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Americorps team wraps up summer stay in Norton

Mike Still • Oct 7, 2019 at 3:13 PM

NORTON — They came to town in September to do some good.

A month after arriving to help expand Norton’s recreational trail system, the seven-member Americorps National Civilian Community Corps team has helped add almost a mile of new trail to the city’s network near the Flag Rock Recreation Area. They have also helped with other community service projects in the Norton area.

And each member agreed that their stay in Southwest Virginia has been a fun experience.

Norton Trails Coordinator Shayne Fields and assistant Dakota Taylor on Thursday were supervising the Americorps crew on a new trail segment near Flag Rock as they prepared for their final two-week project: building a sweeping, curved bridge for hikers and mountain bikers similar to another bridge near the city’s reservoir trail system.

“Everyone’s pretty motivated, self-sufficient and a pretty good team,” said Olympia, Washington, native and team leader Zack Thompson. “It’s opened my eyes to nonprofit work.”

Americorps has provided a volunteer opportunity for people wanting to work in communities since Congress authorized its creation in 1994. The National Civilian Community Corps program offers people from 18-24 a 10-month, 1,700-hour tour of volunteer work in localities. In return, corps members can earn $6,000 in Pell Grant money for college as well as some college credit for their work.

The team members in Norton come from a wide swath of the U.S. — Texas, New Hampshire, Missouri, Colorado, Indiana — and many said they did not expect to be working in Southwest Virginia.

“I expected long hours and no free time working in the Northeast,” said Rachel Casey of Austin, Texas. “I think it’s amazing here.”

Casey said she originally planned to join the Peace Corps before choosing the Americorps route, but she said the experience has reinforced her desire to become a Peace Corps volunteer.

New Hampshire native Claudia Carmosino said she joined Americorps because she had experience in the USDA Job Corps, and the Americorps mission of community service appealed to her.

“I applied to work in California, but I really like it here,” Carmosino said.

Dylan Dankoehler, one of two Coloradoans in the team with Garrett McKay, picked the Americorps program as a way of taking an off-year after graduating from high school.

“I knew I’d be traveling and giving back to my country,” Dankoehler said. “Without this opportunity, I wouldn’t have known any of these guys, especially Garrett.”

McKay said his time with Americorps has helped him in his career goal as an occupational therapist.

“I enjoy helping communities and helping people,” McKay said.

Kira Gafkjen of Fishers, Indiana, stepped into Americorps after graduating from college in May.

“I wasn’t sure what was involved, but I had a friend who’d worked in Americorps around here,” Gafkjen said. “It’s beautiful here.”

Gafkjen, whose career goal includes wildlife biology, said Fields helped her get a day or two of research field work with Wally Smith, a biologist at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise who specializes in salamander species in the region.

“After doing all of this, I love the hands-on work,” Gafkjen said.

Volunteer Sam Browning of Kansas City, Missouri, said working in the mountains posed a new daily experience.

“My ears pop going to work,” Browning said, laughing. “But it’s worth it. The mountains are pretty and there are some great views here. You can see the results of your work, too.”

Elvis has helped the team as mascot too, Browning said. “Elvis is a little figure made out of pipe cleaners,” she said.

Fields said the Americorps team has moved plenty of rock and brush, and Taylor said the team has put in some heavy work cutting switchbacks along the slopes.

“They’ve fully built nine different turns, and it takes two days to build each one,” Taylor said.

Carmosino, who plans to become a shipyard welder, said one of her new skills from trail building has been learning to swing a Pulaski — part pick and part axe — to dig dirt and cut brush.

The team members said their stay has not been all work. Camp Bethel in Wise provided their housing along with recreation facilities, and Thompson said Dee Stanley at the camp has helped team members in any way possible.

“The city has treated us very well,” Thompson said of the team’s stay.

“People are always waving when we’re going through town,” Carmosino said.

“(City Manager) Fred Ramey is a super nice guy and super helpful,” Browning added.

“And we saved a 3-week-old kitten in the Walmart parking lot,” Gafkjen said.

Fields said the team will be doing somewhat lighter work Saturday — helping as trail guides during the city’s Woodbooger Fest.

After the team winds up its Norton stay by Oct. 13, there is more work waiting.

“We’ll be heading to the Americorps campus in Vicksburg, Mississippi,” Thompson said. “Then we’re going to Panama City, Florida, to help with hurricane relief.”

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