In June, 20-year-old Abby Gordon prepared for Hurricane Joaquin to hit land in New Jersey.
Halfway across the country, 24-year-old Kelsey Gordon helped burn down piles of invasive species pulled out of the remaining prairie in Iowa and Illinois.
The Plain City sisters spent nearly all of 2015 volunteering with AmeriCorps.
“AmeriCorps shows you some really beautiful things in this country that people forget or don’t realize are there,” Kelsey said. “It gives you pride in the country, makes you want to protect and preserve it for the next generation.”
Since the organization was founded in 1994, more than 900,000 volunteers have contributed more than 1.2 billion community service hours to nonprofits, schools, public agencies and faith-based organizations.
It offers participants an opportunity to travel the U.S., gain work experience, and earn grant money for college tuition, certification programs or student loan payments.
Abby served through the organization’s FEMA Corps. She conducted earthquake shelter surveys with the American Red Cross in Provo, Utah; cleaned up spring flooding damage in Austin, Texas caused by Tropical Storm Bill; and worked with an urban farm, a food bank, a suicide prevention organization and a cystic fibrosis organization in New Jersey and Washington, D.C.
“The best part is probably how many people you meet, and how many lives you can touch through service,” Abby said.
Kelsey signed up for AmeriCorps first. The 2013 Heidelberg University graduate had been substitute teaching and saw an opportunity to gain other work experience and put her loans on hold.
Abby applied hoping to work with her sister. The 2013 Jonathan Alder graduate was working toward an associate degree in science. She plans to complete her bachelor degree in geology. Her interest in earth science was spurred by her opportunity to work with geographic information systems on her service tour, she said.
In addition to their deployments, AmeriCorps participants also work on independent service projects in their community. Abby was stationed in Denver, Colo.
“Volunteering had almost always been a requirement in high school, but here I really fell in love with it,” she said.
Kelsey worked with the National Civilian Community Corps. She worked on environmental conservation efforts in Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota, sometimes coordinating with members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; helped build a home through Habitat for Humanity in Detroit, Mich.; served as team leader; and picked up her chainsaw certification.
“We’re more hands-on,” she said. “We build the houses, pull the weeds, cut down the trees.”
Kelsey had conducted invasive species removal through summer jobs with a private landscaper, but working with Midwestern conservationists taught her why the work is necessary.
“They’re teaching us real issues,” she said. “People don’t realize how important it is to hold back invasive species so natural species can flourish and grow and reclaim those once pristine lands.”
She learned to identify plants along the way, encountering some new poisons. The worst plant was wild parsnip, which strips the skin of its ultraviolet light protection, resulting in instant sunburn and nasty boils, Kelsey explained.
“I’m glad I’ve never seen it in Ohio,” she said with a laugh. “I hope it never makes its way there.”
The controlled burns were the most exhilarating work — the sometimes 12- to 14-hour-days were filled with a mix of danger and “eerie beauty,” she said.
AmeriCorps members must be between 18 and 24 years old, though team leaders may be older.
Both Gordon sisters recommend the 10- to 11-month program for the unrepeatable experience, skills training and increased self-confidence.
“Maybe you don’t know what you want to do with your life, but you need to do something,” Kelsey said. “This is a really productive way to spend time while you figure that out.”
Reach Audrey Ingram at 740-852-1616, ext. 1615 or on Twitter @Audrey.MP
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