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Continuing to Learn about Service as an Alum

August 6, 2012

Today’s guest post comes from Katie Schafer who served with Elkhart EnviroCorps in 2005-2007.

I frequently meet people whose minds are blown by the fact that I willingly go hike up steep mountains in the heat with tons of gear to fight a fire. These same people look at me like I’m quite crazy when I tell them how much I love to do that. However, this is AmeriCorps Alums and a lot of us have gone to great lengths to serve, so you all will understand.

It used to be a challenge for me to articulate why I fight fires. The answer has come to me as I have continued to learn lessons about service in my 5 years as an AmeriCorps Alum.

Katie during her service with EnviroCorps.

I used to feel slightly inferior about my service for a number of reasons. After college, I joined AmeriCorps less because I was determined to serve and more because I was willing to serve if it got me the experience I needed and helped me decide what I wanted to do with my college degree. My service wasn’t the kind you hear about on the news: I wasn’t helping people, I was helping the planet.

In the years since, I’ve begun to see how, no matter where you started out when you joined AmeriCorps, you end up in a similar mindset after serving. Service becomes a part of your life. Today, I’m still learning what AmeriCorps did for me, for other members, and enabled us to do for others.

I served from September 2005-August 2007 in Elkhart EnviroCorps. EnviroCorps had over 50 ongoing projects that all fell under the themes of environmental education, restoration, or community outreach. One of the projects in EnviroCorps was funded through a partnership with The Nature Conservancy. Through this collaboration, 3-5 members of our 12 person team travelled throughout the state of Indiana serving on restoration efforts on TNC preserves under the guidance of TNC stewards.  A big part of restoration is using prescribed fire, and The Nature Conservancy holds its staff and volunteers (and AmeriCorps members) to a high standard with fire, requiring us to obtain and keep current our red card, or wildland firefighting certifications, to participate on prescribed fires.

Katie & her California Fire Team

The first year that I attended a refresher training to keep my red card current, I learned that, through the Indiana DNR, I could list myself as available to be assigned to crews to fight wildfires.

It was July 2008 before I got to go out on assignment to the Basin Complex Fire in California. It was a far cry from the prescribed fire that I was used to and at times a little overwhelming. There wasn’t always a lot of work for a handcrew, but we helped widen lines that dozers had put it to contain the fire. There were two distinct highlights of that trip for me. My crew was assigned to go to a remote Buddhist monastery, the Tassajara Mountain Zen Center, to help prepare the buildings to survive if the fire passed through that area. The fire did consume the area surrounding the Zen Center, but most of the buildings remained intact.

Jump to now service is still a part of my life. I married a 2-year *NCCC alum and at our wedding, we took a picture of everyone there who served in some official capacity–military, Peace Corps, religious life, and of course AmeriCorps. Not everyone was there for the picture, and we still had a pretty big crowd, don’t you think? And what these friends have taught me by the lives they live is that service means shifting the focus away from myself.

Katie’s wedding photo with her service friends.

My service and work may be focused on the environment, but I serve others too. Some of it is more organized, like volunteering for events or nonprofits or at church, while a lot of it is simply how I interact with others and the life I choose to lead.

It is anything from being there to help when a friend moves or re-roofs their house to making the well-being and development of my employees on of my priorities as a manager to even just random acts of kindness. Service is what makes fighting wildfires and managing nature preserves continue to be fun in my lifetime of Service.

What areas are you currently serving in? Share with us in the comments below!

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