AmeriCorps, Living in Southwest Colorado, and Practicing Taking a Step Back

     Anyone who follows me on social media might have noticed the majestic mountains and picturesque lakes that have taken over my feed this past year. It is true; I have been living the dream, surrounded by some of the planet’s most beautiful landscapes. Southwest Colorado is truly a magical place. It performs an exquisite balancing act between some of the world’s most extreme climates: desert and alpine (as pictured above; photo taken at Sand Canyon). From where I was based in Cortez, I could drive an hour one way and be in the desert, and then drive an hour the other way and hike to alpine lakes. The past year, however, has not been entirely spent trekking through the wilderness and skiing down slopes. It has been defined by learning curves, new friendships, and shifts within myself.

     For those of you who don’t know, after I graduated from Muhlenberg College in May of 2018, I was completely lost. I had absolutely ZERO idea what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be, and what kind of job I wanted. I spent the summer job searching while I went back to my high school lifeguarding and swim lesson instructor jobs. As the summer’s end creeped up on me, I, still jobless, began to enter full panic mode. “Back-to-school” anxiety was replaced with “I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING WITH MY LIFE” anxiety. Then, when I needed it most, an opportunity with AmeriCorps popped up.

What is AmeriCorps?

     AmeriCorps is often described as a “national PeaceCorps.” It is essentially a national community service organization that places individuals with organizations all over the country that are given grants to hire AmeriCorps members for service terms that can range from 3-12 months. Service terms are comparable to full time jobs, but instead of a salary, you receive a “living stipend” that is meant to cover your basic needs (rent, gas, food, etc.) and you get “paid” in experience. 🙂 While there are many pros and cons to doing AmeriCorps, I would recommend the experience as long as it is right for you. 

     The particular opportunity I was offered was for a one year service term (AmeriCorps State Direct Service) as a “School Garden Coordinator” with Montezuma School to Farm Project (MSTFP).  If you want to learn more about what I did at MSTFP, check out the seasonal newsletters here.

Farmer's market, AmeriCorps members
2018-2019 AmeriCorps members for MSTFP

     Don’t let the position title fool you, though. For the past year, I have worn many hats. I have been “Garden Teacher,” “School Garden Caretaker,” “Recipe Book Developer,” “Rock Hunter,” and many, many more. I took care of the school gardens that I worked at; taught garden lessons focused on environmental conservation, nutrition, and cooking; and designed and edited a recipe book based on the tastings that we did during garden lessons (Which might be getting published! Hence, my delay in getting back to some of you about getting copies of it). And, although I spent much of my time teaching others, this experiences taught me many things as well.

Lessons I've Learned

1. Food is very personal.

     I recall a friend once told me that eating a meal with someone is a very intimate experience. Sharing the experience of growing food, harvesting food, cooking food, and eating food with students, friends, and loved ones this past year has helped me understand this. As I learned during my first week at MSTFP, sensory memories are some of the strongest memories we have. Food is one of those rare things that engages all of our senses: sight, sound (that crunch when you bite into an apple), taste, touch (texture), and smell. Each individual’s experience with food is so nuanced and complicated that just a smell or taste can evoke intense feelings and memories. Everyone has a very personalized food culture. So, it is a gift when these kind of experiences can be shared through moments like introducing students to vegetables they’ve never heard of before (hello, lemon cucumbers!) or preparing a meal with friends.

2. Learn to improvise.

     I can’t count how many times something would go completely and utterly wrong during garden class, despite having the lessons planned to a “T.” The power goes out, the blender breaks, or the whole class is just feeling some type of way and you need to put a smile on your face, turn it all around, and make it seem like it was supposed to be that way all along! This has also been the case on many adventures in the past year. One, in particular, comes to mind. My friends and I had saved up for months and, after a long and cold winter, rallied together to rent a boat for a few days at Lake Powell. Basically, the boat broke down on the first day and everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. I learned that, while making the most out of a situation and remaining optimistic can certainly turn a bad situation into, well, a less bad situation, being able to think on your feet and find solutions, instead of giving up, is a priceless skill to have.

3. It's okay to slow down.

     When you’re a perfectionist who also struggles with depression and anxiety, the pressure you put on yourself to excel can be overwhelming. Sometimes, it can feel like life moves at an ever-quickening pace and we’re lucky if we can keep up. Now, while I’m not at all saying that “just showing up” should become your default, it’s okay to take a step back when you recognize that life becomes too much. This past year, I was blessed to be surrounded by coworkers and friends who reminded me that it was okay to slow down sometimes and take a look at the beauty that was around me. We can often get so focused on the future that we forget to appreciate the present: the struggles and successes that will get us to where we need to be.

What's Next?

     My plans for the future are a bit uncertain. I have recently taken a couple weeks off as I search for the next opportunity (big changes coming soon!). The past few weeks have been filled with mixed emotions, but have also given me the opportunity to get in touch with the things that truly bring me joy. When not applying for jobs, I’ve spent my time doing food photography, working on this blog, taking marketing and graphic design classes online, hiking, and enjoying the time I have with my friends and family. As I move on to the next stage of my life, I will carry with me everything this past year has taught me, including the importance of optimism, good food, and caring people. I will continue to appreciate the connections that are possible through the experience of food and remember how important it is to share our food stories and culture in order to build strong communities and have hope for changing our food systems. And, above all, I vow to practice patience as things fall into place, appreciate the journey, and, when uncertainty or tough times feel too heavy, take a step back to put everything into perspective.

More Adventures in the Southwest