Every person on the planet uses their rearview mirror to look back on life choices. As it turns out, it’s a surprisingly effortless task to pick out the few decisions that -good or bad-altered your life course and trajectory. It is incredible to me that simple choices can forever impact your life and you just never know which ones are going to be the game changers. Yes or no, stay or go, left or right; it can be as simple as that.
Waaaayyyyyy back (but not too far back, come on… I remember it like it was yesterday) when I was freshly graduated from high school I enrolled in community college because what else was I going to do? The only serious career I was considering was as a stunt person in movies but I lived in Michigan and had no means of getting myself out to California to give that a try so there I was; relatively directionless and in school for seemingly no reason until this one day.
I was privy to a conversation about a program called Americorps and it completely blew my mind. Out there in the world existed a program where you serve 1-2 years in one of the many diverse Americorps programs throughout the nation, then once your term of service was completed you’d receive an education award. Say what? How had I not heard of this sooner? Over the years I have come up with a relatively easy way to describe Americorps National Service. It would be akin to converging the Peace Corps and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) into one awesome package and voila! Americorps.
I was in.
I moved to St.Louis, Missouri in order to join the Emergency Response Team (ERT), which was one part of the larger St.Louis program. I was warmly welcomed into this happy band of misfits who roamed the country going from one natural disaster to the next filling whatever role was needed.
The people I met in Americorps became life-long friends, although I had no way of knowing that at the time. These people were quirky, smart, funny, dedicated and unique, but above all, they were committed to public service and the greater good. I felt like I had found my home.
If we weren’t out on disasters we were in the forest doing trail maintenance, which meant that I was essentially on a 2-year road trip. I love that we really did meet the need, whatever it happened to be. Our capacity was diverse and seemingly endless. Every disaster brought its own unique set of challenges and it was our mission to figure out how we could make the most profound impact. Throughout my time-in-service, I was able to witness how one person really could make a difference and how much of an effect it can have. Most people we helped had no earthly idea who we were. Ameri-what? But they whole-heartedly appreciated our help.
The time flew by as we scaled rooftops, mucked out houses, organized volunteers, managed shelters, fought wildfires, and drove countless windy 2-lane highways on our way to the next disaster. Before I knew it my time was up and I was saying goodbye to the band of misfits I had worked side-by-side with.
I entered into Americorps without direction and I left there with a purpose and a path. Americorps absolutely shaped my character as well as my life’s course. I became a career wildland firefighter for the US Forest Service solely because of Americorps, which was another community of people where I easily felt at home.
The years that followed Americorps passed by too quickly as they often do, then one day I got word that the St.Louis program would be hosting its 20-year anniversary celebration. As a wildland firefighter, there are very few things that you willingly take time-off for during the fire season but this was going to be one of them. I had to drive from Arizona to Montana, frantically wash a load of laundry, and hop on a red-eye flight in order to make it but it was entirely worth the effort.
Here were these amazing people -several of whom I hadn’t seen in about 15 years- exactly where I left them. We were standing in the same building where we began our terms of service and it seemed as if not a day had passed. Like time had stood still. We employed sarcasm, witty banter, laughter, tears, and epiphanies aplenty to bring us right back to our days of service. Not surprisingly, nearly every single person I spoke with over the weekend had taken a career in public service.
At one point in my mingling, I had a conversation with a fellow alum who’d become a nurse. She explained how serving on the Emergency Response Team molded her to take action in a moment of crisis, be efficient, and find ways to fix a problem with what you have available at the time because that was all we had to work with on disasters. WHAM! Like a 2×4 to the face it dawned on me that I too had been molded in those same ways by Americorps and surely, every alumni surrounding us in that moment had been molded just the same.
It absolutely breaks my heart that this incredible program, which positively affects every person it touches, is constantly in a state of funding crisis. Each year I hold my breath and then breathe a sigh of relief as Americorps squeaks through on yet another congressional budget. Perhaps one of the more impressive things about Americorps is how much the program is able to accomplish on a shoestring budget. Even with the constant looming danger of budget cuts or complete de-funding, Americorps has been able to continually diversify itself in order to continue meeting the need. Their motto is “Getting things done for America”, and that is no joke.
Americorps is akin to the pipes in your house; you rarely see them, but if they stopped working all hell would break loose.
If I had one wish that could be granted by a genie I would use it to drastically increase and protect the Americorps budget because that program and the people who serve in it can do more collective good than me using my one wish to body slam every person who litters. As satisfying as that would be for me, I think perhaps, it wouldn’t be the most effective use of a genie wish for the greater good.
My time on this earth is nowhere near over (at least, I don’t think it is) but having served in Americorps stands as one of the best things I have done in my life and it was a yes or no, stay or go, left or right decision; it was as simple as that.