There are some helping hands in our region, thanks to the federal AmeriCorps program that enables people of all ages to further personal goals while helping communities across the United States.
This is the second year AmeriCorps members placed at Severson Dells Nature Center will develop education programs and nature videos, lead hikes and work with community volunteers on restoration workdays, says Ann Wasser, director at Severson Dells and an alumnus of AmeriCorps. She applied for the grant that currently supports four AmeriCorps members here; they’ll soon be joined by 10 more in the summer.
“I absolutely love the AmeriCorps program because it provides extra support to do more of everything we do while providing hands-on professional experience to the members,” Wasser says.
The AmeriCorps members assigned to Severson Dells are also working at Boone County Conservation District, Forest Preserves of Winnebago County, DeKalb Forest Preserve and Natural Land Institute. They’ve also helped with youth development at Rockford YMCA and Girl Scouts of Northern Illinois.
AmeriCorps places 270,000 members of any age with organizations across the country each year. Members receive a modest living allowance, cash awards for education, loan deferment, professional development and an alumni network.
Among the key areas of need on which they focus are education, disaster response, independent living services for seniors, food banks, opioid crisis, homelessness, military family and veterans assistance, employment skills training and environmental stewardship.
Although the pandemic interrupted most planned activities at Severson Dells last spring, it created other opportunities for service at the Northern Illinois Food Bank, Lifescape Community Service’s Meals on Wheels program and the production of nature-event videos.
“We ended up providing services we hadn’t planned on, but the results have been great during a very challenging time,” says Wasser. “I was surprised to see how many people were craving to connect with nature through digital means.”
For example, annual wildflower walks were offered online last year and are still available for viewing on the Severson Dells YouTube channel, as are other nature videos. This year, Severson Dells and the Natural Land Institute will offer wildflower walks in person April through June. Registration begins April 1; go to Seversondells.org, Naturalland.org or call Severson Dells at (815) 335-2915.
In addition to supporting programs at the nature center, members have also started teaching at the Fairgrounds Boys and Girls Club, 609 Kilburn Ave., a continuation of a program that was developed in 2019 by former AmeriCorps members.
Rockford native Julie Uram, 23, (pictured on cover) is among the AmeriCorps members working at Severson Dells.
“This position seemed like a great opportunity for me to apply what I studied in college, while learning more about what I want to do for a career and giving back to the community that raised me,” she says.
Uram coordinates 815 Outside, organizes and leads hikes and manages social media and the newsletter. She began last May and will finish this coming August.
Uram learned about AmeriCorps from a college advisor at Drake University, where she graduated in May 2020 with a B.A. in Environmental Science and is working toward a Master of Arts in Strategic Communications.
“My personal passion is to make our community healthier,” she says. “As an AmeriCorps member, I hope I can inspire people to get outside and appreciate the abundant natural areas we have here.”
Uram is helping to develop an 815 Outside initiative called Nature Prescription, which will work with local healthcare systems to get people outdoors to improve their physical, mental and emotional health.
“Even those who like the outdoors may not know about all the options we have in Winnebago County, or may hesitate to go out alone,” says Uram. “815 Outside is working to build up resources and programming so that anyone in the area who wants to get outside can do so safely and confidently.”
Wasser served with AmeriCorps while earning her Master’s degree.
“I grew up loving the outdoors and I think every kid should spend as much time as they can in nature because it’s a great natural learning lab,” she says.
Wasser has been the director at Severson Dells since December 2016. She applied for the AmeriCorps grant in 2018 and recruited her first AmeriCorps volunteers in 2019. Her plan is to apply for the grant every year to keep the program going at the nature center.
A bi-partisan bill pending in Congress, sponsored by U.S Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), would dramatically expand AmeriCorps. The senators believe it’s ideally suited to help the country recover from many challenges posed by the aftermath of COVID-19. ❚