Thursday, July 23, 2015

Why I joined AmeriCorps

 A few people have asked me what I've been doing out here in Montana.  The answer is that I'm serving in AmeriCorps at Montana State Parks.  This is why...

When I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) last year, I was happier than I had ever been.  I was surrounded by incredible beauty on a daily basis, and felt a sense of community and purpose in my life.   It was exactly what I’d been wanting to do for a long time.  I was living the dream.

After I got off the PCT last October, I felt lost.  I couldn’t go back to what I’d been doing before after tasting such happiness.

But I didn’t want to have to have my life revolve around scraping enough money to support a series of long distance hikes.  Being miserable while I was saving up for future hiking trips seemed unbalanced and unsustainable, like a sure path to depression.  What if something happened again, like my stress fracture, that prevented me from hiking?  I needed to find a way to make off-trail life fulfilling and meaningful.

Making a Difference
Seeking a new path, I traveled around last winter.  I visited Still Waters who was serving the homeless with the AmeriCorps program.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, AmeriCorps is like a domestic version of the Peace Corps.  Volunteers work all across the US on critical problems including homelessness, the environment, energy, and education.  She urged me to volunteer at the soup kitchen and shelter as I searched for jobs.  As I watched Still Waters listen to her clients and find ways to help them, I could see that making a difference was part of the answer for what I need to do next.  As I peeled mounds of sweet potatoes, I realized I didn’t need to change the world, I just needed to do a small part, to make a contribution. 

I thought about causes I believe in. I am most passionate about the environment, our trails and parks, and connecting people with nature.  Maybe not as critical a problem as homelessness, but it felt more personal and compelling to me, and like something that has served as a driving factor in my life.  It was also related to one of my childhood dreams.

Living the Dream
If I could make my dream of hiking the PCT a reality, then I could turn my bucket list and all my childhood dreams into a to-do-now list.  A childhood dream of mine was to be a park ranger.  I wanted to lead interpretive programs, answer the nature questions at the visitors center, and know every trail, plant, and bug in my park. 
It feels like I'm making a difference when I share my excitement about the natural world with these children.  Plus they call me "Ranger Joan."
I have found a way to make a difference in helping people connect with nature, and get to (sort of) be park ranger.  I’m serving with AmeriCorps in Montana State Parks. I support the state parks by leading and developing interpretive nature programs for children and adults, help with volunteers, and work on land improvement projects like invasive weeds and trail maintenance.
Working with the Montana Conservation Corps for National Trails Day.
This is only a temporary solution to the problem of what to do after the PCT.  But I love waking up everyday with a purpose.  I love helping people connect with the outdoors, nurturing children’s curiosity for the natural world, and caring for this park.  I have supported trail crews that maintain the trail network in the park.  Most importantly, I am part of a community of wonderful volunteers.
My AmeriCorps Team!
“Making a difference” used to sound really naive to me.  It was something I heard my undergrad students say, not someone in her mid-30’s with an advanced degree.  Sometimes I worry about how I am not building my retirement account, how I have abandoned my old career path, and how I struggle with the $4.80 an hour living allowance.  But serving with AmeriCorps and doing work that I love also seemed to me the only sensible response to the the overwhelming kindness and generosity that I received on the PCT.
Guess which one is me.
First graders mesmerized by a click beetle.
Responding to phone calls from park visitors about fawns too close to the trail is part of my job.
Am I as happy as I was on the PCT?  It’s hard to compare.  This is a different kind of happiness. It feels like I am closer to living a more sustainable and balanced life. 

If anyone out there is wondering what to do after a long-distance hike, I hope you seriously consider finding ways to give back.  Committing to serve in national service program like I did is just one possibility.  Volunteer at a local park, join a trail crew, find a cause you support, and get out there in the community and do something.
Plus, this is the view I get from "work."
Learn more about AmeriCorps
AmeriCorps website
Montana State Parks AmeriCorps


  1. That's awesome! I too have been wondering what you were up to. I have a close friend who did AmeriCorps a few years after getting her B.S., before going for her Masters. She loved the program, too.

    Hey, you are having a great experience! Enjoy!

    1. Thanks so much, Misti! I'm so surprised how many people I meet have either done AmeriCorps or know someone who did the program. I hadn't really heard of it before.

      It's a great program, and I especially love all the training opportunities I've gotten. I loved learning trail maintenance and management of invasive plants, and working with the children has been absolutely wonderful. At one program, I overheard one of the 3rd graders say "I want to be a ranger when I grow up" and I just melted!

  2. I'm thinking I might like being a caretaker of a forest service cabin or lookout or something like Kentucky Camp or LaPosta. I'd like to host/educate those passing through. I've also looked at the week long PCTA trail crews . . . or maybe like WhyNot, going to Denali . . . or

    1. There are so many ways to get involved, even with trail work. And they are accessible for different abilities, not just for young strong kids. I'd really like to do one of those week long crews too! There is such a feeling of satisfaction when you build your first waterbar, for example, after thinking of all the waterbars I've walked over....

  3. Thanks for your contribution via AmeriCorps. We all benefit from your efforts.

    1. It feels really good to "serve" this way. I have learned a lot about what it means to give back. It's not very glamorous and sometimes is frustrating, but I think that taking a long period to do a program like this really changes how you view your role in society.

      Sometimes it seems like young people are the only ones who volunteer for programs like this. But there are a few others of us that are in our 30's and 40's. I've also learned that there are other programs too, like Senior Corps. So anyone can do it!

  4. Proud of you. None of us take any material things from this world into the next. I do believe we not only make things better here and now doing the sort of things you're doing, but you get to keep that and take it with you always and forever. Love and goodness of all kinds lasts forever. Bless you. I love the photo at the top of you smiling and being with those kids. <3 You're making me misty!

  5. You know the old saying... Find a job you love and you'll never work another day in your life. It looks like you've found yours.
    You remind me of my aunt and uncle. They gave up their jobs as school bus drivers in Indiana and moved to the upper peninsula of Michigan to be caretakers of a nature reserve. They rode 4 wheelers in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter. They took care of the wild life, worked as guides on the lakes and just had the time of their lives. I wish you the same.