I often forget that I began blogging about this experience to document my goal of “completing a long term, live-in, volunteer experience”. The year took so many twists and turns; it’s nearly impossible for me to look at the last twelve months of my life as just a volunteer experience.
At times, that has frustrated me to no end. I joined this program to give back to others and help communities in need. My focus was never on personal development or helping others better themselves. I have areas of growth I would like to see, but those are things I would like to address on my own, outside of the confines of a national service program. I never expected personal development to be such a dominating aspect of NCCC, and when those moments trumped my purpose for serving, I was stuck wondering if I was really gaining what I had hoped to out of this specific bucket list item.
With that being said, I’m well aware that the extent of what I learned this year is far greater than anything I could quantify on this blog. Most of those lessons I’m not even sure I’ve discovered quiet yet. Likely, those lessons will continue to peak their heads out from the depths of my mind years into the future, proving that I took away much more from the program than I ever thought possible.
I have my qualms with the program, and I don’t believe I’m alone in feeling that way. More than any other AmeriCorps program, NCCC and NCCC-FEMA can challenge you in incredibly negative ways and I’m cognizant of the detrimental impacts the program has had on me in those moments. Despite those lows, though, I have done some incredible things this year that I never foresaw myself doing when I signed up to serve. I served as a wildland firefighter and emergency medical responder for a town of eighty people. I lived and worked side-by-side with the same nineteen people for nearly five months. I was surrounded by people who challenged me daily to communicate more effectively. I did a high ropes course and zip line through the Mendocino forest. I backcountry camped in the Grand Canyon. I filed taxes for ten weeks for low-income families, helping return over $400,000 to over 206 taxpayers. I helped clear 29.07 acres to create defensible space and responded to four emergency medical calls. I lived out of a bag with minimal luxuries for twelve months and learned to appreciate simplicity. I rarely ever had alone time and didn’t manage to completely loose myself within that process. Although the negatives do occasionally creep back into my mind, reminding me of why this program was not a good fit for me, the positives serve as a more apt definition of what my year has been and will likely be the aspects I remember the most when explaining to those I meet what NCCC is.
When it comes down to it, I can spin the year in whichever way I please, and I know the positives of the program will come out much more than the negatives. There’s just too much to the year to let the little things outweigh the overall picture of what I’ve been doing with my life for the past twelve months.
I would like to say that I have some nostalgia about leaving the program, but I think those moments passed after leaving campus to head back for our extension. Most of my memories, and reasons for loving this program, came from the incredibly inspiring people I met over the last year, many of whom left weeks ago to continue their lives elsewhere. The network of friends I’ve grown connected to will always be a phone call away, or a stop on another cross-country road trip. Despite having only known these people for a few months, or some a year, I think a lot of them know me better than some of my closest friends back home. The experiences we’ve shared and the relationships we’ve fostered help provide me with some sense of pride when claiming to be an AmeriCorps alum. So no, nostalgia isn’t the word to describe how I’m feeling. I’m ready to move forward with my life. However, I’m grateful for the positive experiences I took away from this year and will forever hold onto the things I learned from the individuals I encountered during my service year.
So, what’s next? I asked myself this hundreds of times throughout my service year, committed to a number of different ideas, and was changing my plans up until the very minute August finally hit. But that’s a part of life, right? We can never expect things to be exactly the way we plan.
I’ll be heading home first to see my family and friends and pack up all of my things before hitting the road with Cooper for Minnesota. I’m exchanging my flip flops and sunscreen for warm weather clothes and snow related items of which I know nothing about and joining the Midwestern lifestyle that I thought I would be getting a taste of at the beginning of my service year, way back last August. Cooper and I are moving to Duluth, a town in Northern Minnesota that has been described to me as the Portland of Minnesota.
I’ll be working part-time at a Noodles & Company and full-time at a Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) program, Minnesota Green Corps. My parents asked me why I would want to do another year of service after this year, due to all of the excessive frustrations that characterized the past twelve months of my life. It’s hard to understand, and I barely understand it myself knowing that I’m signing on to do a program that very well could be the most aggravating job I have ever experienced (and I just graduated from NCCC). Yet, there’s something that calls to me about these programs and now I have the tools to accept that expectations cannot be held about what the year will look like and the frustrations that I encounter next year are a reality of a lifelong career in trying to make a difference.
The program that I’m joining should be very different from NCCC, though. I was selected to serve in Carlton County working to create recycling and waste reduction programs in their schools. This is work I’ve done before, both in high school and college, and it’s something I’m extremely passionate about. The more focused work, along with the ability to go home after work and have my life separate from the organization I am serving, will already make a huge difference. The program also focuses a lot on professional development, something I wasn’t looking for in NCCC. Now that I’m in a different environment, I feel ready to work in a field that presents these types of opportunities and to make the most out of them. NCCC’s approach wasn’t for me, but maybe the methods MNGC takes will have a more positive impact.
Next year is going to be about dropping my expectations and embracing low moments as an opportunity to stay positive, as well as learning to relax and enjoy where I am. In a new environment, characterized as “really fucking cold” by almost anyone I’ve talked to, with a new job, and only having Cooper by my side, I can definitely understand how this year might not be easy. However, after the year I’ve just had, I feel ready to throw all caution to the wind and embrace a brand new experience.