In June, I received a Ziploc bag full of licorice root as a gift of thanks from a teenager. When I signed up for Ameri-Corps in February, this wasn't what I expected.
The teen was on my youth crew in the Montana Conservation Corps and collected the fragrant root during our barbed-wire fence repair project near his home, the Blackfoot Indian Reservation.
AmeriCorps was reauthorized under the Serve America Act of 2009, and President Obama's proposed 2013 budget includes a funding increase of $13.8 million for the Corporation for National and Community Service. Serving with America's youth this summer compels me to go to the polls in support of candidates who see the long-term value of national service programs.
Conservation Corps programs, including the Utah Conservation Corps, are funded in part by AmeriCorps. They operate in the legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and meet social and infrastructure needs.
Conservation Corps programs give youth opportunities to gain job skills and self-confidence, preserve our Western values and heritage, promote community engagement and provide cost-effective community benefits.
While Utah's economy performs better than the U.S. average, it is not divorced from our nation's economic struggles. Youth face bleak prospects for employment, as they are jockeyed out of the workforce by more experienced applicants.
AmeriCorps enables them to gain job skills and work alongside agency professionals. Many Conservation Corps alums land jobs with the U.S. Forest Service.
Beyond picking up technical skills, my youth crew developed self-confidence and maturity. Camping and working with seven strangers for 28 straight days is a formidable challenge. Conflicting personalities, camp chores, medical emergencies, inclement weather, an unexpected bear in camp and persistent mosquitoes all presented the choice to give up or persevere for the good of the crew.
Conservation Corps programs preserve the Western heritage of working together, grit and down-and-dirty problem solving. Demanding work projects, such as trail building and maintenance, fence repair, and invasive weed mitigation are an avenue for crew members to learn about the lands of the West, as well as local history.
They experience a sense of belonging to this Western heritage when they are introduced to the rustic skills of using a crosscut saw or Pulaski.
AmeriCorps service promotes community engagement intensely and effectively. Programs are designed to give participants a more diverse view of the people and needs in their communities, and to think about how to continue to serve in the future.
Communities also receive tangible benefits of Conservation Corps projects at low costs. Crews are assigned to public lands projects the sponsor agency may not otherwise have the time or labor force to accomplish. The youth on my crew pitched in 200 hours of work, without pay. The final line from the AmeriCorps pledge explains their service ethic well: "I am an AmeriCorps member, and I will get things done."
To be sure, there are many judicious destinations for federal dollars. Because they offer youth an alternative pathway to job skills, sustain Western values, encourage responsible citizenship, and provide low-cost solutions for communities, AmeriCorps programs are a wise investment.
I watched a dozen teenagers grow as citizens this summer. And they are grateful for the opportunity. They aren't waiting until they "grow up" to serve their communities. They're learning to get things done for America right now.
Lisa Green is a graduate student in the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.