Archive for AmeriCorps

The One Regret

I got to do some amazing and beautiful things in my four years of AmeriCorps. I had the opportunity to serve my community, to respond to disasters when they happened. I got to remove debris from peoples yards, helping to begin the process of rebuilding communities ripped apart by the fury of nature. I got to serve alongside survivors and listen to their stories. I got to lead a team of young adults as they discovered how to change lives through service. I was able to travel across the country serving, digging fireline, building trails, removing hazard trees, and felling invasive species.

I got the opportunity to do all of this, and so much more. And in those four years of service, I only have a single regret.

It wasn’t something that I did, but rather something I didn’t do.

Each year, the St Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT) would make two trips up to Montana to serve alongside the USFS in and around the Beaverhead-Deerhead National Forest. It was a long three day drive as we made the journey out packed into several trucks loaded down with gear. It was on one of these long days driving across the stretch of interstate that I recently looked back upon and felt ashamed of something I didn’t do.

At the beginning of my second year with the St Louis ERT, which happened to be my fourth and last year serving with AmeriCorps, I found myself in one of the pick up trucks with four other teammates. One of them I knew after we served together the previous year and the other three were teammates that I had just met.

We were riding in Blue Hulk (yes, our trucks were named, along with our chainsaws and various other equipment) near the back of the procession of vehicles as we made our way through one of the Dakotas (I believe we were in South Dakota at the time) when we happened to pass a serious wreck. By the looks of it, a driver had crossed the median and oncoming lanes, went up the embankment underneath an overpass and wedged themselves underneath the bridge. Several other vehicles that were not traveling with our group had already pulled off to assist, but first responders had not arrived on the scene.

And there I was driving past it.

Even after two of my teammates asked if we should pull over, I didn’t stop.

And to this day, I regret that decision.

One of those teammates was an EMT. Two others were certified first responders. We had all taken first aid classes. We could have helped. But I didn’t. I kept on driving.

Several minutes later, we saw the ambulance speeding past in the opposite direction towards the wreckage. And that was the moment that I began to regret my decision.

After my time responding to the Joplin tornado three years earlier, I struggled with the thought that there was so much more I could have done. Due to policy, my team was pulled off that disaster response 13 days after we arrived. I struggled with knowing that people still needed our help. There was still something more that we could have done there. I was angry because instead of serving where the immediate need was, we found ourselves heading down to Houston, TX to help out at a youth camp.

At the time, I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t know how to express the frustration that consumed me. Yet, after several meetings with campus staff and teammates, I found myself at peace with it. While I was there, we had done everything we could to help. I had done my best, and there was nothing to be personally ashamed of.

And as I watched the ambulance fade into the mirror, and I saw the disappointment on the faces of my teammates, I knew that I could have done more. We could have done more. Made a difference.

It’s been over two years since those events on the interstate took place. And that moment stands out. Out of the four years that I served in AmeriCorps, that decision is the only one that I look back on and regret. Out of all my travels and adventures that make up my journey, that decision is still the only one I regret, because I didn’t do what my heart knew was the right thing to do.

Looking back on that moment seems like forever ago. How much has changed since then?

Why are you sharing these words? I hear you asking.

I’m sharing them because I have never put them into words. In the years of serving and writing, I never shared them, and I knew I had to. I have to live with that decision and it is a constant reminder that I never want to feel that way ever again.

I now work in realm of the first responder. I answer 911 phone calls every night that I work. I dispatch law enforcement, emergency medical, and fire personnel to calls day in and day out. And I never want to feel that shame of regret ever again. So I do the best that I can. I continue to serve to the best of my abilities.

And when I think about giving up, taking that easy path, I see that ambulance in the rear view window again. I take a breath. And I give it my all.

Dear Mr President

To the President of the United States, Donald Trump,

I understand that these words may never reach your eyes, but I feel that I need to share them with you and the world. Like many people, I did not vote for you. I did not want you to represent me, but the fact is that you are my president.

There are many things I wish I could say to you, but for now I will focus on a single issue.

After graduating from college in the spring of 2010, I joined the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) and served my nation through a program of national service. I entered into communities and helped to meet needs that were addressed. I was part of Class 17, based out of the Denver campus. For seventeen years before me, members of NCCC had ventured forth to serve communities in projects that focused on infrastructure improvement, environmental stewardship and conservation, energy conservation, urban and rural development, and disaster response.

