I am Corina Yeh, a Centennial Volunteer Ambassador for the National Park Service at Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona.
The goal of every Centennial Volunteer Ambassador at each park is to increase the parks’ volunteering capacity. At Saguaro National Park, we decided one of the best ways to do this was to bring back the Alternative Break groups that used to visit the park for week-long service projects. It had been several years since Saguaro had hosted an Alternative Break group, so my supervisors thought it would be beneficial for me to attend the week-long “Alternative Break Citizenship School,” or ABC’S, held at Grand Canyon National Park by Break Away in July.
Initially, my main goal was to pick the brain of Ranger Todd Nelson, current Volunteer Coordinator at the Grand Canyon and the last to facilitate Alternative Break (AB) groups at Saguaro National Park. On my arrival at the Grand Canyon, I was relieved to see a familiar face, Sarah Lechich, a fellow CVA working for the Grand Canyon NP as staff for the ABC’S. We were also joined by another CVA, Joshua Kezar from Big Cypress NP, who was attending as a student. As the group of 70 or so college-aged kids filed out of the charter bus, the energy they brought was immediately felt! They were all leaders in their AB programs from schools across the country with different majors, backgrounds, and ages; All so enthusiastic and ready to learn and serve. Both Sarah and Joshua had been brought up through Break Away Alternative Break groups and had extensive experience with them. This was my first experience working with this demographic in the Park Service.
I must admit, at first I came in a little skeptical and jaded. In my personal experience, many in their late teens and mid-twenties are not very service-oriented. In order to volunteer, they needed an incentive – like a letter of reference to put in their portfolio, mandatory hours for a high school exit program, or something that just looks good on their resume. Even in my school clubs and societies during my undergraduate career, getting a couple hours of commitment from this age-group between their work, school, and social lives was hard enough. Spring and winter breaks were not a time to volunteer your own time, but a time to vacation and relax. I thought that finding young adults who were willing to volunteer for the Park Service on their free time was rare.
But after spending a week eating meal after meal, having deep conversations, and working side-by-side with this group, I realized that I was wrong! In front of me were young adults with a spring in their step and a song in their hearts (literally, there was a lot of singing going on during service) that wanted to give back to the parks. They cared about the environment and wanted to be different from the “normal breakers,” hence the name “alternative.” During their breaks they bond with each other and the community they are in. Break Away has a housing bank for the AB groups to use when travelling to find little to no-cost housing, which is helpful for parks that do not have housing or group camping.There were times of both fun and serious reflection on the environmental and social issues at hand. AB’ers believe in full engagement, meaning a no drug or alcohol policy during their trips which allows participants to be fully immersed in the work and culture. At the Grand Canyon, we volunteered with the Wildfire Crew to prepare the APS corridor for a prescribed burn next year by dragging slash away from the APS power lines and digging hand lines. We addressed the issues and benefits of prescribed burns and learned how the work we were doing was helping the fire crew. The camaraderie between Park Staff (myself included) and the AB’ers was phenomenal. I had several students ask about volunteer projects that their groups back home could participate in at Saguaro National Park and many more inquire about how I came to be with the NPS. A lot of them wanted to know every way they could help the Park Service. The NPS staff and I talked with the whole group about the #FindYourPark campaign, Play Learn Serve Work, Every Kid In A Park, and so many other great Centennial initiatives they could part-take in at home or on trips.
The end of the week was definitely bittersweet. I was so impressed with each individual in attendance, from the Break Away staff, to the students, to my fellow NPS employees who joined me. I definitely learned a lot about my own environmental identity and came away with so many great ideas for Alternative Break groups at Saguaro National Park. As soon as I got home to Tucson, I drafted up a week-long program itinerary that included service and education and got in touch with the University of Arizona and several other schools across the country. As of now, I have 3 Alternative Break groups coming to Saguaro National Park to help with volunteer projects! I am so happy I got the opportunity to meet some of these amazing people and make connections with this community!
Get up, get out, & GO FIND YOUR PARK!