They’ve come from all over the United States — nine young people from AmeriCorps National Community Civilian Corps who want to help — and the Sly Park Environmental Education Center is lucky enough to be their hosts. Team leader Sam Strazynski, 26, said, “We do projects all over the United States in many different capacities: working with kids, fire management teams, building houses, cleaning up streams,removing invasive species of plants, disaster response, roadwork —whatever needs need to be met.”
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The NCCC, modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, is a national service program. Young people from the ages of 18-24 serve a 10-month commitment on four different service projects. They work in teams of 8-12 and receive $5,500 to help pay for college or to pay back existing student loans at the completion of their 10-month commitment, as well as a living allowance and housing during their service. They receive training in CPR, first-aid, public safety, and in other skills they may need to use.
The team at Sly Park has been there since Jan. 9 and will remain another eight weeks, chaperoning children at the outdoor education center, assisting teachers, guiding hikes and maintaining the cabins, trails and park areas. “This is our second round,” said Strazynski, who was a corps member in 2008 and returned in 2012 as a team leader. “In December we were at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area helping to refurbish the park — doing roadwork, clearing brush and trimming trees, cleaning up campsites. Our Pacific region of the NCCC does a lot of environmental projects.”
The team at Sly Park is very diverse: some are right out of high school, others have graduated from college. Some are from the Job Corps. Members are from Chicago, Maryland, Pennsylvania, the Midwest, Oregon and the U.S. Virgin Islands. “We become Jack of all trades, learning how to hang drywall, use power tools, work with children. The experience is challenging, but valuable,” said Strazynski.
As students from the three schools spending a week at SPEEC gather around the stone circle outside to hear what they are doing next, some of the team members split up to assist each group. Other team members, like Allison Farnham, 22, and Robert Garza, 21, are using a chop saw to cut “tree cookies” — thin rounds of cedar branches that will be drilled with a hole and turned into necklace souvenirs for the students. For Garza, from Florida, the cold Pollock Pines weather is an eye opener, but he is finding the whole NCCC experience very rewarding and the Eldorado National Forest beautiful.
Farnham, a recent college graduate in recreation and tourism, is on maintenance duty this week. She finished digging out drainage trenches only moments before the rain started. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I’ve learned so many skills and I’m really in my element. It’s a challenge to adjust to a team lifestyle after living on my own in college, but everything we do is so amazing. I’m excited to see where we go next.” Farnham is from Minnesota.
Amran Nero, 22, from the U.S. Virgin Islands, is on the West Coast for the first time. “To see the Pacific is a great thing and to go from 220 feet below sea level to 3,600 above sea level is very different,” said Nero as he prepares to shepherd a group of students to Park Creek. “It’s very green here with a lot of snow on the ground when we arrived.”
Nero likes the service aspect of NCCC saying, “I like giving back.”
SPEEC’s new principal, Matt Smith, is working with the NCCC for the second time, but different teams have been coming during the winter for the past three years, including a team that preceded Strazynski’s team. “Schools bring their students for a week and many of the schools we work with are low income. They have a hard time getting chaperones. The students are very diverse and so are the teams. They add energy and spirit. They are a great addition and help,” said Smith.
Organizations like SPEEC apply to AmeriCorps to host a NCCC team and detail the project they need help with. “Here they work as cabin leaders, teacher’s assistants, building trails — the earlier team built our souvenir shed,” said Smith. “They are so involved and connected with the kids that they have a huge impact on the students. They are also a great example for the kids.”
NCCS teams must be flexible and adaptable.
“Things change so rapidly,” said Strazynski.”We have to be able to roll with it.” When his team graduated from training four months ago, they were told they would be going to the East Coast to help with the Hurricane Sandy disaster; instead they were sent to the Salton Sea. “It’s so important to have a good attitude because you’re faced with a challenging year,” said Straynski. “How you respond is where the leadership and character comes in.”
Alexa Rossini, another NCCC team member, ducks into a classroom to pull out ponchos and rain gear for students to wear on an hour-and-a-half-long hike to Park Creek in the steady rain.
“We go out to learn in all kinds of weather,” said Smith. “Rain or shine, even in snow, we still meet in our groups and go out to learn about composting, environmental stewardship, hydrology, geology, trees, how to build shelters and how to survive in the wilderness.”
Between project rounds, each of which can last six to 11 weeks, NCCC teams meet for a week of transition and debriefing. They get any extra training they might need for the next project and spend some time talking about how they can utilize their experiences in their future. Strazynski, who has served on the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Ike and Gustav, building a community center in Green River, Utah and at the Catalina Island Conservancy, said, “This is a great program and we’re doing some great things.”
For more information about NCCC, visit the Website at americorps.gov/nccc. The Pacific Regional Campus is located in Sacramento and serves eight states in the southwest.
For more information about the Sly Park Environmental Education Center, call 916 228-2485 or visit the Website at scoe.net/slypark/education.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530-344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @WSchultzMtDemo.