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During that year, I served with teams that assisted the Huston Parks and Recreation with invasive species removal and linear forestry, helped to create a fire-wise community in Crown King, Arizona, and served alongside members of the Missouri Department of Conservation to remove invasive species, assist in prescribed fire operations, and maintain and improve hiking trails in various locations across the state. After the 2011 tornado outbreak that dropped hundreds of tornadoes across the South, I responded to the Good Friday Tornadoes that hit the communities surrounding St Louis. A month later, we responded to the EF-5 tornado that tore its way through Joplin, Missouri.

During my short time responding to the Joplin tornado, I was part of the team that helped to recruit and supervise more than 75,000 volunteers who contributed more than 579,000 hours of service. This operation, led by members of AmeriCorps who had pledged a year or more of service to their communities, helped to defray over $17.7 million in emergency match dollars owed by the City of Joplin to the federal government.

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A year after completing my term of service with NCCC, I returned to AmeriCorps after a year away to lead a team for the inaugural class of FEMA Corps. I became a Team Leader for an amazing group of young adults who stepped up to face the unknown that was a new program within AmeriCorps to serve alongside members of FEMA. We were tested by fire as I led my team to respond to Super-Storm Sandy after it hit the coasts of New Jersey and New York. My team served the residents of Rockaway and Far Rockaway in the New York City borough of Queens after the storm surge submerged most of the homes and businesses on the peninsula.

Over the following two years, I served alongside the AmeriCorps St Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT). It was there that I dived into the world of conservation as I assisted the USFS and the Missouri Department of Conservation in prescribed fire preparation and operations. I traveled up to Montana on several occasions to assist the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest with trail construction and maintenance, hazard tree removal, and firewood collection, as well as various other projects, including invasive species mitigation and site maintenance for several campgrounds.

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I responded alongside my teammates to numerous wildfires and prescribed burns, as well as the flooding in Detroit (11-13 August 2014). In my time with the ERT, my teammates responded to multiple tornadoes and floods that hit the Midwest.

A year and a half ago, I completed my fourth and final year of service through AmeriCorps. I joined the growing community of 800,000+ people who have served as members of AmeriCorps since its induction in 1994. I have seen lives changed because of this program; from the teammate who I have served beside and seen grow to become a leader and those who we have served in the field of disaster response, who needed assistance in their darkest hour.

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Recently, you released your proposed budget that would cut funding to the Corporation of National Service, effectively ending the AmeriCorps programs that serve the communities in which Americans breathe and live. Your budget would create a devastating hole in the lives of American citizens who currently have the opportunity to serve their nation and those who have been touched by the hands of service. It would devastate our nations ability to efficiently respond to disasters, both natural and that which is created by the hands of man. It would cripple my generations ability, and the generations that follow, to serve our nation, outside of wielding a weapon of war.

I have already contacted my representatives and made my voice heard, but I am now addressing my President, the man who was elected to serve this nation; If you cut funding to the Corporation of National Service and to AmeriCorps, you are putting our country at risk. Look at the research and see how effective these programs are before you cripple everything we stand for.

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As an American citizen, I am proud to have been a Corps Member and Team Leader with AmeriCorps. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to serve my nation, making it a stronger place to call home. I am honored to be a part of something bigger than myself.

I will leave you with the pledge that over a million members have sworn:

I will get things done for America –
to make our people safer, smarter and healthier.
I will bring Americans together to strengthen our communities.
Faced with apathy, I will take action.
Faced with conflict, I will seek common ground.
Faced with adversity, I will persevere.
I will carry this commitment with me this year and beyond.
I am an AmeriCorps member and I will get things done.

I hope that you read these words and listen to the voices of National Service as we make our voices heard; “Let Us Serve.”

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Sean Kerr
Corps Member Class 17, NCCC – Denver, CO
Team Leader Class 19, FEMA Corps – Vicksburg, MS
Corps Member and Second Year Member Class 20 and 21,
St Louis Emergency Response Team

Snowflakes

During my first year of AmeriCorps, when I was serving with the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), I was deployed in response to the Good Friday Tornadoes that swept across St Louis, MO. It was one of the first cities that was hit by tornadoes the Easter weekend of 2011, as a storm system rolled across the southern States, dropping over 300 tornadoes across Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

A month later, we raced across the state of Missouri to respond alongside members of several other AmeriCorps programs to the devastation of Joplin, where an EF-5 tornado ripped a mile wide path through the heart of the city.

