You may remember the first few words of the intro to a popular MTV reality show: “This is the true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house, work together … ”
What seems like a reality show episode is the real world for seven members of the AmeriCorps Summer of Service.
AmeriCorps, created in 1993, is a federal agency that engages more than five million Americans a year in public service through a variety of volunteer work programs. Its mission is “to improve lives, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering.”
The group of out-of-towners ranging from 18 to 21 years old, some fresh out of high school, lived together at the Sound View Camp over the summer doing beautification projects and making environmental enhancements to the campground.
Mature beyond their years, these seven: Elias Rodriguez (Oregon), Ianna Parsons (West Virginia), Sarah Corey (Virginia), Mohamed Kamara (Maryland), Abi Velasquez (Florida), Teddy Jouret (Massachusetts) and Darnell Crumity (Tacoma) spent six weeks together — eight, if you count two weeks of training in Colorado — learning true life lessons.
So why would these young adults give up their summer break, travel across the country, live with strangers, and volunteer six days a week to improve a place they’ve never been before and will likely never see again?
“To develop ourselves, and show ourselves that we’re strong and capable,” said Kamara, who plans on attending the University of Maryland. “You learn to push yourself and see parts of yourself you’ve never seen before.”
They braved the mud and tides to dismantle a floating dock, including taking out 96 rubber tires that were slowly releasing toxins into Carr Inlet. Some of the wood will be reclaimed to build picnic tables and benches. They removed 28 black contractor-sized bags full of the invasive flowering ground cover vinca minor, commonly known as periwinkle, from overtaking a good chunk of the property. They hiked around the 92-acre camp mapping out where other invasive plants are taking root and tracking it all on an app. They cleared and developed an accessible pathway they named the Bison Loop. They designed, sanded, sealed and stained more than 30 wooden signs and installed them across the campgrounds. And not to mention they spent two hours a day with campers teaching them about the local habitat.
“I want this ecosystem to thrive, and we can do that by inspiring a new generation to care about the environment,” said Parsons, who left a full-time job back home for the AmeriCorps experience.
This rustic campground, owned and operated by the Presbytery of Olympia, is in its fifth year hosting AmeriCorps teams. Their work helps revitalize the grounds, protected by the Nisqually Land Trust.
“Just about everywhere you go here you’ll see the mark AmeriCorps has left on this campground,” said Jouret, who is studying anthropology and communications at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “It’s astounding how much the organization has helped this place.”
Besides the daily grind of manual labor, the team spent a few hours together each day doing team-building exercises and some sort of physical activity. At night they spent an hour doing what they called “sharing life stories” to learn about each other.
“Not everyone has the same background in life,” Crumity said. “You have to learn how to adapt, how you talk to people who may be different than you.”
Parsons agreed. “We all grew up differently, but I think that’s what makes us mesh so well.”
Velasquez said there’s the occasional conflict or tension but that the group has come a long way in how it handles that and takes care of each other.
Eating together was an important part of the social experience. The team worked in pairs to cook dinner for the group, but they were quick to point out it was not Top Ramen or boxed mac and cheese. “We get real bougie,” Corey said. On the menu for their final Sunday night at the camp: General Tso’s Chicken.
Kamara said he’d learned so much about responsibility and holding himself accountable. Before his service in AmeriCorps Kamara stayed up until 4 a.m. and woke up at 3 p.m. During his stay at Sound View, he was going to bed before 10 p.m. so he could be up by 6:30 a.m. to start a 10 to 12-hour workday.
“This experience has changed the trajectory of my life,” he said. “It challenged me and without challenges, we can’t grow as people.”
AmeriCorps members get an education award at the end of their service that can be applied to their schooling. For this eight-week stint, the members will get $1,500. Some of their universities will match it. Travel costs, housing and food are all paid for by AmeriCorps.
The team left the camp Aug. 4 and headed back to their home states a few days later. Nearly everyone said they’ll miss the cooler Pacific Northwest summers. What won’t they miss? The wasps.
Corey said, “They seem angrier here,” adding she got stung by one a day earlier.
“Personally, I would love to stay at Sound View longer,” Parsons said. “This is probably the most impactful and best thing I’ve done in my life.”
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