AmericCorps Workers Come to Hutchinson Through IHS grant

Nov 17, 2015

AmeriCorps workers come to Hutchinson: Young team helps to rejuvenate houses as it gains life experience

Music older than any of the team members prompted a dance party during after-dinner cleanup among AmeriCorps workers Nov. 7 in Hutchinson.

Jay Holzapfel had been humming parts of “Africa” by Toto before and after dinner. When other team members commented on the music, he took out his phone to play the whole song, and everyone started dancing while they cleaned.

The scene was part of an evening off duty for the 12 AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps workers who arrived in Hutchinson about a week earlier to do development and service work. Each worker had his or her own reasons for joining the program, which has them living and working together for seven weeks in Hutchinson before moving on to other projects.

Josh Salas of Logan, Utah, entered the program to get practical experience while he tries to figure out a long-term plan. He said he didn’t want to start college without feeling committed to a course of study.

He became interested in AmeriCorps to bridge that gap while his older brother served in the program a year ago. Salas said his brother really enjoyed the experience, and it seemed like a rewarding investment of his time.

“He was getting real experience,” Salas said.

That is what he is looking forward to, “getting hands-on experience and getting my hands dirty,” he said.

Holzapfel, a new Wright State University graduate from Dayton, Ohio, said that during his senior year of college, he started focusing on the future, and he didn’t think he was ready to jump right into a career or graduate school. He said AmeriCorps looked like a good way to explore and get new experiences while getting more ideas for the future.

“(It will) take me to places in the country I otherwise wouldn’t have gone to,” he said. “So far I’m really enjoying it.”

In contrast to Salas and Holzapfel, Corinne Hite knew what her post-AmeriCorps plans were before joining the program. She graduated from Wake Forest University earlier this year and plans to enter medical school after her time with AmeriCorps is up.

She said she wanted to take a break from focusing on herself and her studies to focus on others and get experiences she wouldn’t get in a classroom.

The other nine members of the team are from all over the country, from the Atlantic coast to California, from Houston to Minnesota and Wisconsin. Some are fresh out of college, a couple are new high school graduates, and others entered the program from the work force or as nontraditional students.

The one thing they all have in common is youth. All are between the ages of 18 and 24, which is the age range for AmeriCorps team members nationally.

AmeriCorps and the NCCC were established with bipartisan support in 1993. Teams of workers between the ages of 18 and 24 are assembled to work on projects for infrastructure improvement, conservation, urban or rural development, disaster response or fire management.

During a 10-month service term, teams work on a series of six- to 12-week projects within a region. Hutchinson is part of the southwest region, headquartered in Denver. The Hutchinson project is this team’s first project.

The workers get a regular stipend during their service term, and after completion of service, they receive an award to either pay for tuition or pay off student loans.

Jeff Thomson, project coordinator with Interfaith Housing Services, arranged for the AmeriCorps team to come to Hutchinson. He said he learned of the possibility from Cynthia Fredricks at The Volunteer Center.

“I saw right away that it was a good fit,” he said.

The application to have the team come to Hutchinson was more than 20 pages long and required a daily schedule for the work to be done, Thomson said. An AmeriCorps official visited Hutchinson to see what Interfaith Housing planned and where the workers would stay. Interfaith Housing keeps a house specifically for volunteers and workers from out of town.

“Our volunteer house has been dubbed the AmeriMansion,” Thomson said.

While the team is here, Thomson expects it will be able to work on between six and 10 houses, including three major interior demolition projects as well as several lighter projects.

“Having this team here is just a godsend,” he said.

The team members split their first few days in Hutchinson between painting a resident’s home and demolishing the interior of a house that was damaged by fire. Over the winter, another group helping Interfaith Housing Services will rehabilitate the home’s interior so it can either be sold or rented to a low-income family.

The team split up demolition duties, with some knocking down interior walls, others cleaning out the debris from the tear-down and yet another group taking out cabinets, a toilet and bathtub. It was dirty, sweaty, demanding work. After a few hours in protective gear, the team was unanimously in agreement that they would need to move laundry day up a day.

A mid-morning break for water was appreciated as much for fresh air and a cool breeze as for the cold refreshment.

“That breeze feels so awesome,” Sarayah Hardy said.

Thick-soled boots were part of the team’s protective gear, but the soles weren’t quite thick enough for Holzapfel’s preference. Just before everyone stopped for water, he stepped on a nail that went all the way through his boot and jabbed him in the foot, leaving a shallow puncture wound. It took a claw hammer to pull the nail out of his boot.

The team was prepared, though, with a first-aid kit on scene and everyone’s tetanus vaccines up to date.

Scott Vigneault, whose home the team painted, was pleased as he could be with the AmeriCorps workers. He thought they did a good job of painting and were easy to talk to. Paint for the project was provided through the city’s Brush Up Hutch program.

Team members take a casual approach to dividing work that needs to be done, but that approach is working for them, Hardy said. When they get to a work site, they gather to discuss what needs to be done and then team members get to work at whatever best suits them.

Hite said the group has done a good job communicating about what needs to be done and who needs help.

“Twelve seems like a lot of people, but it doesn’t feel like it when we’re working,” she said.

Thomson said the team exceeded expectations in the first week. They were ahead of schedule on every project he gave them.

“I’m thrilled to death with these guys already,” he said. “I can’t imagine what we’ll accomplish in seven weeks.”

The same way they casually split up work duties, the group divides up housework at Interfaith Housing’s volunteer house with one exception: cooking. At the start of every week, Hardy draws names to pair people up to cook, with each tandem being assigned one meal during the week.

The pairs plan their meals with a $30 budget. Then Hardy is in charge of getting groceries for all of the meals.

“It went smoothly (Nov. 7),” she said. “It only took two hours.”

The meals they plan need to be flexible for team members with dietary restrictions. Two members don’t eat pork, and another is a vegetarian.

“The most fun is learning what people like,” Hite said. In the first week together, she tried several things she hadn’t eaten before.

Dinner Nov. 7 included nearly constant laughter as people joked and told stories. Allyson Frey of Danville, Pennsylvania, said those experiences quickly brought the team together. She thought living together has made them work together better.

“We already have that bond and we’ve only been here a week,” Frey said.

Fire displaces team

An electrical fire in the early hours of Tuesday morning at the Interfaith volunteer house has temporarily displaced the team.

Team leader Amy B. Stewart said Hardy was unable to sleep because of storms overnight and smelled smoke, waking the other team members up.

The workers will probably be able to return to the volunteer house in two to three weeks, said Ron Fisher, director of operations with Interfaith. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, the team was put up in a hotel.

Fisher said Interfaith was looking for another place for the team to stay until the house is ready again, and the workers appeared to be in good spirits under the circumstances.

Stewart said team members were taking the situation well and it had instilled in them some extra appreciation for the circumstances some of the people they are working to help face – one of the houses they have worked on was damaged by fire, as well.