AmeriCorps members, who worked on Ocracoke in April, take a break in front of the Ocracoke Lighthouse. Back, left to right: Cameron Riffle, Issac Andress, Katie Hauer, Peter M. Andragouras, Blais Richards, Michael McCauley. Front from left, Chelsea Steffes, Caia Murphy and Kodie Montel. Photo courtesy of Blais Richards

By Peter Vankevich

When walking the Hammock Hills nature trail across from the Ocracoke campground, you might notice how the boardwalk and the handrails, battered over the years from our many storms, look particularly spiffy. Or, when visiting the lighthouse, how nice the boardwalk and freshly painted fence looks.

These improvements were the product of a hard-working team of nine from the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), who spent a month on Ocracoke at the invitation of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. They worked with island NPS staffers Tracy Fox and Jeffrey Walters.

Often viewed as the domestic version of the Peace Corps, approximately 2,200 young adults (18 to 24) every year participate in this 10-month program in teams of eight to 12.

After initial training, they are assigned to work on infrastructure improvements, environmental stewardships and with natural disasters, usually for one or two months.  In addition to their final assignment on Ocracoke, this team also worked in Rhode Island, Connecticut, the Eastern Shore area, Charlotte and Hurricane Florence disaster relief in Myrtle Beach/Conway, S.C.

“The hardest assignment for me was the post-Hurricane Florence disaster work in South Carolina,” said team leader Chelsea Steffes. “We worked with home owners by removing belongings and gutting damaged portions of the homes like drywall, but unfortunately, many of the homes had to be demolished.”

The team got close to many in the communities they worked with. “People would drive up and say, ‘We heard you were here; you have to come to our church; we want to talk to you,’ and we would find out a sister needed help and we would help at that home,” she said. 

Chelsea Steffes paints the fence at the Ocracoke lighthouse. Photo: Peter Vankevich

All nine team members had stories about their year. Common threads were to provide public service to the country, to help those in need, learn new skills, travel to new places and, hopefully, find a career path.

Kodie Montel of El Mirage, Ariz., earned an associate degree in science from Estrella Mountain Community College, intending to work in the veterinary field but decided against that path and discovered AmeriCorps as a way to expand her horizons, gain new skills and to travel.

“I found meeting new people was fascinating,” she said. “Last week I walked around the village and talked to people in the stores and the owners and heard their stories. It was really nice.”
She likes the idea of short-term projects and moving on.

Undecided about her future after a year of college, Caia Murphy, 21, of Herndon, Va., was attracted to the travel and community service.

“My favorite was working with Habitat for Humanity in Charlotte–going from destruction and demolishing houses to rebuilding,” she said. “I also loved Ocracoke because we could see what we were accomplishing.” Murphy, Montel and several others have re-upped for another year.

In addition to the satisfaction of helping others, all mentioned the skills they gained from working with others and learning from a variety of hands-on projects, especially carpentry. Many of the team had no prior experience with the many tools they used.

Caia Murphy and Blais Richards were featured guests on WOVV, Ocracoke’s community
radio station. Photo: Peter Vankevich

Blais Richards, 21, from the small town of Maquoketa, Iowa, after a year and a half of college also wasn’t sure what he wanted to do and learned about AmeriCorps from his brother, who was with another AmeriCorps program in Nevada. But the NCCC, with the travel and opportunity to learn many skills, was more appealing.

Richards is the team’s media contact person. “I’ve learned a lot of professional communication skills,” he said. Richards also renewed for another year and will be support team leader.

Katie Hauer, of Stephen’s Point, Wis., graduated from high school last May and wanted a gap year before starting college.

“AmeriCorps seemed like a good opportunity to do national service for my country,” she said. And I’ve really improved both my carpentry and communication skills.”

Their projects had an impact on people in need. Hauer and several others were particularly touched by working with Miss Denise in Conway, who was so thankful for helping restore her home after Hurricane Florence.

“She let us know how thankful she was,” Hauer said. “She couldn’t use her kitchen, so she used her church kitchen to make us meals for lunch.”

Richards agreed. “Miss Denise was one of the nicest people I met,” he said. “She was so grateful. It was inspiring to see people in a difficult situation that want to help those who are helping them.”

“Ocracoke was one of my favorite communities to have worked,” Hauer noted. “People were so happy to see us.”

Cape Hatteras National Seashore praised the group and other AmeriCorps teams who have worked here in the past.

“Their dedication has helped the Seashore address many important maintenance needs ahead of the busy summer season,” said Mike Barber, Public Affairs Specialist. “Park visitors will directly benefit from their work, especially at high-visitor use areas such as the Ocracoke and Bodie Island Light Stations.”

For more information on AmeriCorps NCCC, including how to apply, click here.

To catch up on Ocracoke news and much more, click here

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