Future Reflections        Summer 2012

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The Service Effect: How Helping the Community Develops Strong Leadership in Students

by Darian Smith

From the Editor: Darian Smith is earning a degree in recreation management at San Francisco State University. He serves as second vice president of the National Association of Blind Students (NABS).

I first got involved with community service when I was a teenager. I helped create recreational programs for blind youth and seniors in San Francisco. I enjoyed the experience and appreciated what it gave me, but eventually I wanted more of a challenge.

One summer, while I attended a program sponsored by one of the National Federation of the Blind training centers, I met a group of young people who were serving with an AmeriCorps program called the National Civilian Community Corps. They were doing various kinds of work in and around the building. I learned that they got the chance to travel the country, meet all sorts of people, and gain new skills. I was excited by their stories, and eventually I looked into AmeriCorps for myself. I found out that I could go anywhere in the country and challenge myself to learn new things and meet new people.

AmeriCorps Basics

Darian Smith digs at a worksite in Alabama, his telescoping cane clipped to his belt.When I looked a little further into AmeriCorps, I learned that the program offers many incentives for youth to give their time to national and community service. They include a small living allowance, skills and experience to add to one's résumé, and education awards that can help pay for college.

I discovered that AmeriCorps provided many opportunities for me to serve close to home in the San Francisco Bay Area and all across California. However, I wanted to see as much of the country as I could and to get a mix of experiences. I decided to explore the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), the program in which I ultimately enrolled.

NCCC (N triple C) is an intensive ten-month community service experience. Members range between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. They work on teams to address the most pressing needs of the nation's communities.

NCCC teams work on a series of service learning projects that last for six to eight weeks. These experiences may involve education, the environment, construction, disaster relief, or unmet human needs. Each team is based on one of five regional campuses. Team members train on campus and are deployed to any state within the region that the campus serves.

My Journey Begins

Of course, the prospect of trying something dramatically new was a little scary. Fortunately, I had the longstanding support of my family, my mother in particular. She always encouraged me to try new things, especially when travel was involved.

I would like to share an overview of my ten-month AmeriCorps journey. It was a journey that allowed me to learn about myself and my country. It showed me that passionate, committed people, both sighted and blind, can take part in changing society for the better. I also learned how my sighted peers viewed me as a blind person. I saw the limitations they set upon themselves by setting limitations upon me.

Corps Training Institute marked the beginning of my AmeriCorps NCCC journey. The first days were very hectic. After I checked in, I met my roommates, the people on my team, and the people in my unit. I met a lot of these new people within my first few hours on campus. They were wonderfully enthusiastic and talented individuals, and I came to know many of them as my Corps teammates and friends. I was the first blind person most of them had ever met. The same was true for the team leaders, unit leaders, and office staff on campus.

During training, Corps members traveled across campus to attend various training sessions and meetings. Sessions included training on diversity, CPR, first aid, and how to run a Red Cross disaster shelter. They also covered the program's rules and regulations.

Those first days on campus served as a sort of test for me. They gave me a chance to show how a blind person travels in familiar and unfamiliar areas. As I look back on it, I realize I felt the need to prove that I was very capable of traveling and problem-solving. I got the feeling that people generally didn't believe I could do those things.

In many ways, life on the Corps training campus was what you might experience at a university. The campus had a cafeteria and a set of dormitories. I was assigned to a single room located next to an emergency exit, and my room had a full bathroom. Despite detailed explanations, the dorm staff didn't understand how I, as a blind person, could find my way to a bathroom down the hall or exit the building in the event of a fire. Ignoring my protests, the staff insisted on putting me in a "more accessible" room.

Darian Smith makes coffee at a foodbank. A few days into training, I approached the director of the AmeriCorps NCCC campus about putting on a one-person "Meet the Blind Month" event. I had initiated the idea with her prior to my arrival on campus, and she was very receptive. The event was spread out over our month of training. Meet the Blind Month literature was displayed in the main dorm lobby. Corps members got an informal introduction to goalball, and I held a question and answer session during a Corps-wide community meeting. Finally, in keeping with the month-long theme, I conducted an activity called "Cane Travel Training." I was fortunate to be able to borrow sleepshades and canes from the Colorado Center for the Blind. The time and energy I put into this activity were well-spent. Corps members, team leaders, and office staff alike participated in the series of informal trainings. They learned how a blind person safely and effectively navigates in familiar and unfamiliar areas, doing so with a high degree of confidence. They also learned about proper cane technique for moving about in a building, going up and down stairs, and traveling outdoors.

