Jasmine Batten did not know what to expect from Fairfax County. A native of rural Wisconsin, she had barely heard of Fairfax when she arrived in March with a team of volunteers to work at area parks, including Colvin Run.
"The only impression that I had was small bits of information," she said. "Just the fact that it was one of the most populated counties, the fact that it has one of the highest per capita income."
Batten and her fellow volunteers from the National Civilian Community Corps, an Americorps program worked in Fairfax from March 22 to May 10, doing mostly outdoor park maintenance work at Colvin Run, Frying Pan Park, Eleanor C. Lawrence Park, the Sully Historic Site and the Hidden Oaks Nature Center. Another team also worked at Huntley Meadows Park.
At Colvin Run Mill Park, the team of 10 women moved shrubbery away from the miller's house and replaced it with gravel. The plants had been retaining moisture which was causing the paint to chip on the walls of the house, rotting the wood. They also cleaned up the surrounding landscape, cutting vines off trees and cleaning up a walking path.
"They were young and energetic and enthusiastic," said Mary Allen, volunteer coordinator at the park. "They were not only willing to work hard but desiring to work hard. We had to keep up with them to find things for them to do."
Without help from the volunteers, said Allen, "things would have been overgrown. We'd be trying all summer to battle it and we wouldn't make much progress." The Park Authority estimates the value of the work they provided at around $50,000.
"IT WAS NEAT TO SEE the contrast between these nice little parks and the urban sprawl," said Batten. "It definitely made me realize that the Fairfax County Park Authority is working really hard to keep the space that they do have."
Denise Patel, another volunteer, agreed. "When I was in some of the parks I could see the houses through the trees," she said.
Patel also praised park staff. "Everyone we worked with was really nice," she said. "It was our first outdoor project. It was a lot of fun."
Previously, the team had worked at a school for disadvantaged children of military families in Pennsylvania and at a YWCA women's shelter in Salt Lake City, Utah during the Olympics. They are currently renovating an old school in Circleville, W.Va. for use as a community center.
Batten, who is considering a career in environmental education, also mentioned the importance of land acquisition. "I think it's vital," she said. "Typically I probably would have thought more of preservation. … I think it's equally important to preserve these small areas left for the people who live in that area and grew up in that area."
"If you grow up in a large area or in an area that's highly populated, enjoying the outdoors might not come as naturally, then having those parks is good," she added.
"THE THING THAT THIS was able to give us was this huge consecutive block of time to get these projects done that had been on the back burner," said Erin Chernisky, volunteer coordinator for the Park Authority. Without help from Americorps volunteers, Chernisky said, large outdoor projects in the park system would have to be pushed back indefinitely for lack of human resources. Chernisky coordinated the volunteer applications from all five parks.
Volunteer programs like Americorps have gotten a boost from the renewed sense of service that emerged after Sept. 11. Applications for Americorps have increased by 30 percent, according to Gina Cross, a marketing specialist for Americorps. Cross also attributes part of that increase to improvements made to the Americorps website. President George W. Bush has also proposed legislation that would expand the program by 25,000 members.
Volunteers come from all over the country. Those who worked in Fairfax hailed from as far away as Texas and as close as New Jersey and West Virginia.
"Everyone has a different reason" to join, said Patel. "There's people who have graduated from high school, people who took a year off from college. There are people who really love community service. It provides a lot of job experience."