It was there, as I served in the Volunteer Reception Center, putting volunteer data and emergency contacts into a database, that I first heard the term “snowflakes” to describe certain members of my own team and other AmeriCorps teams. It was a term that was often used as a negative attribute by members of more “elite” AmeriCorps programs.

It wasn’t until two years later, when I joined the St Louis AmeriCorps Emergency Response Team that I fully understood what they were talking about.

The theory was explained to me like this: Every team (the person who shared this theory was speaking specifically abut NCCC and FEMA Corps teams, but also referenced our larger team of the Emergency Response Team) there are a handful of natural leaders who thrive in any situation they are in, about twice as many followers who have the potential to rise to be leaders in times of need, and then a couple of “snowflakes,” individuals who melt away when close to the fire.

The thought process was that natural leaders and followers with potential can be relied upon in times of need, but the “snowflakes” of the group or team need to be in non-stressful positions in times of crisis (say, for example, during a response to a EF-5 tornado ripping through a community or to a hurricane slamming into a major metropolitan community).

During my time in AmeriCorps, we spoke at length about this concept and idea.

I never liked the term. We threw it around like it was just another adjective. We used it liberally when we looked out and felt that other programs were beneath us.

I avoided it because it was had been used to describe my own teammates. I heard it used to describe the AmeriCorps program that built me into the leader. That allowed me to grow as an individual. That gave me strength to face and conquer my fears.

I’m hearing it again, all these years later, to describe, once again, my friends and teammates. It is being used to describe men and women who are willing to stand and fight for what they believe in. It is being used the same way we used it in AmeriCorps, to make people feel better than those who are different from them.

Let me tell you a story about one of my teammates that was once called a “snowflake.” This was a kid that joined AmeriCorps right out of High School. They were shy. Didn’t have the best social skills. They didn’t pour out confidence in the way they held themselves, but their work ethic was stronger than steel.

When we got deployed in response to the Good Friday tornadoes in St Louis, they held back because they were not comfortable being out front. They preferred a supporting role. After we arrived in Joplin, they froze. For just a second, they were overwhelmed. And because of this, members of more “elite” programs, AmeriCorps members that we all looked up to, considered them a “snowflake.”

I, too, froze. I think every single one of us were overwhelmed by the chaos and utter destruction that surrounded us. A “snowflake” is supposed to melt when faced with the trials of fire. Not a single one of us did.

Some of us led teams out in the field. Some of us answered phones. Some of us organized operations behind the scenes. Some of us were there to support survivors physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Some of us didn’t step out into the debris field until almost a week after the tornado ripped its way across the town. But nobody that responded, neither AmeriCorps members or volunteer, melted away.

In FEMA Corps, I had teammates who found their limits. Who discovered their breaking point. I had members of my team that left for various reasons. Fellow Team Leaders who walked away from the experience. But none of them ever melted.

The thing I learned while serving my final two years with AmeriCorps, while serving with one of those “elite” programs, was that everyone wants to make themselves feel better about their faults. We like to boost ourselves up, by looking down on others.

Whether it be on matters of experience or political opinion, we look down on those ‘beneath’ ourselves with disgust. We call them names and insult them because it makes us feel, in some sick way, superior to them. We think that makes us more powerful than them.

But my teammate that first year heard some of the members calling them a “snowflake.” And it made them fight harder. It made them harder than ice. It allowed them to take that flame that threatened to consume them and consume it. To let it be the fuel to prove to the world, but more importantly to their self, that whatever chains that were holding them back could be broken.

I see it happening again. People rising for what they believe in. A resistance to the flood of insults and acts that threaten to consume them.

Here’s the thing: One of those people who was called a “snowflake” in the days following Joplin was me. I was looked down upon because I made the decision to work in a support role in the Volunteer Reception Center, rather than lead a team out in the field. I never called out the person, though sometimes I wish I had, because I knew that I could help more from where I was at than be another set of boots in the debris field.

Ever see what a bunch of snowflakes can do? Just look at the snowstorms that have stopped communities and cities in their tracks.

The Miracle of the Human Spirit

Five years ago, our lives changed. Five years ago, it was the worst night for the lives of hundreds, thousands of people after a line of storms ripped their way across south west Missouri. Five years ago, an EF-5 tornado left behind a wake of devastation a mile wide through the heart of Joplin.