One cane travel activity that proved to be a highlight was a session that took place during my unit's team bonding time at Rocky Mountain National Park. Individuals learned to navigate rocky paths using a cane while they listened to the birds and the wind through the trees and felt the sun on their faces. Everyone who took part enjoyed the event. Those who didn't participate expressed interest in taking part if the event were repeated.

First Assignment

My team's first assignment was an environmental service project in Boulder, Colorado. We worked with the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks. We worked on building two new hiking trails, cleared out a few irrigation ditches, and removed invasive species (which translates as pulling weeds).

In most instances I found it was best for me to partner with a member of the team and work on our share of the project together. Otherwise the work quickly grew rather boring and repetitive. When it came to hiking to and from some of the sites over rough, uneven paths, I alternated between traveling alone and traveling with a human guide. When I walked to a site with another person, I simply kept pace while we had a conversation.

At one of our worksites, I was asked to clear grass patches out of a trench. First I had a project sponsor store my cane in a safe place. Then I walked along one side of the trench, feeling with my foot for broken-up patches of grass and damp earth. I threw them into an area that was pointed out by the sponsor. The project introduced me to tools I had never used or heard of before, such as the rock bar and the McLeod. I also became better informed about the socioeconomic factors that go into decisions about preserving land or developing it for recreational purposes. I learned a lot about Colorado and its water conservation plans as well.

My project sponsors were a great help. They enabled me to learn while they learned along with me. The lesson? Given the training and opportunity, a blind person can do most of the jobs a sighted person can do, and do them just as effectively as anybody else.

As one of my roles on the team was recruitment, it was natural and appropiate for me to talk to groups about the program. During my first round, I visited the Boulder Valley Chapter of the NFB. I spoke about AmeriCorps NCCC and the great benefits of giving back to one's country through national service. I enjoyed letting people know that the program is out there and that, yes, blind people can be a part of it and do great things.

Recruiting in Texas

From Boulder my team and I went to Brazoria County, Texas, where we worked with the United Way. We were assigned to canvass the community, talking to residents about resources available to victims of Hurricane Ike. This work, of course, meant a lot of walking and a lot of talking. I had two primary roles on this project. I have good communication skills, so I did most of the talking with clients while we were in the field. I also wrote out weekly progress reports to document where we had been and what we did.

During this round, my skills as a recruiter reached new heights. Using a laptop with JAWS and an Internet connection, I researched local schools and youth programs. I arranged for us to speak to young people about AmeriCorps. With various members of my team, I talked up the program with venture crews and high school students.

On this round I felt confident in my ability to be personable and to make myself and the program shining positives. Even shy people generally wanted to learn more about AmeriCorps when I described the great aspects of the program and the wonderful things it allowed me to do as a blind person. Youth who would never have considered the program at first glance gave it serious thought, and some planned to enroll as soon as they finished school. Their response gave me a great feeling. During this round I showed many youth that anybody who wants to serve their country can do so.

On various construction and debris removal projects during this round, I learned to work with more new tools--the skill saw, Sawzall, drill, axe, and nail gun. By this point my teammates and team leader willingly took the time to teach me skills I might not have thought I could learn. As was the case on my previous project, the people in the community started off with no idea what to expect from me. In the end they proved to be some of the best teachers and best people I worked with during my Corps year. They were always so nice and helpful to everybody, and they treated me as if blindness was the last thing they thought of when they saw me.

Construction in Alabama

My next project was in Hale County, Alabama. This project round presented me with a greater opportunity and a bigger challenge than any of my other Corps assignments.

Hale County is the fifth poorest county in the country. The town where I lived was like most towns in Alabama--very small and not very notable to anyone who didn't live there. The nature of our project was construction work and painting. I had done both during previous projects. However, I had to convince a new team and team leader, as well as the staff back at my base campus, that I could do these things. An added challenge was convincing them that I could climb scaffolding with ease and confidence. Though I showed my team leader and project supervisors that I could do the job, the campus management still had doubts.

During this round, all of the AmeriCorps campuses were filling positions for their incoming class of team leaders. I was interviewed by four campuses where I was being considered for open positions. In the end I was not offered a position by any of these campuses, and some did not even bother to notify me. One campus admitted to altering the general set of questions they ask the other candidates. They said they were not sure that I, as a blind person, would be able to answer them. I started to question the organization's true belief in people with disabilities and in me as a blind person. The organization seemed to feel that a person with a disability could certainly become a Corps member, but could not lead a group of ten young adults on challenging projects. AmeriCorps leaders seemed unwilling to trust a person with a disability, especially a blind person, to handle such a responsibility.

