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'If I had a hammer...'

Missoula's AmeriCorp volunteers lay foundations for non-profits' work

About every six months, it seems some genius in the big-time media gets a hot story idea that goes something like this: Though kids today have frequently been derided as ne'er-do-wells, lacking ambition and drive, the truth is, THEY'RE NOT SLACKERS AT ALL!

But just because tales of youth-gone-good make for quick copy doesn't mean they're not worth telling. There's no shortage of good news to report.

For instance: AmeriCorps. One of Bill Clinton's brighter ideas, AmeriCorps was launched in 1993 as a vehicle for national service. Through this program, 25,000 young Americans annually help out a vast array of non-profit enterprises while earning a little bread for school.

Around Montana and Missoula, students and just-barely-former students don AmeriCorps' bold glowing-sun logo to help disadvantaged and at-risk kids, clear wilderness trails, soothe riparian areas, work toward energy conservation and generally lend a hand.

According to the state's Office of Community Service, which administers the federal cash that makes AmeriCorps go, some 256 members of AmeriCorps will see duty this year. Along the way, they became part of an American tradition stretching back to the New Deal.

"The way I usually explain it to people is to say that AmeriCorps is a stateside version of the Peace Corps,"says John Webb, a coordinator for Volunteer Montana, one of about a half a dozen separate AmeriCorps programs in Montana. "Everyone knows what the Peace Corps does, but not many people know what AmeriCorps does yet.

"National service has been part of American culture for a long time. There was the Civilian Conservation Corps in the '30s and VISTA in the '60s. Now VISTA and some other older programs have come under the umbrella of AmeriCorps. I can only imagine how many people are being mobilized across the country."

Webb's charges spend their 10-month tours of duty working to round up and train volunteers for non-profits, a mission distinct from those of some of AmeriCorps' more hands-on wings.

"We're a little different from many AmeriCorps programs, which provide services directly themselves,"Webb says. "Those people are out there with hammer in hand, while our people are mostly behind the scenes. Non-profits assess their needs and say, 'Hey, we need one of your volunteers to come in here and jump-start what we're trying to do.'"

In 1996, 20 VM volunteers marshaled about 1,600 others, who put in around 19,000 hours of work. In exchange for those jump-starts, AmeriCorps members get a stipend of about $8,300 over their 10-month terms, plus a $4,700 education credit that can be used for tuition or to pay back student loans.

While Webb's workers mobilize volunteers, other groups definitely fit the "hammer-in-hand"image pioneered by the old CCC and Peace Corps.

The Montana Conservation Corps sends tight-knit teams into the backcountry, sometimes for months-long stints, to clear trails and otherwise improve public access to the Last Best Place.

"We describe ourselves as a natural resource-related effort to enhance and protect the environment,"says MCC's Steve Nelsen. "That description takes us a whole bunch of places."

Last year, MCC's good deeds included the clearing of 150 miles of trail and 35 miles of fencing, five miles of stream bed restoration and a variety of building and reclamation projects. Volunteers restored historic buildings in backcountry areas -- including at least one cabin originally built by the group's spiritual forebears, the Depression-era nail pounders of the CCC.

"It ends up being a very intense experience,"Nelsen says. "Our teams work in such close proximity for such a long time. I mean, we send a crew into the Bob Marshall, and there they are for weeks with no one but each other. Probably more than anything else, that experience is central to how people in MCC learn."

Those seeking a less rustic volunteer experience can spend their 10 months of service helping kids. Building Skills for Adulthood, an adjunct to Volunteer Montana, trains mentors for foster kids.

"These are kids who have, in some cases, been in the foster care system for 10 years,"says Melony Gilles of Building Skills. "So we're not just trying to provide them with outdoor buddies. Some of them just don't have a lot of social skills, and they need help developing them."

Then there's the other MCC, the Montana Campus Corps, which Nora Knell describes as a school-based effort to involve students in AmeriCorps. With offices at 10 colleges around the state, the Campus Corps puts student volunteers in touch with agencies such as Red Cross and Opportunity Resources. In addition, the group runs the Montana Tutoring Corps. In Missoula alone, 26 MTC volunteers provided 300 hours of help for elementary school kids last year.

Knell is a good example of where a stint in AmeriCorps can lead. Originally a Corps member herself, she now works as the Campus Corps' project director, continuing the work she started when she first enrolled in the president's far-flung brainchild.

"Personally, I think it's a wonderful program nationally,"she says. "And in Montana, the way the programs have been able to vary their focuses to respond to our more rural communities has just been fantastic."

For more information, call Volunteer Montana at 542-5061; Montana Conservation Corps at 587-4475; Building Skills for Adulthood at (800) 556-6803; and Montana Campus Corps at 243-5177.

[photo]

Montana Conservation Corps workers rehab a trail in the summer of 1996. Photo courtesy of Montana Conservation Corps.

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