Hundreds were missing. Thousands were left homeless. And something amazing happened.

In those first moments, before the volunteers poured in, even before members of AmeriCorps piled into trucks and started to drive across the state from St Louis in the dead of night, the miracle of the human spirit happened.

We always hear about the thousands of volunteers that poured in to assist. The hundreds of EMTs and Firefighters that flooded into the debris field to conduct Search and Rescue operations. But before all of them arrived, before people were even able to get up onto their feet, someone made the choice to help their neighbor.

Thousands of people, ordinary folk like you and me, made the choice to become part of that miracle. One by one, stories came flooding in of how on that fateful night, neighbors banded together to save one another. In the darkness, they became the light for one another.

If there were any heroes that night, they went unnoticed because they were part of the community.

There is a saying in the world of disaster that all disasters start and end locally. They may have assistance from surrounding communities, states, or even nationally, but they will remain part of the community where they started.

The miracle of the human spirit, the saying that defined the volunteer response to the devastation and rebuilding in Joplin, was defined by the people of that community, individuals who helped one another on the worst day of their lives.

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And even now, five years later, we still remember. And I know that I would not have made a difference if it were not for the community in which we served. The volunteers were never the heroes. We were never meant to be heroes.

The heroes were already there.

What a Year!

It has been a long, exhausting journey these past twelve months. There has been extreme joys, beautiful memories, and a parting of friends to all the corners of the world. There have been the pain of growth and the love of family defined by the blood, sweat, and tears shed side by side with one another.

I look back and I smile because the memories are good. And as the year comes to a close, we reflect back at who we were and what we have become.

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The majority of my year was filled with the experiences of AmeriCorps. I finished my second year as a member of the AmeriCorps St Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT), which was my fourth and final year of service with AmeriCorps. One cannot put into words the happiness (and struggles) of running around in the woods with individuals that I have come to know as more than friends, but an extended family born out of hard work, laughter, and complete and utter silliness.

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I spent (what seemed like) months working alongside the Missouri Dept of Conservation at the Peck Ranch Wildlife Refuge, constructing fireline through the use of backpack blowers and through the process of felling snags and hazard trees.

It was hard work, but through the company of great people, we made it fun. We spent days running chainsaws, learning from experience, and growing together. Yes, I broke the plastic casing to a GoPro (the final tree in the video above) but it was awesome, none the less.

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I also spent a month (or more) down at Roaring River State Park restoring glades in the back hills of the park. My team had the opportunity to set fire to hundreds of burn piles that were created by others, even though we ended up chasing a couple run-away fires up the hillside. There is nothing better than hiking a mile and a half through the woods in 70 degree weather to burn a couple piles, only to return a week later through the snow and light off over 100 piles, all before lunch.

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I also discovered the different methods of lighting off burn piles. Most of the time, we were advised to keep the fires small and manageable, so the flames were no more than 6 feet tall. Other times the burn piles that we created were up to ten feet tall and lit off from a distance with old diesel fuel, allowing the flames to reach high into the sky. As seen in the photo above, we are standing about 30-40 feet away from the burn pile behind us and were still feeling the heat.

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The opportunity to serve in AmeriCorps is more than a journey of hard work and enjoyable experiences, it is a path of self-discovery. I got to have long conversations with my teammates about life, love, and our purpose in the world. We stayed up late into the evenings watching the setting sun as we learned about one another and ourselves. It is a safe place to express your thoughts without the fear of judgement, a place where you can grow through the thoughts of others and be a sounding board for others.

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As our year of service was coming to an end, I got the opportunity to depart Missouri and make my way up to Montana for several weeks before the rest of the Corps arrived for the end of year celebrations. The six of us piled into a single truck, packed to the brim with supplies and tools, and drove the three days into the mountain wilderness we called home. I worked and camped off the trail in a trailer with three other second years and two amazing ladies who were crazy enough to decide to return the following year to help teach and lead their teammates and assist the program to grow.

We did more than work and play together. We explored. We sang. We made crazy (and funny) videos. Lets just say that Montana was filled with great friendships that continue to grow, despite the distance that separates us now.

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One of our biggest projects in Montana is trail clearing and maintenance. Every year, hundreds of thousands of trees fall in the woods (even more due to the pine bore beetle). A fraction of those land on a trail at some point. We spent weeks hiking hundreds of miles as we cleared trails, including parts of the Continental Divide Trail.

