Christie Haas and Brendan Goth took different approaches to planning their lives after graduating high school. Haas, from Augusta, Ga., applied early decision to one college, while Goth, from Cincinnati, did not apply to college. In the end, both chose to take a gap year between high school and future college plans to participate in AmeriCorps' National Civilian Community Corps. After removing non-native plants, building homes, and tutoring children across the country for nearly 10 months as part of the same NCCC team, they say the work broadened their perspectives on community service and clarified their college plans.
Haas, 18, applied to several AmeriCorps programs, but said she was "dying" to get into NCCC because it was the only program she found that worked in several locations across the country. "I wanted to travel before school and NCCC is a great way to do that. I also wanted to be more prepared for college, gain more experience, and hoped AmeriCorps would help me figure out what to major in, so I wouldn't get to college and waste time."
Goth, 19, also decided to join AmeriCorps because he wasn't sure what he wanted to major in during college. He was also attracted to the $5,350 Segal AmeriCorps Education Award granted at the end his service to help pay for college, which he now plans to attend after his service ends in July. "I wanted to do something productive for a year off, and not just get a job. AmeriCorps also looks great on a résumé when you send it to a college or a job."
AmeriCorps programs, like NCCC, also provide a living allowance for participants, unlike some other gap year programs that can charge fees to participate. Haas says in addition to the living allowance, NCCC paid for her housing, food, and travel expenses to and from her home to her team's main campus in Sacramento, Calif.
[See Slide Show: Gap Year Students Serve Nationwide With AmeriCorps.]
Memorable Learning Experiences
NCCC forms teams of eight to 12 participants, ages 18 through 24, and a team leader, and sends the teams to one of the NCCC's five campuses across the country. For the first month, NCCC trains the teams at their base camp on topics including disaster relief, CPR and first aid certification, as well as diversity and leadership training. Then it sends the teams out to work on four service projects, each lasting about two months.
The team's service lasts from October 2009 through July 2010. In November 2009, their team started its first project: general maintenance work and non-native plant species removal at The Oregon Garden, a non-profit in Silverton, Ore. The city's wastewater is pumped into the garden's wetlands system, which naturally treats the water. "The job that we were doing was extremely important because the garden wasn't properly staffed and they were underfunded," Haas says. "They would not have gotten a lot of the stuff done that we did, so I felt very appreciated there."
In February, the team drove its 15-passenger van to its second project, based at Larchmont Elementary School in North Highlands, Calif., which instructs kindergartners through sixth graders from primarily underprivileged families and foster homes, Goth says. The team members worked as teacher aides in different classrooms in the school assisting the teachers and tutoring students. "I had never worked with kids before," Goth says. "I learned that having a positive role model in their lives really, really helps them because they don't necessarily have that."
In April, the team took a cross country drive to Baton Rouge, La., to work with Habitat for Humanity on two different construction sites. The team is putting up trusses and walls for a house at the first location, and is painting the interior and exterior, and putting in trim at the house at the second site. "The times that seem the best are when you're working on a project and then just seeing how grateful people are that you're working for," Goth says. "We got to work directly with homeowners for our Habitat for Humanity project and when they come up to you and thank you for the work you've done, it makes work seem worth it."
The team's final service project will begin in June and will be outside of New Orleans working with the St. Bernard Parish Project. The team members will be trained as site supervisors to oversee other volunteers assisting victims of Hurricane Katrina with repairs to their homes, Goth says.
Overcoming New Challenges
Both Goth and Haas said that learning to work, live, and get along with a close-knit group of 10 people 24 hours a day, seven days a week was a big challenge and adjustment. "We all have different ideas and everyone wants their opinion heard," Haas says. "Usually we work it out. We've grown very close over the last few months. Sometimes we have issues, but we love each other." Goth says it's been tough finding alone time since he is always around his group, but he manages to carve out a little personal time each day.
Another difficulty Goth cites is facing an eight-hour day, usually filled with manual labor, five days a week. "Our project in Oregon was particularly tough for me because we were working outside during the rainy season in the winter with 30-degree weather. So just getting myself up and out of bed, and getting to work was a challenge," Goth says. In addition to their work week, he says they usually devote to another day on their weekends doing "independent service projects." All NCCC members are required to complete a total of 80 hours worth of individual service in communities in which they are working. The team members also have to deal with little sleep at times. For example, one recent weekend, Goth and Haas completed their eight-hour work day with Habitat for Humanity on a Saturday (their work week lasts from Tuesday through Saturday) and then were up volunteering for a local Relay For Life event from Saturday evening through Sunday morning.
Long Term Benefits
"I definitely feel like this program, especially for people right out of high school, helps you mature," Haas says. "With NCCC, you're going out on your own, taking care of yourself, having to cooperate with different people, and moving every few months. It gives you insight into how other people live."
Goth also says participating in NCCC has readied him for college. "NCCC has driven work ethic into me. It's broadened what I think I could do with my life because all of these projects are things that I would've never even consider doing ... Then you go and do them, and think, 'Wow, I'm actually pretty good at them.'"
Not only did Haas and Goth learn from the service projects, but they also learned from each other. Haas encouraged Goth to apply to Warren Wilson College, in Asheville, N.C., where she had deferred attendance until this fall. "The more I thought about it, the more I thought Brendan would actually love this school," Haas says. She said as she was telling him about the school, his mom called and told him she found a great college for him to apply to: Warren Wilson. Goth says he applied for the spring 2011 semester, and is waiting to hear back. He will attend a community college near Cincinnati this fall.
Both say they were attracted to Warren Wilson because of its focus on environmental sustainability and volunteering. Haas says she'd like to major in outdoor leadership and possibly minor in photojournalism, since she was a photojournalist on her NCCC team, as was Goth. While Goth says he is still unsure of what he'd like to major in during college, he's now committed to continuing service work. "Through AmeriCorps, I realized how great service work can be. [At] Warren Wilson College, you're required to do service work while you're there, so that will definitely encourage me to keep going with it."
Haas says AmeriCorps has strengthened her interest in joining the Peace Corps after finishing college. "I can definitely see myself volunteering throughout the rest of my life," Haas says. "AmeriCorps instills a sense of service in you."
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