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AmeriCorps volunteers give back where help is needed

  • AmeriCorps NCCC team members that are working at the Fossil and Prairie Park just outside Rockford are from left to right: Front row – Rafael Villalobos Jr. (El Paso, TX), Amanda Williams (Mason, OH), Mary Christman (Lancaster, PA), Anthony Ricci (Frederick, MD) and James Masse, (Worcester, MA). Second row –  Tatiana Cordova (Alameda, CA), Kodie Montel (El Mirage, AZ), Nick DeJohn (Sherman Oaks, CA), DaShon Leggette (Atlanta, GA) and Karlton Petty Jr. (Swansboro, NC). Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

  • AmeriCorps NCCC volunteers help clean up a trail system at the Fossil and Prairie Park on Wednesday afternoon. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

  • Rafael Villalobos Jr. saws a branch off a tree at the Fossil and Prairie Park on Wednesday afternoon. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

  • James Masse cuts down some brush at the Fossil and Prairie Park on Wednesday afternoon. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

  • Kodie Montel picks up some branches at the Fossil and Prairie Park on Wednesday afternoon. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

By Kelly Terpstra,

Amanda Williams studied graphic design at Ohio University, all the while wearing the green and white colors of her institution of choice.

Little did she know that one day she’d be donning a hard hat and scouring the once vast prairieland at the Fossil and Prairie Park in Floyd County.

Williams, 23, was doing just that on Wednesday afternoon as part of Team Elm 2 – a group of young adults who have been brought together as a part of the volunteer, community service-based AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps).

“I never thought I’d end up at Iowa. It wasn’t really on my bucket list,” smiled Williams, a team leader of the 10-person group traveling the country to facilitate projects that help environmental and conservation causes.

The group members range in age from 18 to 24 and they will spend two weeks at the Fossil and Prairie Park to help clean up the 5-mile trail system just outside Rockford. They hail from various regions of the nation, including Sherman Oaks, California; El Mirage, Arizona, and Worcester, Massachusetts.

“We all come from different backgrounds. We all learn from each other,” said Williams.

Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland and Texas are also represented.

“At the beginning of our time together we had to learn how to like work as a team and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses and utilize those,” said Williams. “A big part of it is being able to give back to different communities.”

Nick DeJohn, a California native whose mom was born in Fort Dodge and who lives in Pomeroy in northwest Iowa, holds a position of recruiter on the team. He is a recent graduate of Seattle University and wants to get involved in non-profit work or find a job with the federal government.

“It kind of checked all the boxes I was looking for,” said DeJohn about the AmeriCorps NCCC program. “The big thing is we live communally. Not only are you working together, you’re travelling together and you’re living together, you’re eating together – all those kinds of things.”

Team members begin their day at the Devonian Era fossil park at 7 a.m. with a briefing on what the day will hold. Floyd County Conservation Director Adam Sears, Naturalist Heidi Reams and other county conservation workers show them what is needed to be done for the day.

Reams said the youthful volunteers are working on a new trail section in the west part of the park.

They’re cutting woody vegetation on the trail so it’s easier to maintain and removing brush or invasive plant species.

Team members have also helped on other area projects like pruning trees along the boulevard in Rockford last Friday. They’ll do more work in nearby Marble Rock this coming Friday. Reams mentioned they’ll have a booth at the RRMR High School volleyball game tonight (Thursday) to recruit future members.

“It works really well to have extra hands on deck,” said Reams.

AmeriCorps team members complete around four different projects during their 10 months of service.

DeJohn said the current group is broken up after Christmas and each member joins a new group after the holiday break.

“That’s just a way to keep things fresh and continue meeting new people,” he said.

Approximately 1,200 corps members and team leaders are chosen annually to serve at one of four regional campuses, located in Sacramento, California; Denver, Colorado; Vinton, Iowa; and Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Team Elm 2 is stationed out of Vinton and is Class 25B of the North Central Region. While serving for AmeriCorps NCCC, members get a $4,000 living allowance during their 10 months of service. Each of the 10 members is lodging at Staudt Hollow Cabins at the Tosanak Recreation Area near Marble Rock.

Reams said she made sure to tell the non-Iowans how county conservation works in this region of the United States.

“Since none of them are originally from Iowa, we explained the whole county conservation system to them. What we do, why we do it,” she said.

This is the third stop for the group. Team members lived for six weeks in Pennsylvania at The Woodland Foundation in Wexford where they helped make wooden buildings waterproof. They also spent one day working at the Habitat For Humanity ReStore in Waterloo.

Some said their expectations of what Iowa is like didn’t exactly match up with reality.

“It’s really surprised me. It’s really pretty. I enjoyed seeing the sunsets and the sunrises are my favorite part,” said Williams. “It’s learning that it’s not always what you expect.”

DeJohn said the Iowans that he’s encountered were very friendly and respectful toward his group.

“There’s a lot of culture shock for a lot of people, especially a lot of East-Coasters. It’s slower. People are nice to me. What’s going on?” laughed DeJohn.

The team member’s last day in Iowa will be next Wednesday. Team Elm 2’s next stop is at Mammoth Cave National Park in central Kentucky.

“It’s neat to kind of get their glimpse of where they are,” said Reams.