AmeriCorps volunteers trade college for community service

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   While rainfall and fog enveloped Roan Mountain State Park on Wednesday afternoon, 10 young people spent the day grubbing through mud and leaves to improve the park's trail system.
   "What we are doing today is cribbing," said Megan Durney, 23, one of a 10-member team of the AmeriCorps' National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC). "Cribbing is basically marking the trails better by using cut timbers from non-growth trees and stakes from broken trees or cut trees to outline the trail."
   Durney and her fellow team members have spent six months working as community service volunteers on a variety of projects around the park.
   The AmeriCorps NCCC is a 10-month residential national service program for young women and men between the ages of 18 and 24. Members serve on environmental projects, education, public safety, disaster relief, and meet other community needs across the country. AmeriCorps is a national community service program designed to get young people involved in community service while providing an education award to AmeriCorps volunteers.
   The Roan Mountain team is led by Mariah Harrison, 24, a graduate of the University of New Mexico who's group is the third AmeriCorps team to work at the Park since the AmeriCorps inception. The team came to the park in Sept. 2002 and will depart at the end of July.
   Team members have spent several weeks improving the park's trail system by cribbing existing trails. The cribbing process uses tree timbers to define the park's hiking trails and make them passable and safe. Team members also engage in litter control projects along the Doe River and various other projects around the park.
   "Selecting Roan Mountain as a site also has a lot to do with the number of people that visit this park every year," said Harrison.
   Park rangers with Roan Mountain State Park direct the team on improvement projects around the park.
   "We have to get 1,700 hours of work for the years," said Keely Byrne, 18, who is spending a year with AmeriCorps before she enrolls at Pennsylvania State University next fall. Byrne graduated from the Delta Program -- an alternative high school in her hometown of State College, Penn., before joining AmeriCorps. "We go do a lot of projects just on our own to build our hours."
   Students who apply to AmeriCorps are assigned to different teams around the country. A strategy likely employed to give participants a geographic and cultural shock from their surroundings.
   "I think they prefer to send people from outside their region to different parts of the country," said Harrison. "They believe it is beneficial to put you in diverse parts of the country."
   AmeriCorps is open to U.S. citizens, nationals, or lawful permanent residents aged 17 or older. Members serve full or part time over a 10- to 12-month period. Full-time members receive an education award to pay for college, graduate school, or to pay back student loans. Team members receive room and board as well as a stipend while working for AmeriCorps.
   The education award -- roughly $4,725 according to the AmeriCorps -- is enticing for college students faced with existing school loans and/or an interest in furthering their education in graduate school.
   "I had a lot of energy," said Durney, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse. "I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do, but I wanted to find an outlet for that energy."
   A certified teacher, Durney said she learned about AmeriCorps projects while in Wisconsin. The educational award as well as the opportunity to travel drew her to the program. She also said she found Southern Appalachia had a much different atmosphere that her college town.
   "I think it's more relaxed and more collective than the Midwest," said Durney.
   Yusuf Ahmad, 23, entered the business world after graduating from the University of Florida last year. When economic conditions for the Atlanta-based company he was working for shut down last year, he applied to the AmeriCorps and found himself in Roan Mountain.
   "I plan to get involved with other community service agencies, possibly Habitat for Humanity," said Ahmad. "We did a project with them ... and we've done a lot of different types of service projects like 'Coalition for Kids' in Johnson City."
   Harrison, Byrne and Ahmad said their families had been supportive of their decision to trek far from home to spend one year working as community service volunteers.
   "My mother was really supportive and happy I was doing it," said Ahmad. "My sister still thinks I'm crazy for doing it."
   "My family was very excited I was going to get involved and get money for college," said Byrne. "They thought it was fantastic."
   Created in 1993, AmeriCorps is part of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which also oversees Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America. Teams with the NCCC meet community needs in cooperation with non-profit programs, state and local agencies, and other community groups. The programs engage more than two million Americans of all ages and backgrounds in service each year.
   After the service commitment is up, AmeriCorps team members receive their awards and have the opportunity to spend a second year in the program if they desire. Harrison said the experience had motivated her to devote more time to not-for-profit causes in the future. The experience had also been a big boost to her own leadership skills.
   "I plan to work with more non-profits and back into graduate school," said Harrison. "It is wonderful to be a part of a team and work in an environment together."