State program brings AmeriCorps to NAC
July 21, 2009
The numbers may not add up. Over one year, six people are each giving at least 1,700 hours of their time, in exchange for a $14,000 stipend. Maybe the financial compensation isn’t the motivator for the AmeriCorps members who are spending this year at the National Ability Center.
Without necessarily having a background in adaptive recreation, these six youth from around the country came to Park City to start at the NAC on Oct. 1, 2008 and have helped people of all ability levels experience activities from bobsledding to archery.
Brian McNiff, 23, received a degree in kinesiology from the University of Mass. at Amherst and was deciding what to do with his life. His experience at an adaptive fitness program in Massachusetts led him on an online job search, where he found the NAC’s website. While there were no employment openings, the site highlighted the AmeriCorps program, one of only eight state-run AmeriCorps programs.
McNiff was accepted and moved to Utah last September, his first time to the state. Then he started assisting with the bobsledding program and instructing skiing. Although, he said, he had been skiing most of his life, the first thing he needed to do was learn how to teach.
"I learned how to ski when I was six so I had forgotten all of that part of it," he said. The hardest part, he said, was "learning how to communicate with somebody [and] how to get points across non-verbally using props or hands or moving their body."
This summer he has been working with the canoeing, cycling and archery programs. After a nine-hour training session for archery, he felt more qualified to teach it to both people with disabilities and people without. He said the experience has helped him figure his life out, from getting an idea of what career he wants to pursue, and even helping him prioritize in his free time.
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"Definitely, I think coming out of school, I didn’t feel overly qualified for certain positions," McNiff said. AmeriCorps "gives you experience which works for if you want to do this in the future, but also, I feel like, [it’s] good people experience and work experience."
Rebekah Etter, 23, came to the NAC after her first year-long AmeriCorps commitment with the National Civilian Community Corps, what she called a "life-changing experience" during which she traveled around the country with a team, completing various projects. She did everything from cutting down trees that were hurting the environment in Key West to cooking with and holding memory groups for Alzheimer patients at a community center in South Carolina. The latter experience impacted Etter, and when she returned to school at Brigham Young University after a year off, she decided to pursue a degree in Recreational Therapy.
"I was 19 when I did that year [with the NCCC] and it was so eye-opening to see a different part of the country and to meet new people and to do these things I would never have had an opportunity to do otherwise," Etter said.
Based on her loves for recreational therapy and AmeriCorps, Etter signed up for the perfect combination: an AmeriCorps position at the NAC. The experience has been as perfect for her in practice as it seems in theory.
"Today, I was thinking ‘This is my Utopia. I cannot believe how happy I am here,’" Etter said, after sitting on a boat with summer campers all day. "It’s amazing to be here and building these relationships with these kids."
But there were places where Etter wasn’t so experienced. "I had never even been skiing before and I got put in the ski program this winter."
Skiing wasn’t the only thing she has learned at the NAC so far. She has also experimented with different ways of encouraging resistant kids to try new, often terrifying, things, saying "it’s just a lot of convincing them that it’s safe and being right there with them and helping them to relax."
She has had the opportunity to work with the aquatics program at the NAC and has seen the gamut of people that that NAC works with. This summer, she is teaching two aquatics sessions; in the morning she works with a one swimmer who is still learning to hold his breath under water. In the afternoon she works with a swimmer who is training for the Paralympics, a task which has required a lot of research and learning.
"If there’s one thing I really learned, it’s that I have to jump in and take a chance and of lot of times that means you make mistakes," Etter said. "I’ve had to become comfortable enough to say, ‘It’s OK if I make a mistake.’"
While full-time staff at the NAC is relatively small, some AmeriCorps members are able to get jobs after their AmeriCorps work. Sarai Morgan said she was "really fortunate" to get hired as a program manager with the NAC after she worked as an intern and participated in the AmeriCorps program there. With her degree in therapeutic recreation from the University of Georgia and over a year of experience at the NAC, she said she was "next in line" when an opening became available.
"I go canoeing twice a week. I go cycling twice a week. And that’s my job. It’s pretty great," Morgan said.
For more information on the AmeriCorps program at NAC, visit http://www.discovernac.org/americorps.html.