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Extra Hands at Frying Pan Park

AmeriCorps group works with Fairfax County Park Authority at three parks to complete service projects.

Members from the AmeriCorps*NCCC finished five days of work Dec. 8 by painting the fences they built at Frying Pan Park in the sunshine.

"This project was really nice because we were able to get outside," said Brenna Severson, a corps member. "The weather has been cooperating so we met all our goals, and the team is getting to know each other."

Severson, 20, was joined at the farm with 10 other corps members ranging in age and educational experience from across the country, who had recently finished one month of training and their first project.

"We've fed the animals, we got to groom the horses," said Rachel Cole, 21, about the five days spent at Frying Pan Park. "They've let us play around and do their chores."

Erin Chernisky, volunteer services coordinator for Fairfax County Park Authority, said the county has worked with AmeriCorps since 2001.

"We like the AmeriCorps group because we get a dedicated group of individuals that are with us for a longer while," she said. "We don't have the extensive staff time that the AmeriCorps group can give us."

Paul Nicholson, Frying Pan Park farm manager, said by having the group there he was able to not only save money but also have the work done faster than if his staff were working on the fence while doing everyday farm chores.

"They built 2,000 feet of fence, they painted [the fence], they replaced a rotten hay wagon and they helped with the livestock," said Nicholson of their accomplishments. "They put in about 500 hours in five days — that's about $6,000 that it would have cost the farm."

THROUGH THE AMERICORPS program, Ken Naranja, team leader of the group working at Frying Pan, said the organization tries to offer a range of service projects for corps members.

"They make sure each team has a diversity project," said Naranja. "The staff and team leader will visit the site and see what they'll be doing to make sure it's put together and the team is ready to go when they get there."

To ensure diversity among projects, Elizabeth Rose, assistant project director for AmeriCorps, said the organization has four core areas they have members working in.

The areas deal with environment — like Frying Pan where they built fences; education — where they work in schools; human needs — where they could build houses or homeless shelters, and public safety.

"Our purpose is to serve the community depending on its need," said Rose, adding their longstanding relationship with Fairfax County Park Authority is another reason why they continue to work with the county.

Chernisky said from the Park Authority side, each county property submits a proposal for projects they think need the corps members' assistance.

From there, she said they decide which projects take precedence, adding they try to choose a variety of service projects for the members to do.

"We weigh [projects] based on variety and the history of the organization," said Rose about why the Park Authority has the group working for two and-a-half weeks. "In the situation of Fairfax County, we can call them on short notice if we need to send a team there — we have a long-standing relationship with them."

THROUGH THE AMERICORPS program, the members spend nine months working on service projects with one month of training. Some of the members are recent college graduates taking a break before graduate school while others like Severson and Cole are taking a break from college to figure out what they want to major in.

"I really like the outdoors and the environment and I wanted to do something to help me get a better idea about what I want to do," said Cole, who is from Pennsylvania but recently left school in Los Angeles to join the program. "I want to do something I believe has a better cause."

Cole and Severson — who is from Minnesota and left school at Wisconsin-Madison to join the group — agreed that the most challenging thing so far has been living with a diverse group of people.

"It's challenging because we are all from different backgrounds," said Cole. "To throw people together and do projects, the biggest thing is to keep an open mind."

Along with learning about each other, corps member Chris Moriarty — recent Johns Hopkins graduate from New Jersey — said in the last project he was able to train as a firefighter in Hagerstown, Md.

"We trained how to be wild land firefighters and did prescribed burns," the 22 year old said, adding the work at Frying Pan Park was fun because he had never worked on a farm.

"I felt like I just wanted to have one last hurrah and I feel like this is a fifth year of college," he said about why he chose AmeriCorps before studying criminal justice at Johns Hopkins graduate school. "I didn't want to rush into it, I wanted to make sure it was what I wanted to do."

AS A REQUIREMENT, the AmeriCorps volunteers have to complete 1,700 hours of service during the 10-month commitment. In addition to that Moriarty said they need to spend 80 hours on individual projects separate from their group work.

Although the work corps members do is not paid, they do receive a stipend of almost $5,000 for their 10-month commitment to assist with college or repay student loans. Because they are living together in an old nursing home in Washington, D.C. they don't have to worry about paying rent or other living costs in the city.

Naranja said the group's next stop with the Park Authority would be at Eleanor C. Lawrence Park where they will be working on the trails and building animal structures. From there he said the group would work at one more park before the holidays.

"It's a lot better than I expected," said Moriarty of the experience so far, adding once he completes AmeriCorps he will be moving to Dupont Circle in Washington to begin his graduate school work. "It's better than sleeping in or sitting behind a desk."