/ AmeriCorps,

A Member’s Perspective: AmeriCorps Project Conserve

My name is Natalie Willmschen and for the past two years I have been serving with AmeriCorps Project Conserve in Western North Carolina. Project Conserve is an AmeriCorps state program based in western North Carolina that works with 17 conservation-based organizations and non-profits to host approximately 30 members to address critical conservation needs through conservation education, volunteer engagement, and at-risk ecosystem impact work on trails, rivers, and public lands. 

I graduated from Appalachian State University in Spring 2018 with a degree in Sustainable Development and was looking for ways to gain experience in the environmental field and had no idea the lessons I would learn, the experiences I would have, and the friends that I would gain by participating in Project Conserve. 

In my first year I served as the Education Coordinator at RiverLink in Asheville, NC. I was primarily responsible for executing their stream education program which involved hands-on lessons in streams outdoors teaching watershed education for 3rd through 9th grade. I also had the opportunity to organize the Voices of the River Art and Poetry Contest where students submitted art work about why they love the river. I handled every aspect of this program from recruiting submissions, securing judges from the community, soliciting prizes, and communicating to teachers and parents about the process. Lastly I served as lead counselor for our River Camp, a day camp engaging students in outdoor activities to connect them to their watershed. 

In my second year I decided to switch into a new role, having learned from my first position that I loved working with community members. Now in my second year, I’m serving as the Community Engagement Associate at Conserving Carolina in Hendersonville, NC. In this role I act as leader of the volunteer program at Conserving Carolina, coordinating and engaging community members in both volunteer and outdoor activities across the service region. This involves communication across many departments, working in our volunteer database online, planning workdays, and of course building relationships with the community members. I also get to build on existing partnerships and I am at forefront of new relationships through work in engaging the community in the outdoors. One example of this is working with Blue Ridge Humane Society to put on an event called Tails and Trails, an event where people get to hike one of our beautiful properties with their dogs. A great perk of these positions was also just to get to enjoy and explore the beautiful outdoor places in Western North Carolina. 

My position of course looks different now with COVID-19 with much more teleservice, but I’m very lucky to still be able to continue serving and would have never thought AmeriCorps would offer such great “job security.” I have had the opportunity to get creative about ways to engage community members virtually through virtual volunteer information sessions and online challenges. 

Outside of my service at my host site, Project Conserve also offers a ton of professional development opportunities. I was certified both years in Wilderness First Aid. I was able to become a Certified Interpretive Guide. I took a nine week course on racism in Asheville called Building Bridges. I am currently taking a course through NC State’s Master’s in Public Administration program that focuses on non-profit management provided by the NC Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service specifically designed for AmeriCorps members . All of these things were either provided by AmeriCorps Project Conserve or I was able to use a professional development budget from my host site to cover the costs. Project Conserve also brings together people from all different places with similar passions to work together. I have made some amazing friends through this program that I intend to have around for a long time after my service is done. 

In my second year I have also had the opportunity to serve as a LeaderCorps member for North Carolina AmeriCorps. Each state program across North Carolina has one LeaderCorps member who represents them and we meet virtually once a month to give updates on our programs. Our positions are designed to help bring awareness and education to what AmeriCorps is and the diversity and variety of ways you can serve. In this position I’ve created a newsletter that features various programs that goes out to all program directors and commissioners across the state once a month. This role has been so cool to learn about what other programs across the state do like addressing homelessness, serving in hospitals, or working with high schoolers to apply to college. It’s also been a great networking opportunity to get to know others all over the state that serve with AmeriCorps. 

It’s kind of insane how much experience I’ve gained in these two service years with Project Conserve. Just looking at my resume before and after, I have become a much more competitive candidate for full-time positions and also have the golden “2 years” of experience. I gained experience in program management, environmental education, database management, graphic design, volunteer coordination, and so much more. I recently accepted an offer to work with Blue Ridge Humane Society as their full-time Volunteer Coordinator after my service is over, a role that I would have never been able to get without the experience of my AmeriCorps service. 

I am truly thankful for my experience with AmeriCorps Project Conserve. For every experience I’ve gained, the people I’ve met along the way, and all the fun I had too. I know I will miss it a ton. 

AmeriCorps Project Conserve is currently hiring members for the 2020-2021 service year! If you are interested in applying, go to https://conservingcarolina.org/americorps/projectconserve/