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Many of the trails that we cleared headed right up into the mountains and ended up at beautiful views, glacial lakes, and mountain peaks. On good days, we would be able to spend a little bit of time at the top as we ate lunch (or a snack) and rested our feet before turning around and heading back down the mountain.

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I also received the opportunity to work alongside an amazing group of retired smoke jumpers and two other second year members who are some of my closest friends. We camped out at the cabin and assisted in rebuilding the fence that encircled the area to keep out stray animals and unwanted vehicles. We were basically the pack mules, hauling the logs and fallen trees in from the woods that were used for the jacks and rails.

These guys were awesome. We hung out after work listening to their stories and their adventures as some of the elite wildland  firefighters, and discussed how much has changed since the days they fought fire in the wilderness.

Since departing from AmeriCorps I have wandered far and wide. I spent several months in the process of searching for a job. I put in what seemed like hundreds of applications, from positions with the USFS, DNR, State Parks, and Dispatch positions from Alaska to Flordia, Hawaii to Maine, and everywhere in between. I had several places contact me back for interviews, before I eventually was offered a position with the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office in South Carolina as a Telecommunication Operator.

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I started my new position the week after Thanksgiving, where I got to gather with some of my family in Athens with my grandparents.

Looking back, this year has been a blessing of hope and persistence. I continue to write and go through the process of editing Journeys: the adventures of a Nomad. I have started the Drawing Challenge with my cousin, a project to keep us both active in our sketchbooks. I have continued with the 52 Week Photo Challenge Course (this is the last week) and look forward to continuing with the Critique Group in the next year.

I will continue to explore. I will continue to have adventures. And I will continue to learn to live and love to the fullest.

A Letter From the Past

Two years ago, I started my journey with AmeriCorps St Louis Emergency Response Team. In that first week, we set out on Quest, an amazing team building experience that included late night navigation skills through the woods, the exploration of rock formations, attacks by angry yellow jackets, poison ivy, and getting to know some of the most amazing people that I had the privileged of serving with. As part of that experience, we were asked to write ourselves a letter that would be returned to us at the end of the year.

Well, a year has passed since I received, and promptly lost that letter.  I found it again while clearing out my locker at the office. It’s been two years since I wrote the following words, but I thought I should share them:

Hey you,

I’m not sure if you’ll remember me, or the person you once were, but I hope you have a chance to be still and re-read these words you once wrote. I hope this year is everything you expected it to be, both the good times, the trials, and the moments you came to find yourself stepping out into the unknown. I hope that you have embraced he friendship of those you knew as teammates and expanded your capacity to love.

I am a broken individual, torn between the events of the past and the expectations of the future, but I hope that you have come to terms with his fact of life and have made moves to heal who and what you were. I hope you have found the voice that was lost to fear, the unconditional love that was wrapped up in all your pain, and the freedom to forgive that is hidden in the darkness of your / our heart.

Know that bridges can be rebuilt and walls can crumble and fall to the power of love. You wrote it in ink on your wrist to remind you of all the times you failed and have chosen not to give up on yourself and on others. You wrote it to remind you of the darkest days that you have survived, and the days to come.

I just finished Quest, the adventure through the woods where you got lost in the darkness, but found yourself trusting those around me. Remember these lessons: You cant make it through life alone, it’s not worth the pain of never having loved. You will fail, but that does not make you a failure, it’s just part of the process to success. you will be lost, but as long as you know where you are supposed to be going, you will never be truly lost, perplexed, yes, but never lost.

I’ve known these people for just a couple of days and they are already family. I hope you have come to know who they truly are and embraced them with open arms no matter what. I hope you have also allowed yourself to be honest with yourself and with them, that they know you just as much as you know all your faults, failures, shortcomings, and strengths, as well as accepting the past which has made you who your are.

With that, I will leave you to return to your journey, but remember to reflect on the boy you once were and the man you’ve become.

God Bless and PEACE
STKerr

Sometimes, it is best to reflect on the words written and the words that we have yet to write. It’s definitely been an adventure, and I cant wait to see where this journey takes me next.

Lessons Learned

This weekend is the 75th Anniversary Reunion of the Smokejumpers in Missoula, Montana. In 1940, the first individual jumped out of an airplane to combat a wildfire. Ever since that moment, young men (and now women) have followed suit to don the parachute and drop through the skies to fight fire. It is a history rich in stories, individuals, and friendship.

