of Greenville, North Carolina, who arrived in Juneau in March, said as a team leader, he received three extra months of training. He is now certified in CPR and as a Wilderness First Responder, and has been educated thoroughly in trail construction, invasive species identification and removal, and bear safety. Some other volunteers who are assigned to Admiralty Island would receive some aviation training as well. Asked why he chose to serve in Alaska, he replied:
"I chose Alaska because of the biodiversity and size of the Tongass, and to serve in what's considered a 'frontier state.'"
He added that the opportunity to learn from Alaskan elders and to be a public servant also was a major component of his decision. He hopes to use his Americorps Educational Award, which he will receive upon the completion of his service, to attend the University of Alaska and complete his degree in geography and environmental resources.
Another crew member, Sara Nieft, of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, said her reason for joining was that Alaska was just the next place she had in mind.
"It's someplace I've always wanted to visit, and doing something positive here instead of touring it just made sense," she said.
Nieft will be serving on Admiralty Island, working on the cross-island canoe trail that Joe Parrish, the founder of SAGA, worked on when he was in the Civilian Conservation Corps. In addition to the historical significance for SAGA, a non-profit that works in tandem with Americorps to place volunteers into positions around Alaska, there are other reasons for volunteers to take pride in this project.
"It's really cool because in the wild, you have to use manual tools, no powered anything, so all our work is going to be by hand - bridge-building, everything," Nieft said. "It's a great feeling."
She and her crew will be on Admiralty until late August, working on a two-mile stretch of trail that runs from Mole Harbor to Lake Alexandria, located on the southwest portion of the island.
Besides the trail and environmental work, another part of the Americorps mission is to help foster and enable a culture of civic engagement within its crews and the communities that they serve. As such, along with the duties described above, each volunteer will also take part in a community action project, organized and executed by themselves, with the help of the community they are placed in. Past projects include the Emergency Fall Food Drive in Sitka, which was undertaken last year, and the building of a community garden at the Glory Hole to healthily and affordably help feed those in need in Juneau.
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