Most of my job this round was recruitment off the worksite. I also worked in a local thrift store that benefited the community. In addition, I carried out some minimal tasks on the worksite, helping volunteers restore a ninety-five-year-old Rosenwald schoolhouse. On hot days, when the temperature reached as high as 95 degrees, I found myself pulling rusted nails out of old two-by-fours. Meanwhile, my teammates were climbing the side of the old schoolhouse to hammer nails or to paint. One could argue that my work had to get done, but I often found myself in the very situation I had worked so hard to avoid. I didn't want to sit on the sidelines while my teammates challenged themselves in ways they had never expected.

Nevertheless, I had some fascinating experiences in Alabama. I attended my first crawfish boil and lived through more tornado warnings than I would have liked. I met some truly great people who were working to help the local people change their way of life. I was fortunate to know some of the best folks in this small county.

I learned that inadequate housing and education were not the only problems Hale County faced. One day I rode along with a postgraduate student from the University of Alabama who was testing water purity in the area. The student told me that many residents in the county drink and bathe in darkened water from their pipes, having no other choice and not knowing how unhealthy the water is.

Overall, our Alabama project was a very educational time for me. I learned about things we take for granted and the challenges we face in closing the gap between the haves and have nots.

Summer of Service

In our fourth project round, I was one of the fortunate few Corps members to be selected to work in AmeriCorps NCCC's Summer of Service program. That year, 2009, it was the only AmeriCorps program of its kind in the country. The Summer of Service (SOS) Program gave at-risk youth the opportunity to serve their local community. The young people gained invaluable skills and an awareness of community needs. The program also provided a small stipend that the youth often used to help support their families.

Before the youths arrived on campus, my teammates and I took part in a week of training, followed by a two-week camping trip in the mountains near Jamestown, Colorado. Besides the fun parts--hiking and setting up tents--my new team and I worked on moving tree limbs to the side of the road to be gathered. Most of the work involved "hauling slash," dragging limbs down a hillside. I used my cane with my left arm and hauled with my right, sometimes following the voices of my teammates. One fun thing I did during the trip was to use a hydraulic wood-splitter. This machine was designed as an easier, less labor-intensive way to split logs.

After two weeks of work and bonding, we returned to Denver and got ready for the participants. I was asked to serve as one of four co-crew leaders, overseeing a team of seven to ten young men and women. Crew leaders were responsible for supervising the participants, making sure that they stayed on task on the worksite. We also encouraged them to maintain safe habits and respectful behavior on the worksite and off. The participants often challenged my abilities as a supervisor, but they worked hard. It was rewarding to see them mature over the course of the project.

Three short weeks later, the SOS Program was over, and I approached the end of my AmeriCorps year. It was time for me and my teammates to look around, look ahead, and say good-bye to our AmeriCorps family. I will never forget the blend of sadness and overwhelming satisfaction that washed over me as I crossed the stage in the campus auditorium at our closing ceremony. On more than one occasion over the year I had considered walking away. Now I had completed the journey.

Suddenly I heard a roar of applause. It was led by the Summer of Service participants we had helped to graduate just weeks before. I felt a sense of finality, pride, and accomplishment. Like the young people I had tried to help, I, too, had matured through my AmeriCorps service. I wanted to take what I learned about service and get more involved at home.

Passing It Forward

Since my Corps year, I have been more involved in service projects than I ever would have imagined. I even lead a service-oriented club on my college campus.

While I was in AmeriCorps, I got the idea of creating a place where blind people of all ages could learn about getting involved in community service. A couple of years and some long hours with friends later, the National Federation of the Blind has formed the Community Service Group. The group has discussions via conference calls and a listserv. Members learn about opportunities for blind people to get involved in community service. By the time this article is published, we will have completed our first community service project and held a seminar and organizing meeting at the 2012 NFB convention in Dallas.

I firmly believe that community service has beneficial effects on all those who participate. My AmeriCorps experiences were both positive and negative, but all of them helped me learn and grow. I now take part in any service project I can fit into my schedule.

I highly encourage others to explore any opportunity that sounds the least bit interesting. Give it a try! You may become a more well-rounded person with the drive to find the good and the potential for improvement in the world around you. You just may go on looking for ways to make the world a better place.

To learn more about AmeriCorps, visit  <www.americorps.gov>.

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