Summer of Service: Passing On the Gift
Young adults connect with nature—and pass it on.
In Alexla Perez- Sanchez’s family, indoors was the place to be. “Being Hispanics, when we’re outside it’s mainly to be working, whether that be construction, picking tomatoes, doing stuff like that,” she says. “So, in my family, being outside was not seen as something that we would do for fun.”
Alexla came from Mexico with her mother when she was three, first to Atlanta, then Hendersonville. No one in her family knew how—or why—you might venture into the woods of Western North Carolina. When they did go out, like the time her mom took her for a walk at the Carl Sandburg Home, they couldn’t read the signs. “We couldn’t enjoy it as much because we didn’t know what was going on,” Alexla says.
She didn’t speak English until she was 12, when other kids’ bullying pushed her to study hard and become a fluent speaker. Today, Alexla is an outgoing and funny 18-year-old, in early college at Blue Ridge Community College.
Last year, when she heard about Conserving Carolina’s Summer of Service, she joined because she wanted a motorcycle. It was perfect: the stipend for the summer AmeriCorps program would pay exactly what she needed to buy a sweet used bike from a friend.
As it turned out, a family emergency took precedence over buying that motorcycle. But, Alexla got something out of the program she wasn’t expecting.
She’d be outdoors working on a trail, or creating a shaded spot to sit in a community garden, or pulling invasive cattails out of a bog. “That’s when I saw the beauty in nature,” she says. “I was like, wow. We just did that for this community and we were outside all day, but it was nice, feeling the breeze, hearing the birds. It was nice.”
She reflects, “I immigrated here when I was three. Then, fourteen years of my life went by. It wasn’t until I joined Summer of Service that I figured out how awesome everything was in nature.”
It was the peacefulness she fell in love with, she says. “Anywhere else that you go, you’re always hearing a bunch of noise, like cars passing by, people screaming. But it seems like every single person that I’ve met that has been engulfed in this natural world, I don’t see them as angry or frustrated with themselves or with the world. I feel like nature offers this sense of peacefulness and being, like, utterly complete. That’s why I fell in love with it, because I could just feel peaceful. I wasn’t feeling rushed like, ‘Oh, I have to do this, I have to get home.’ I was just present and it felt super cool. I’ve never felt that before.”
A Crew of Seven
Alexla took part in Summer of Service again this year, with a group of seven 17-to-20-year olds from a mix of backgrounds. They came from Hendersonville, Fletcher, Forest City, and Asheville. They included home schoolers, high school seniors, a high school graduate, early college students, and a UNC-Asheville student. They were Clayton Cilone, Cassie Cole, Jordan Kirkland, Britney Lopez, Sam Northrup, Alexla Perez-Sanchez,and Joe Treadway. The group was led by Kelly Holland, an environmental educator with Conserving Carolina.
Cassie says one reason why Summer of Service was such a positive experience is that that everyone formed a close bond early on. She saw the value of teamwork firsthand and went on to suggest some changes in a different volunteer group, making their work go further.
Alexla says, “Summer of Service is life changing. It’s soul changing. And I’ve heard that from all of the members.”
Even the ones who had always lived here—even Sam, who practically grew up in the woods and loves fishing. “I think you just grow as a person,” Alexla says.
Joe is an early college student from Hendersonville, studying science. He joined Summer of Service because he’s interested in a career in wildlife conservation. “I think it’s important in this day and age and I just want to do something that I care about,” he says. “I don’t want to feel like my whole life has gone by and I haven’t contributed anything or done something that I’m proud of.”
Lives Are Impacted
The group learned a range of skills, from mindfulness to first aid to how to stay safe if you’re caught in a thunderstorm. They experienced outdoor activities from backpacking to kayaking to swimming holes. They shadowed conservation professionals with Conserving Carolina. And they worked hard on projects that pass on the gift of a connection with nature.
They helped the Brevard Housing Authority establish neighborhood flower gardens. They kayaked on Clear Creek in Hendersonville, pulling out tires and garbage. They maintained the pollinator garden at El Centro that last year’s Summer of Service crew put in. They built a spiral raised bed for the garden at The Free Clinics in Hendersonville. They dug up kudzu in Norman Wilder Forest, a nature preserve between Saluda and Tryon. They helped improve the Bearwallow Mountain Trail. They hiked for four miles—one way—carrying heavy tools just to reach a work site in Bracken Mountain Preserve in Brevard where they helped build a new trail for hiking and mountain biking. Their work made it possible for that trail to open to the public this August.
Joe says, “It was very empowering for me that I was out there working and I did something with my summer. It makes me happy to say that, you know? A lot of people, the summer flies by and you do nothing. But I made a difference.”
For Joe, the experience solidified his intention to pursue a career in wildlife conservation. Alexla hopes to serve in the Peace Corps after college, then work for a land trust. Cassie is interested in counseling and sees wilderness therapy as a potential way to combine that with her new passion for the outdoors.
Cassie had done some hiking before Summer of Service, but she lived in a neighborhood she describes as “all pavement”—so she could only explore so much. In Summer of Service, she discovered a new source of joy. Hauling those tools up the trail in Brevard, she says, “I realized that I love hiking, that it was releasing dopamine.” She plans to go backpacking again, she wants to learn kayaking, and she’s eager to try caving.
Cassie says that the impact of Summer of Service goes far beyond their small group. “We go out in the community and we serve. If we go to El Centro and we do the pollinator garden, that provides a more welcoming environment for everybody to go in there. Lives are impacted. Or when we go and cut trails, more people can recreate. And you don’t know what’s going to happen there. You don’t know who people are going to meet or what experiences they’re going to have. You don’t know what answers they’re looking for. I have this bracelet with a quote from John Muir that says, ‘In every walk with Nature, one receives far more than he seeks’. You don’t know what people are going to receive.”
For Alexla, her love of nature inspires her to protect it. She says, “If I’m fortunate enough to witness this beauty that I have, what about the generations that come after me? Yes, I may be 18 years old, but I know I’m not the end. I know there’s still going to be kids, grandchildren, great grandchildren that might never get to see this if we don’t step up to the plate. And I don’t think it would be fair to them.”
This article is written by Rose Jenkins Lane as part of our our monthly Stories of the Land series which runs in the Hendersonville Times-News. These stories explore people’s connection to the land and the ways they give back to the places they love.