This past week, I headed down from Butte, MT to join members of the National Smokejumper Association (NSA), not to be confused with the other NSA, as they volunteered with the USFS outside Wisdom, MT. Myself and two other teammates joined five retired Smokejumpers at Hogan Cabin (just past Big Hole Battlefield) as they began work in the construction of a jackleg fence. Three other teammates headed over to Gordon Reese Cabin (on the Idaho border), where they joined another group of retired Smokejumpers who were cutting and splitting firewood for the winter.

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When I first heard of this project, a couple weeks before it actually happened, I came to the conclusion that this would be a challenging project; Smokejumpers are the elite wildland firefighters. They constantly push themselves, find challenging obstacles to overcome, and are complete bad-[edited]es.  I was expecting these muscular dudes who were stoked about wildfire, jumping out of airplanes, and still fought fires.

What I never expected was to work with a lawyer, a surgeon, a retired marine, and some of the most humble firefighters in the world. These men did not consider themselves heroes, but were at one time young men paying their way through school. Smokejumping back then was not a career, but a way to survive, to gain experiences, and to explore the world.

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We spent the first couple days dragging posts and rails out of the woods. These dead and live trees had been cut by these retired Smokejumpers to provide materials for the fence that we were scheduled to create. It was exhausting work, but we knew, and the guys we were working with constantly reminded us, that this project would have never gotten accomplished if we hadn’t been there for the “heavy lifting.”

Yes, a green tree 21 feet long, even when it is less than three inches in diameter and limbed accordingly, is still heavy. The 12 foot sections that were slightly thicker were just as heavy. Sometimes they were heavier.  Even the dead, dried out posts and rails were a struggle to drag out of the woods.  But we did it. We dragged what seemed like several hundred trees out of the forest, loaded them up onto the trailer, and towed them back to camp.

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As we constructed the fence, cutting the posts to size with the jig, nailing them together to make jacklegs, fixing together rails, supports, and posts, the members of the NSA invited us to constantly learn.  Maybe we already knew some of the things they taught us, but we smiled and enjoyed the friendships and comradery that spanned the generations.

As the evening fell upon us, we sat around the campfire and listened as they shared stories of a time not so long ago, when they were young men and the world was before them. They shared how they trained, partied, and fought side by side and I saw the companionship and the family that they had become through this shared experience. I saw how they smiled and reflected on what made them into the men they were today.

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As younger individuals, they praised us for our dedication to service and marveled at the adventures that we had been a part of through AmeriCorps. Many of them shared how they saw hope in us and poured out advice onto us.  I could probably write an entire post about the advice they shared, but I will shorten it and end with the (often conflicting) advice that the five of them shared with us:

When looking towards the future, we were advised to: Find a career. Find what makes you happy. Follow our dreams. Don’t work for the government. And if all else fails, it’s alright not to know. Don’t worry if it takes you until you are 30, married, or broke.

While I am not a smokejumper (and have no desire to jump out of an aircraft to fight fire), I am honored to have had the opportunity to work beside these amazing men. And while they are old in age, each of them have a youthful fire that continues to burn within.

A View into Life

Sometimes, we get the opportunity to see into other peoples lives through the lenses of photography.  Over the past 26 weeks, I have participated in a 52 Week Photo Challenge Course with Ricky Tims (letsquilttogether.com).  We are over halfway through the course, and still continuing to learn and have fun behind the camera.

Below is a selection of images taken through the class.  I’ve included some, but not all, of the details and notes from each image.

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Week 1: Selective Focus.

The first couple weeks were all about learning how to utilize the camera. The course is designed for artists of other mediums to learn about photography and techniques with the camera (pre and post editing). I decided to focus on my primary medium, painting and drawing.

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Week 3: Windows.

We were given the broad challenge of Windows.  I captured this image looking out my bedroom window over the Soulard neighborhood of St Louis as the sun was rising and I was preparing to head out on project.

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Week 6: Forks.

While not technically a fork, this broom rake was utilized to cook some hotdogs for lunch over a burn pile.

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Week 7: Black and White.

I found these steps above our housing at Roaring River State Park and the contrast of black and white brought them to life.

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Week 8: Abandoned.

Another find at Roaring River State Park.  I wont actually share where it is located, but this self portrait is one of my favorite images.

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Week 10: Board Games.

This week, our challenge was to use board games to establish unity and cohesion in our image.  I chose to use figures from my favorite game, Last Night on Earth, to create an image that I enjoy.

