Americorps Volunteers Visit Aquarium; Bring New Ideas And Hope

April 08, 2009

The volunteers unwind at the Aquarium after mid-year conference

The Oregon Coast Aquarium welcomed 12 young AmeriCorps volunteers Monday, on break after their mid–year meeting at the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Center in Newport. The group, led by Dawn Grafe, USFWS Visitor Services Manager and Susan Navrotsky, Northwest Service Academy (NWSA) AmeriCorps coordinator, wanted to visit the Aquarium while they were here and arrangements were made for their visit.

“We are pleased to have this diverse group of young volunteers visit the Aquarium,” said Cindy Hanson, Aquarium Public Relations Manager. “The work they are doing is making a positive difference in the world and they will become tomorrow’s leaders and stewards of our environment. It’s inspiring to hear their idealism and commitment when they talk about their projects!”

AmeriCorps is a U.S. federal government program partnering with non-profit organizations, schools and public agencies that was created by the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993 to improve lives, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering. The work done by these groups ranges from public education to environmental clean-up.

Grafe said this is one of two times during the year that all of the volunteers from NWSA’s statewide program would be together. “Each year we have talented folks volunteering for our agency through the AmeriCorps program, said Grafe. “This year the whole group in Northern Oregon, 14 volunteers from different environmental organizations, came to Newport for their mid year meeting. They wanted to follow it with something fun and they chose the Aquarium.”

Grafe said USFWS volunteers McKenzie Reeves and Jessica Gelnett spent six months engaging about 700 kids about shorebirds. “I really like the fresh ideas they bring,” said Grafe. “Sometimes volunteers come here and don’t know for sure if they want to work in the field or teach. Their volunteer experience here often helps them decide between biology or education as a career.”

Tracy Gagnon and Rosie Sweetman, volunteers for the School Garden Project of Lane County in Eugene said one of their projects, a community workshop series titled “Landscape to Foodscape” teaches community members how to convert a lawn to a garden. The program serves the Springfield area as well, focusing on low income households (or families). They also work extensively with school groups. “One of the greatest things about this project was seeing the kids light up,” said Sweetman. “Kids really want to eat what they grow, especially carrots and potatoes. To them it’s like digging in the dirt for treasures!”

Volunteer Lisa Olivares, from the Friends of Straub Environmental Learning Center in Salem, says her project, “Climate Masters,” teaches climate stewardship. The program, modeled after the Master Gardeners Program, offers a curriculum designed for a community’s local economy and resources. “The light goes on when people connect with what it takes to put that tomato on the plate! There are so many aspects to the process from fertilizer use to water quality.” Olivares said the emphasis is on how small changes make big differences.

Volunteer Courtney Collins, from the Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School (JGEMS) in Salem, worked with 8th graders, teaching them how to do a comprehensive research project in Costa Rica. The project, focusing on neotropical ecology, compared tropical to temperate climates. After they analyze the data collected, they will present it to a panel of experts. “I was amazed at their level of knowledge,” said Collins. “These kids are really concerned about world issues.” Collins said the Environmental Middle School selects students through a lottery, not by ability to pay or grade average. She said they often become high achievers when they go on to mainstream high schools.

Susan Navrotsky, NWSA AmeriCorps coordinator, said the AmeriCorps programs provide a great experience for these young people, giving them excellent work experience and helping them fine tune their direction. “The typical volunteer already has a Bachelor degree and many go on toward a Masters program or a career in the environmental field.”

AmeriCorps, often referred to as "the domestic Peace Corps," is made up of three main programs: AmeriCorps State and National, AmeriCorps VISTA, and AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps). More information about AmeriCorps programs can be found on their website at