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  • Writer's pictureGreen Iowa AmeriCorps

Member Spotlights | 2023-2024 Quarter 1

In this blog, read about some of our current AmeriCorps members: Kevin, Allie, and Sara!

Kevin Demler's Green Iowa AmeriCorps Journey: Planting Trees and Community Impact

Kevin Demler, a 2nd term member of Green Iowa AmeriCorps (GIA), is making a impact on the environment and community. Originally from a small town out in the country in southwest Wisconsin. He grew up with a backyard filled with a vegetable garden, a large woodland area and some chickens and bees that his family raised. After completing high school Kevin's journey took him to the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), where he earned a degree in mathematics with a minor in political science. Following his graduation from UNI in December he had been looking for something fun to fill the remaining time until his lease ran out. A 6-month position with GIA seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Kevin joined the program with a focus on tree planting, and continues that work in his second term of service now. Currently serving as the Neighborhood Trees Coordinator at the Center for Energy and Environmental Education on UNI's campus, Kevin focuses on various tree planting initiatives. He emphasizes the benefits, such as beautification, temperature regulation, increased property values, carbon capture, and flood prevention to community members in the Cedar Valley. Additionally, Kevin and his team contribute to community gardens, providing produce to residents, reducing grocery expenses, and improving overall health.

His service to the Cedar Valley through this program has "...impacted the community a lot, before I started here there was no dedicated tree program or person, and now that we have a program we’ve been able to greatly increase our planting and thus our impact on the community."  

He says experience has reignited his love of the outdoors and has inspired him to redirect his career path away from traditional data analysis jobs that he had been applying for previously and more towards something in this line of work when his service term ends.

In reflecting on his second term, Kevin notes a more concentrated focus on tree planting. With the experience gained from the first term, he feels more confident in his role, enabling him to accomplish more and build trust within the community. This term has been a continuous learning experience, emphasizing the dynamic nature of roles within programs like GIA. Kevin has been actively engaged in various service activities beyond tree planting, including garden installations, prairie maintenance, rain garden installations, education lessons, trail maintenance, and trash clean-ups.

When asked about what he would say to someone considering joining a program like Green Iowa, but are unsure if it's the right fit for them Kevin says, "Not to worry about it too much, any and all backgrounds are welcome.  I had never planted a tree before I started working here, and now I’ve organized events where we plant 50+ trees in a day."

Looking ahead, Kevin envisions himself continuing in conservation, likely in Iowa or Wisconsin, contributing to ongoing efforts to preserve and enhance natural environments.

Allie Greethurst: Green Iowa AmeriCorps Advocate for Community Gardens

Meet Allie Greethurst, the Garden in Every Lot coordinator. Originally from Urbandale, Iowa, just outside of Des Moines, Allie is an alumna of the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) with a degree in Environmental Resource Management and Geosystems. As the coordinator for Garden in Every Lot at the Center for Energy and Environmental Education (CEEE) at UNI, Allie leads outreach efforts and oversees garden installations. Her role is dedicated to breaking down barriers to gardening, ensuring accessibility for all members of the community.

Allie is serving in her first service term with Green Iowa, and says, 

“It's my first service term. It's very intimidating, but also very exciting. There's a lot of opportunities that are just out there and I kind of get to pick and choose what I want to do, which is very fun.”

Allie's role is centered around creating positive impacts in local communities through Garden in Every Lot. By offering outreach and installing gardens for those who might find the prospect daunting, she aims to break down barriers and make gardening a universally accessible activity. The Garden in Every Lot program was started during the summer of 2020, and has helped over a hundred gardeners in the Cedar Valley since its inception. 

Allie's journey into Green Iowa AmeriCorps was prompted by some very common feelings among recent college graduates: "What do I do now?" At the time she wasn't sure, and was uncertain where her degree would take her. She had heard about the program a few times from friends and in one of her college classes and thought it seemed like a great opportunity.

One of the highlights of her service so far has been an opportunity to help out at a local community garden in Highland Park in Waterloo. Towards the end of the growing season she helped put down compost, till the garden beds in preparation for the next season, and take the old garden plant materials to the compost facility. Allie says, "While we were there, there were just a ton of community members who are out there helping along, and a lot of them didn't speak English or, you know, had a little bit of issues communicating with us directly. But that was never a problem because we were all there for the same goal, to better the community garden, and that was a lot of fun." 

For prospective GIA members, Allie highlights the importance of a willingness to try new things, step out of comfort zones, and possess a genuine desire to make a positive difference. The experience is more than just a job — it's an opportunity to grow, learn, and contribute to meaningful change.

To those uncertain about joining GIA, Allie's advice is straightforward: "Do it. That's probably a very generic answer, but we have people of every type of background. We have someone who's just about to take the law entrance exam. We have people who graduated with degrees that don't even relate to Green Iowa stuff at all. We're all here just because we like doing this work. It's a very good experience builder and everybody is very welcoming here. It's okay to mess up and it's okay to not know what you're doing."

In her service term, Allie has cultivated skills in connecting with people from different backgrounds, fostering empathy, and refining community-building abilities. Stepping out of her comfort zone has become a natural part of leading conversations and engaging with diverse communities.

Post-service, Allie is considering a second service term with the program, potentially serving closer to her hometown in Des Moines.

Sara O'Connell: Nurturing Nature with Green Iowa AmeriCorps

Meet Sara O'Connell, serving as a Land Steward with Polk County Conservation. Originally from Southern Illinois, Sara's journey led her to live out west, splitting her time between Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, where she immersed herself in nature while work-camping on farms and managing campgrounds. Later in her career, she managed the health and beauty section in a cooperative grocery store, balancing her work with outdoor activities like mushroom hunting, foraging, bike rides, and camping.

Sara's connection with nature deepened during her time at the Columbines School of Botanical Studies in Oregon, where she studied herbal medicine, ecology, botany, and sustainable plant harvest. Her path eventually brought her to Iowa in 2019 where she met her future husband and stepson, she welcomed her youngest son in 2021. Following all of that she says: "I finally felt ready to jump in and make that career change with GIA this year."

As a Land Steward with Polk County Conservation, Sara contributes to the positive impact on local communities. Engaging in various activities, from seed harvesting to controlled burns and timber stand improvement projects, she explores her passion for plants and botany, actively participating in the conservation efforts of native prairie seeds.

"I’ve had the opportunity to work with almost all aspects of native seeds and it’s been a very cool experience. At Polk County Conservation they are one of the largest providers to the state of native prairie seeds. Since I’ve started in October I’ve been able to see nearly every aspect of that process from harvest to cleaning to drying, and even hand-seeding a prairie with various species. They harvest from various plots around the Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt and dozens of different species to help create their mixes and single source seeds for use. As a lover of plants and botany this process has been very exciting to work with.  I’ve also participated in my first ever controlled burn of a prairie, timber stand improvement projects. Our work will vary greatly seasonally so I’m excited to see how things change throughout the year." ~ Sara O'Connell



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