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Week 12: Do Over #1.

The first time I did a mirror image, I didn’t line up the edges correctly, so they didn’t match up to my liking.  So, I retried and used a photo of a burn pile of freshly cut cedars for Fen Restoration.

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Week 13: Composite Montage.

An image of one of my teammates after a controlled burn with the Nature Conservancy.  The second image is of the burnt ground and the remains of the leaves, twigs, and rocks.

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Week 14: Street Photography.

I chose to wander through the Soulard Farmers Market with my camera to capture the images for this week.

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Week 15: Happy.

Some of my teammates cant help but smile.  Especially when hanging out with one another and creating and burning burn piles.

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Week 16: Golden Hour.

This image was captured through the condensation on the truck window in the early hours of the morning as we prepared to head out for project.

STKerr_Week17_Dreamscape

Week 17: Dreamscape.

The staircase of the Stegall Mtn Fire Tower caught my eye, and the Dreamscape technique of editing in Photoshop brought out the sunset on the wood.

STKerr_Week19_Red

Week 19: Red.

While out at Prairie State Park, I broke out the red face paint and four yards of red fabric and had fun with a couple of my teammates.

STKerr_Week20_MirrorMontage

Week 20: Mirror Montage.

Another find at Prairie State Park: the hip bones of a deer.

STKerr_Week21_TheRoad

Week 21: The Road.

I took some liberties, as this was the closest thing to a road that we could find while working in the Silver Mines Recreation Area of the Mark Twain National Forest.

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Week 23: Stuck In Place.

This week, we were challenged to set up in a single location and not move for over an hour.  These were three of the images captured while up on the roof of my apartment.

STKerr_Week25_DoOver2

Week 25: Do Over #2.

Last week, this image was chosen as the photo of the week.  This self portrait was taken by utilizing the timer and then laying down in a freezing cold stream.  It only took 20ish tries to finally get the image that I wanted.

As you can see, this year has been both a challenge and a joy as I’ve started to figure out and rediscover how to utilize Photoshop to bring my photos to life.

The Scars That Shape Us

This past Friday, we remembered one of the most devastating tornadoes that struck our nation, running its finger of destruction through homes, businesses, and lives of those who both lived and worked there, and all those who were moved to respond.  Four years ago, on the evening of 22 May 2011, an EF-5 Tornado, one of the most destructive according to classification, ripped through the city of Joplin, MO.

To say that this storm affected our lives is an understatement.  At the time, I was serving as a member of the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) with AmeriCorps, responding to the Good Friday Tornadoes in St Louis that struck just a month before.  That evening, the great wheels of response started, as members of the St Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT) and Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) began their journey through the night to arrive in the midst of the devastation.  The following morning, my team and the 20 other members of NCCC joined the second wave of ERT members to deploy.

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As a child, one of the movies that I watched time and time again (and is still one of my favorites) was Twister.  In it, one of the characters who has never experienced the wrath of nature asked the innocent question of what an EF-5 tornado was like.  Over the silence that fell across the table, one of the storm chasers responds, “The finger of God.”

The six mile path that cut its way through Joplin, over a mile wide at it’s widest point (according to the map of damage that I received before heading out into the field), is a vivid reminder of the force, the power, and the destruction caused by this force of nature.  Many claimed it to be an act of God. I don’t see how it couldn’t be. With winds reaching over 250 mph (some have told me they reached over 300 mph), the storm tossed vehicles, flattened structures, stripped the bark off trees, and turned lives upside down.

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Something happened in those first few weeks we stood on the ground.  We assisted with the Search and Rescue operations. Cleared unnamed streets. Began moving debris. Managed and led volunteers. Fell asleep exhausted. Laid awake unable to sleep because we knew what visions would be revealed in the dark of night. Cried. Mourned. And got up to face it each and every day.

This storm, that tornado left a scar that could be felt. We could see it each and every day out in the field. You can still see it today if you know what you’re looking for. But it reached much deeper than that. Lives were torn apart. Lost. Left amongst the ruins. Ripped apart by what we saw. You could feel it in each and every life of those who responded, those whose feet stood amid the destruction.

I see it more and more each year, in how we continue to live our lives.

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The AmeriCorps pledge states that “[we] will carry this commitment with [us] this year and beyond.” Many of us have continued to serve. Many of us will always serve. We have scattered across the nation and the globe, knowing that we have been shaped by these experiences. Shaped by this storm.

