A Summer of Service
Six-year-old Jace is all giggles as he leaps across black locust logs and weaves in and out of a bamboo fort at a newly-constructed outdoor playscape. The playscape, located behind the Children and Family Resource Center at the Ironwood Square Business Park in Hendersonville, is the perfect place for youngsters to frolic in the fresh air.
“While the adults are talking about serious business the kids can come outside and unwind and play, they don’t have to sit there and be bored,” says Jordan Kirkland, who oversaw and helped build the playscape.
Jordan is one of five young adults who participated in AmeriCorps Project Conserve’s Summer of Service program, a community development initiative of Conserving Carolina. Conserving Carolina works to protect, care for and connect people to our lands and waters. The Summer of Service program aligns with the land conservancy’s inclusive and community-driven mission.
The playscape features local materials collected by the team and a “drumset” of muffins and cake tins from the kitchen.
“I’m very proud that it’s a physical thing that I can eventually bring my own kids to, just to come and see it and say that this is something that I made happen,” says Jordan. “There are plans to expand it as the years go by, so I’m excited to come back and see what’s been added to it.”
From June 19 to August 18, Jordan, 18, along with Jason Brandyburg, 19, Bailey Allen, 17, Fernando Baruch, 18, and Abdul Derios, 18, maintained trails, restored wildlife habitat, formed partnerships with other community nonprofits, and participated in leadership and professional development trainings. Through all of this, a willingness to tolerate discomfort for the sake of personal growth guided every activity.
The members kicked-off the program with a ropes course at Kanuga Center. Performing team building exercises 30 feet off the ground is a good way to quickly form camaraderie.
“We were so high up there,” says Fernando. “I looked down, and I’m not going to lie to you, I was extremely scared. But, it was a new experience and was one of my favorite days. We bonded, it was as if we already knew each other. We all really clicked that day.”
The Summer of Service program is designed to help build confidence, trust, teamwork, environmental and service-oriented ethics, and to introduce participants to educational and career paths they may not have otherwise considered.
“Everyone is on their own path in life and we also share common challenges to achieve our dreams,” says Tony Beurskens, Summer of Service Program Coordinator. “Our intention for the summer was to find the beauty in our differences and comfort where we overlap as we travel on our journey.”
Fernando shares that it was a way to be more productive and try something different. “I wanted to gain experience and work ethic; I’d never worked outside in nature or worked as hard as we worked.”
Fernando is active at El Centro, a Hendersonville-based nonprofit that works to create a more inclusive community for Latinos, by providing unique services, developing grassroots leaders and working together to access community resources.
The folks there encouraged him to apply for the Summer of Service program. In turn, Fernando decided to do a “Power of Attorney” project with El Centro to provide education on the different rights and responsibilities within our community. It was the perfect fit for El Centro’s vision to create a welcoming and just community where everyone is treated with dignity and where everyone is valued and respected.
“It’s a good link,” shares Fernando. “We can get different ideas from other organizations when we partner, where can link up and do something big.”
Summer of Service also partnered with Hood Huggers, an Asheville-based nonprofit that offers sustainable strategies for building support pillars for historically African American neighborhoods. Strategies incorporate the arts, social enterprise and the environment, building a culture of stability that is inclusive and economically just.
The team worked at Hood Huggers’ Burton Street Community Peace Gardens.
“In neighborhoods that have a history of trauma, it’s important that we have green spaces that incorporate the outdoors, food and arts all into one,” says DeWayne Barton, Hood Huggers Founder and CEO. “To be able to maintain these spaces and let them be the “A” in the alphabet, the doorway introducing urban youth to the greater outdoors, that bring people gradually that are not used to going in the woods, that don’t know much about nature, it’s creating that in our community.”
DeWayne adds that the Peace Gardens are a healing space designed to launch people up in any direction they want to go with a base of support, and a place of social and environmental justice.
“It was great working at Hood Huggers with DeWayne,” shares Abdul. “We made a shady area, a shelter to sit under when people are cutting vegetables and stuff. It doesn’t have a door, but you could sit under it and be protected. We also made pizza in the earthen oven,” Abdul smiles, “My pizza burnt up, but it was still good. You can’t waste pizza.”
The shelter was tangible work that created a sense of pride, ownership and accomplishment for these young adults. “I’ve learned that it’s ok to be uncomfortable,” shares Fernando. “It’s ok because it helps you grow sometimes. This whole summer was completely different for all of us.”
The summer brought no shortage of manual labor. The team spent many days building and improving the trails that we enjoy hiking and biking on.
Bailey was involved in a trail maintenance project at Conserving Carolina’s Florence Nature Preserve in the Hickory Nut Gorge. She worked to help prevent erosion, stabilize banks and mitigate the impact when people unfortunately decide to forge their own off-trail paths in the woods.
“We spent about a week on this project, and the days were long and hard,” shares Bailey. “At the end, however, it was awesome to see how different the trails looked, and it was great to hear the encouragement and thanks from the hikers passing us as we worked.”
In addition to partnerships and physical work, the team developed personal and professional skills. They attended a course on resume building, interviewing and networking at Blue Ridge Community College’s Career Readiness Center, completed a money management workshop at OnTrack Financial Services, and participated in classes to build confidence in their communication skills at the Mediation Center of Henderson County.
“I’ve always been a huge nature guy, but I’ve always kind of watched through my window and would say we need to save the Earth,” shares Jordan. “Getting to know the science and being out there makes me want to do it more. I’m planning on going into the Peace Corps after two years at Blue Ridge (Community College). Summer of Service inspired me to fulfill that dream, it just kind of solidified it. I love doing this kind of work.”