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Giving back: Corps member wears badge with honor

Emily Stieber prunes back a clump of pampas grass at The Oregon Garden. She is part of a 10-member AmeriCorps team that spent a recent five weeks rebuilding trails, spreading compost and more.By Brenna Wiegand

Gardening gives a person a lot of time to think.

At least, that was what Emily Stieber, 22, was doing on a fair day in late February – thinking – and gardening.

The recent college graduate from Wisconsin was enjoying the fresh air and physicality of trimming back hefty clumps of pampas grass at The Oregon Garden. She is part of the 10-member AmeriCorps team that recently spent five weeks working full time at The Garden and staying in the house that, up until recently, housed The Garden’s administration team.

She has been pleased with her decision to become part of AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps in order to “give back” to the community, do some traveling and earn some money toward the school loans she accumulated while earning an art degree. Stieber graduated last May from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She enjoys photography and painting and would like to either have her own photography studio one day or work for a nonprofit organization.

“I first learned about the NCCC while on an alternative spring break from my college during my sophomore year,” Stieber said. “We were supervised by an NCCC team while in New Orleans, cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina.” Stieber asked team members about the round patches they wore and heard about a means of meaningful community aid; meeting people one’s own age who like the idea, too; seeing new parts of the country – and earning close to $5,000 that would be applied directly to school loans.

“I decided it was something I definitely wanted to do in my future,” she said.

Now, halfway through their 10-month term of service, Stieber feels bonded with her team.

“These guys are like my family,” she said – one in which she’s got six sisters and three brothers. They stay together, work together, go sightseeing as a group some weekends and take turns cooking dinner and doing the dishes.

“I never cooked at all until I came here,” Stieber confessed. “But now I’ve helped prepare salmon and cooked the mashed potatoes with vegetables and cheese that I used to have at home.”

Part of being a family is providing comfort when the occasional bout of homesickness strikes a member, which she says happens to everybody.

AmeriCorps team members Shelby Schoepf, left, of Houston, Texas, and Ben Erickson of Gardner, Mass., haul away cuttings of pampas grass. They are the first of two back-to-back teams providing labor toward improvements at The Oregon Garden. “But then you realize, ‘Hey, how often do you get to have a chance to travel around the country and see all these different places and meet all these neat people?’ All of us are from the Mid-West and the East Coast. We have visited Portland and the Oregon Coast – Oregon’s a beautiful place!”

An AmeriCorps commitment means being willing to do just about anything. Work can include educational projects, environmental improvement, construction or disaster relief.

After a month of training in Sacramento that included training in first aid, diversity and conflict resolution, they remained in that city another three months, tutoring and mentoring elementary students in a low-income district.

“We learned patience; how to help kids learn to read; some Spanish – and how just doing some small thing can really make someone’s day – whether a student or a teacher,” Stieber said.

However, traveling north to The Oregon Garden has provided a welcome change.

“I’m glad to be outside,” she said. “It’s nice; you’re alone more, and you can really see what you’ve accomplished at the end of the day.”

Stieber said her stint at The Oregon Garden has enlightened her about the usefulness of trees and plants, especially in environmental restoration; their care; how to make wise use of time – and how good it feels to hit the pillow after putting in a hard day’s work. The team attacked the chores awaiting them, primarily in the wetlands: clearing brush, rebuilding trails, spreading compost and pruning. In return, The Garden had only to provide lodging for the team.

“Thanks to The Garden’s environmental aspects (wetlands; native oak grove) we qualify for state and federal grants through AmeriCorps,” said Jill Martini, director of horticulture at The Oregon Garden. “This is a very responsible group – and an awesome program.”

With scarcely a week in between, a second NCCC team arrived Feb. 26 with the express purpose of restoring The Oregon Garden’s Native White Oak Grove and helping to develop a pedestrian path and interpretive signage.

But for Stieber and her AmeriCorps team, it’s on to Galveston, Texas, to help with hurricane relief.
Things have come full circle…

“For about five weeks, our NCCC team will be managing college kids on an alternative spring break,” she said.

Chances are, at least one of them will want to know about the distinctive emblem Stieber now wears with pride.

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