Reciprocity of Gratitude: The MSTFP AmeriCorps Experience

As long as Montezuma School to Farm Project has been alive, AmeriCorps members have been involved. Since the beginning, AmeriCorps have taken the strategic planning, management, and support of full time staff members and evolved ideas into boots-on-the-ground action. We caught up with service members from the last decade to gather reflections on the symbiosis of The Project and the AmeriCorps members.  

WHAT IS AMERICORPS?

AmeriCorps is a network of national service programs that works to improve lives and encourage civic engagement. Members commit their time to address critical community needs. In the case of MSTFP, AmeriCorps works to provide garden education; maintaining and teaching in outdoor garden classrooms, as well as working on grants, community events, and community collaborations to further the Project’s mission of connecting Montezuma County’s youth to their agricultural heritage. 

Members serve one-year terms with the option to apply to stay for subsequent years. They are paid a monthly living stipend and are encouraged to live “simply,” enjoying the joys and freedoms of embracing a low-cost, local life.  

In 2009, Nadia Hebard was serving as the Office of Surface Mining (OSM)/Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) Watershed Coordinator for the Mancos River Watershed Project AmeriCorps. It was during this term that Nadia founded MSTFP, and paved the path for years to come. 

Every year a new group of AmeriCorps arrive from around the United States to serve. Amber Cardwell, a Direct Service Member (DSM) from 2018-2019 shares how her year has provided that opportunity “to talk, interact and become friends with people from all over the country with entirely different backgrounds.” She continues, “somehow in all our differences, we are all the same. We have worked together to become a strong cohesive unit that is dedicated and focused on providing the best possible program to Montezuma County.” 

With each new year, members bring unique histories, expertise, culture, and personalities. Mia Becker (DSM, 2018-2019) notes the legacy of the energy and impact of AmeriCorps. As she finishes her term, she shares her realization “of how important it is what we do, what the AmeriCorps before us did, and what the AmeriCorps after us will do.” 

THE IMPACT 

As garden coordinators, MSTFP AmeriCorps are more than just teachers. Their identities become synonymous with garden class, food education, and giving kids the opportunity to learn outside. Ellen Underwood (DSM, 2017-2018) recounts how “students would see us and always shout “Garden!” with big, beautiful, cheesy smiles on their face (often jumping and laughing too)...We weren’t Miss Ellen, or Teacher, we were “Garden.” 

What does it mean to be Garden?  It means you are a role model, a teacher, and a keeper and cultivator of sustainable growing practices. According to a study by the  Collaborative Management Program’s Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, almost 25% of children in Montezuma County are below the poverty line, 1,300 students live in a Food Desert, and more than half of students qualify for free or reduced lunch at school. Needless to say, the demographics MSTFP works with are diverse economically and socially, as well as racially and culturally.  As a garden coordinator, direct service members are exposed to an environment where kids gather from all different backgrounds, each of whom needs something different from their time in the garden.  

Stacy Armbruster (DSM 2013-2015) explains: “The garden is a place to connect kids to their food, and it can also be a place of healing...the gardens can promote the importance of self-awareness and self-care.” How do we teach youth to care about the food system in a place and time when we are so disconnected from natural processes? We help students see the joy in growing.

Garden education encourages students to embrace process and outcome, experience and meaning, and helps them recognize who they are and who they want to be. Armbruster believes that students leave garden programming “a little bit stronger and healthier, both mentally and physically, making better food choices, and feeling more confident in who they are as a human being regardless of their circumstances and their past history and regardless of whether they want to become a farmer or not.” 

COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS

MSTFP seeks to show students how food production is more than nutrition and science, but a means of cultivating community. “Agriculture doesn't come easy in Southwest Colorado. It only exists there because of our own persistence,” says Patrick Alford (DSM, 2015-2016.)  “Just as we need food, we also need to understand it and the place from which it comes...Food not only sustains and restores the body, but it can also be an incredibly strong source of community as well.”

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AmeriCorps at MSTFP tackle systemic food system issues both inside and outside the classroom. When the school day is done, members work over vacations, weekends, and summer break, running community events, working on marketing and content creation, organizing curriculum, and planning and maintaining garden crops for the future. The reach and impact of MSTFP goes far beyond the school, and helps connect the dots for parents, children, and the community, to catalyze holistic participation in the local food system. 

Drew Watson (DSM, 2017-2018) explains, “MSTFP provides an educational opportunity to the Montezuma County community that very few places in the country have. To be able to work, play, and learn in a garden or demonstration farm, and eat local vegetables, is something I think the community treasures and appreciates.”

Whether it’s parents coming to dine at the Dolores Elementary School Third Grade Restaurant or guests attending the annual Hoedown, it’s obvious that AmeriCorps’ projects have “encouraged teamwork, individual and collective responsibility, and a commitment to success, which strengthens the bonds between school gardeners, teachers and the communities of Montezuma County,” says Armbruster. The fresh perspective and eagerness to learn that comes with new members each year facilitates MSTFP creating “new and continued connections that are based on trust, respect, equality, and reciprocity.”

INVESTING IN THE FUTURE

Unlike other organizations, MSTFP isn’t alleviating or solving an immediate problem, but educating and sharing knowledge to promote self sufficiency and sustainability for years to come. As AmeriCorps, it is members’ responsibility to impart a passion and excitement to the students and community around food culture.

In a time of climate change and natural resource depletion, “water conservation, growing your own food, and understanding our food system becomes more important than ever,” says Becker.  “We need to make sure that the younger generations continue to be educated on these matters so that they can make responsible decisions.” MSTFP’s education extends beyond the term of each year’s AmeriCorps. Members’ service “influences the next generation’s participation in sustainability, conservation and their agricultural heritage,” adds Cardwell. 

RECIPROCITY

Come August, this year’s AmeriCorps will leave MSTFP and continue on with their own careers, education, and pursuits. Though the groups are always different and have a unique story to tell, there appears to be a consistent sentiment shared at the end of each crew’s term: gratitude. 

Each AmeriCorps mentions in their own way how the trials, efforts, and growth in their year prepared them for whatever came/is coming next. For some, their service term exemplified the ethics and necessity of serving your community. For others, the year provided the experience to pursue a career, the knowledge and motivation to take on graduate education, or simply the community and relationships to grow as a person and citizen. 

As members prepare for their next steps, they reflect and absorb the “gratitude from the community members, teachers, students, and MSTFP staff for each task, lesson, or service that members performed,” says Maryssa Schlough (DSM, 2016-2018). The AmeriCorps in turn feel gratitude “for the community, teachers, students, and MSTFP staff for having patience and acceptance, and more importantly teaching an array of valuable lessons; everything from how to pull the suckers from tomato plants to understanding the power of unity when people sit down together and celebrate a meal.” It is the reciprocal graciousness of those who live in the county and those who come to serve that breeds the future growth and vitality of MSTFP. 


If you are interested in housing, supporting, or being an MSTFP AmeriCorps, contact Gretchen Rank for more information: executivedirector.mcd@gmail.com.