By Hilary Pierce
Since September 2017, Water Rocks! has worked with AmeriCorps in a collaboration that has paid dividends for both the program and the AmeriCorps members involved.
AmeriCorps is a national service program aimed at improving lives and fostering civic engagement among young people. The program is funded through the Corporation for National and Community Service, an independent agency of the federal government. Sometimes viewed as a domestic alternative to the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps places more than 80,000 service members across the U.S. annually.
Water Rocks is Iowa’s award-winning youth water quality and conservation education program based at Iowa State University Extension. Water Rocks delivers classroom education modules in concert with school teachers throughout Iowa. In addition, the Water Rocks school assembly program brings lessons about watersheds, soil and pollinators to large groups across the state. Since beginning the partnership with AmeriCorps, the Water Rocks program now visits some 180 schools annually.
Water Rocks is an AmeriCorps host site through the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach initiative. The overarching goal of this program is to provide youth programming based on 4-H youth development principles and practices.
Through the AmeriCorps program, service members are placed with Water Rocks for terms ranging from nine months to one year. AmeriCorps pays the member a modest living stipend and offers an education award they can use toward further studies or repayment of student loans at the successful completion of the term. At Water Rocks, service members work directly with core team members on educational programming.
“Water Rocks has employed summer interns to help conduct school programs and community outreach for many years, but our resources were more limited during the university school year,” says Ann Staudt, Water Rocks director. “Becoming an AmeriCorps host site gave us access to motivated individuals to serve with our program and help us meet the great demand for youth water quality education in Iowa schools. We’ve hosted three AmeriCorps members to date, and they’ve all added strength to the Water Rocks program.”
Motivated young people
The AmeriCorps service members over time hosted by Water Rocks are Jack Schilling, Megan Koppenhafer and Joshua Harms. All came to the program through different avenues, and each has empowered Water Rocks to expand its capabilities.
Schilling was looking for a meaningful way to spend a “gap year” after graduating high school. He joined AmeriCorps and found Water Rocks through the program. He lived on a farm but was not actively engaged in conservation activities before becoming a Water Rocks team member.
OUTREACH: Continuing to work with Water Rocks as a teaching intern while pursuing his college degree, Jack Schilling helps bring the conservation and water quality message to Iowa classrooms.
Schilling says he learned a lot about himself and living independently, honed his work skills, and found a much stronger connection to the environment. He has continued to work with Water Rocks as an intern while pursuing his college degree.
“Jack came to the program with no preconceptions and jumped right in,” Staudt says. “He was able to immediately contribute to our program, particularly with his background in music and theater, helping to deliver Water Rocks school assemblies to elementary and middle school students across the state.”
Using what they learn
Megan Koppenhafer already had two summer internships with Water Rocks under her belt when she joined the AmeriCorps program and put in a final season with the team. Koppenhafer was finishing a double major at ISU, graduating in December 2017 with degrees in environmental science, and community and regional planning.
She joined AmeriCorps to help round out her work experience as she entered the post-graduation job market. Koppenhafer says she had considered the Peace Corps but wasn’t ready to make the distance or time commitment. The flexibility in service term and locale made AmeriCorps a better fit for her at the time. After her term, she took a position as a community planner in Scotts Bluff, Neb., where she carries what she learned with Water Rocks into her community engagement activities.
“Megan and Jack came to the program from different paths, but immersion with the core Water Rocks team helped them both become important contributors that we relied on heavily during their terms,” Staudt says. “The biggest asset we’ve seen in our AmeriCorps service members is enthusiasm for service and education. We can’t teach passion like that, but we can certainly put it to good use.”
Enthusiasm for service
Joshua Harms is currently serving with Water Rocks through AmeriCorps. He previously served as a Water Rocks intern during high school. Looking to have a “gap year” after graduation that would give him a challenging and meaningful work experience, he looked to AmeriCorps.
Harms says the education award will not only help pay for college, but also give him the chance to learn more about himself and build professional work skills. While he doesn’t see teaching as a career path, he says he enjoys engaging with kids and going to schools. The interactive school presentations and assemblies give him an opportunity to learn while having fun.
FUN LEARNING: Joshua Harms is currently serving with Water Rocks through AmeriCorps and enjoys delivering the water quality and conservation message to school kids in Iowa.
Joshua felt that bolstering the Water Rocks team with AmeriCorps members during the school year definitely strengthens the potential impact of the program. He says, “It’s great to reach out to the next generation as much as possible. Anyone in the audience could be the next farmer or conservationist that can make a difference. Water Rocks can make those ideas click for kids and the more chances we have to get the message out, the better.”
“The Water Rocks and AmeriCorps collaboration has benefited the program and the service members, but more importantly, it has enabled significant expansion of outreach activities with youth in Iowa,” Staudt says.
Pierce is ISU Extension outreach specialist with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks.