The Community Connection: AmeriCorps Capacity Building Projects

It’s been a long day out in the field, and my tired body yearns to finish up my work and go home. Instead, I’m working on my lesson plan for tomorrow. As I lean back and the squeak of my chair breaks the silence of the room, another sound drifts up the stairs – footsteps and laughter. I turn to see Olivia and Jackson, two members of the fall AmeriCorps cohort, walking up the stairs to work on their own lesson plans after their own long field days. Tea in hand and smiles on their faces, their positivity and eagerness to contribute time and energy as service members reinvigorates me and lifts my mood. We bounce ideas around and share stories from the week until our plans are complete.

The AmeriCorps members are rock stars in this community. Their arrival at the beginning of each season breathes new life into Coyote Canyon, and their passion and creativity throughout their terms of service add quality to the student experience here at TSS. To see so much effort from individuals devoted to service is inspiring and encourages the entire TSS community to strive to match their hard work and energy. Their dedication is truly to be admired.

During their term of service, AmeriCorps members develop as environmental educators, designing curriculum, planning and teaching engaging lessons, exploring the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and refining the adaptability and group management skills necessary when instructing outdoors. In addition to all this, AmeriCorps members also extend their spheres of influence to the community at large through capacity building projects done in partnership with numerous organizations around Jackson. These projects are intended to expand the reach and effectiveness of these programs. While many capacity building projects are STEM themed, AmeriCorps may seek partnerships with any community organization that has an identified need.

Hoping to celebrate this community capacity building, I set out to learn more about two of the projects carried out by members of the Fall 2016 cohort.

Olivia Gregorius, Girls Actively Participating

Olivia Gregorius partnered with GAP! Girls Actively Participating for her capacity building project. GAP! is dedicated to promoting “the well-being of adolescent girls in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, through active participation in self-discovery, community building, and service to others.” Olivia explained, “[GAP!] runs a variety of programs […] it’s kind of like an umbrella organization for different programs that work with 3rd-8th graders in afterschool programs. Their goal is to promote active participation in the [Jackson Hole] community and society as well as increase self-expression, self-confidence and leadership skills. It’s an all-female community that acts as a safe space for girls to connect with one another and be themselves.”

This fall, Olivia worked with Accelerate, an afterschool running club designed to get girls outside and into their neighborhoods. Each afternoon closed with a team initiative and leadership discussion to foster a sense of community, self-confidence, and social skills. Olivia also worked with local 6th graders through GAP! on afterschool activities centered around community leadership, with seasonal themes such as confidence, mindfulness, female business ownership, and primitive survival skills. When I asked what initially drew her to working with this organization, Olivia responded: “I’ve done a lot of work with female empowerment education in the past. In college, I started an outdoor program for girls in the Lewiston, ME community focusing on wellness, art and self-expression in the outdoors. This was the path for me going into an outdoor education career. I didn’t have a space like this growing up and was very intimidated by the outdoors. This organization gives females intentional spaces, which can be really helpful for their self-discovery.”

Contributing to the success of GAP! added an important layer of meaning to Olivia’s experience at TSS: “I had worked at an outdoor school previously, but felt like I didn’t have a strong connection to the community at large. I wanted to make a deeper connection to the community outside of outdoor education and bring skills from both worlds to one another.” When I asked how time spent working on her capacity project complemented her AmeriCorps term of service, Olivia responded that it “further fueled my passion for this line of work and the importance for there to be these ‘free spaces’ for students to turn to and feel safe.”

Stuart Agnew, Teton County Public Health

Meanwhile, fellow AmeriCorps member Stuart Agnew used her capacity building project to explore an entirely different avenue, one which she has been passionate about since she was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Stuart chose to volunteer with Teton County Public Health, an organization “in charge of protecting and improving the health of families and communities in Teton County.” Stuart majored in global studies at UNC and devoted a great deal of time to working with local public health non-profits. When I asked what attracted her to working with this community partner, Stuart responded that it combined her interests in public health, science literacy, and community service.

During her time with Teton County Public Health, Stuart helped write a report designed “to outline the current state of public health in Teton County and the effects of funding cuts to social services in the area.” Stuart contributed to the report by interviewing numerous non-profit directors in Jackson; at the end of the fall, she presented her research to Teton County Systems of Care, a board of the executive directors of all the health and human services organizations in the county.

When I asked how her capacity project added to her AmeriCorps term at TSS, Stuart said that it “helped me learn a lot more about the community of Jackson and the issues that it faces. It has also connected me to individuals and important members in the community as well as organizations that I value. It has made me feel like a big part of this project and like my work and effort are very valued.”

The impact of the AmeriCorps members on the Jackson Campus of TSS is unmistakable, but it’s important to acknowledge that the influence of these men and women doesn’t stop at the end of Coyote Canyon. Rather, their dedication to service and social stewardship resonates throughout the town of Jackson and surrounding areas. This fall cohort’s capacity projects have made lasting positive impacts on the community at large, while also endowing each service member with unique skills and professional connections that will continue to serve them as they set out on their paths after TSS.

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