I still see the images. I won’t let them fade. I can’t. For, they are a part of me. They are a part of each of us.

Art, Photography, and Fire

Life has been crazy. It always has, I just sometimes forget to ignore it at times. You see, today (well, yesterday) was Valentines Day. It was also the Mardi Gras Celebration here in Soulard (the second largest, right after Batton Rouge and NOLA if you believe the internet these days). As usual, it was a [edit] show with tons of drunk people, loud music, and yeah, that’s about it. Other than that, the adventure has been “uneventful.”

Uneventful. Yeah, right. If you can believe that, I have some ocean-front property in Kansas that I’m also trying to sell.

You see, life is not, nor will it ever be, a tamed animal within a cage where you can look at it from a safe distance and proclaim, “that’s nice.” No, life is an adventure and a jungle full of surprises, fears, hazards, and joys. It is comprised of the most extreme highs and devastating lows. It will build you up just as quickly as it will tear you down.

Barbarian Lover Barbarian Warrior

As before, I mentioned that yesterday was Valentines Day.  The Hallmark season of love and affection.  And lets not forget the roses and chocolates that come with that profession of love.  You may be wondering to yourself why the above paintings are just hanging out up there, staring at you.  Well, the simple reason: Love.

Several years ago, I stumbled across the idea of the Barbarian; the Lover and the Warrior.  You cannot have one without the other, just as you cannot separate the two.  The passion runs to deep.  So, we have the warrior and the lover, two distinct characteristics of the same individual (the Barbarian).  Ever since that day (way back when I was still attending Anderson University and attempting to discover what I truly believed) I have done my best to live the life of the Barbarian; a life that is full of living and loving.

This progressed into my life motto: We Live, We Love.  It is tattooed on my wrist, a daily reminder that no matter our struggles, nor the chaos that surrounds us, to fully live, we must learn to love.  And to fully love, we must learn to live.

You see, we must be constantly learning or we die.  It’s that simple.

On a side note, the above paintings will be showing at the 33February show hosted by MySLArt.org, and although I will be unable to attend the gallery reception, I hope that if you find yourself in the St Louis area, you go support these amazing artists.

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A couple weeks ago, I got the opportunity to attend a huge event.  An event like no other.  It was a night full of the Holy Spirit.  Surrounded by inspiring music, some amazing praise and worship, and thousands of individuals seeking out God in their individual journeys, I felt the love pour over me once again.

This was Winter Jam.

For a while, I felt lost.  I felt as if nobody could understand the chaos that was happening in my life.  Like a ship lost at sea, with no way to guide itself home.  And as I sat there, beside people that I had met minutes before, I knew that I was home, no matter where I found myself to be.  That’s the power of love.

I met some amazing individuals that night.  High School students.  Their parents.  College students.  Wanderers.  Thinkers.  All lovers and warriors willing to take a stand for what they believed.

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Oh, I’ve also been keeping myself busy with AmeriCorps St Louis Emergency Response Team.  We’ve been having adventures all across the state of Missouri, all of us eagerly waiting to respond to the next disaster or wildfire.  We’ve been doing a lot of Glade Restoration projects; cutting out cedar and burning them in piles to open up the natural areas where native grasses and wildflowers thrive.  It’s been interesting to see the difference between how MDC does it in the SE part of the state and then wander on over West with DNR who does it differently.

Neither are wrong, they just do it differently.  It’s an interesting perspective on conservation.

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We’ve gotten close to wanting to kill one another (you may think I’m joking about this, but who really knows).  We bicker and we go back and forth at times with complaints and opinions, but truly, we all love one another.  We are all about that love, y’all!

In all seriousness, every group is going to have it’s issues.  This is what happens when you put 37 individuals together for an extended amount of time.  Yes, it’s not perfect.  Yes, we screw up.  But in the end, we must ask ourselves if it is really worth it.  I already know the answer to that question.

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So, if you take anything out of this post, let it be love.  And even though I am up at all ends of the night/morning assisting at the Emergency Warming Shelter (all you Second Years owe me!), I love what I do.  I love the life that God has put before me.  Even with the struggles, heartaches, and pain that often accompanies the adventure.  And what I love most are the lives that I have crossed paths with, those friendships that span across the nation and around the globe.  May God continue to bless you and pour out His love upon your life.

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