Volunteers among us

AmeriCorps tour sheds light on array of local projects

Stacy Falk Enlarge photo

Stacy Falk

Donít get me wrong, I take pride in the fact that Iíve fit the majority of this town for their personal flotation device. And taught many of your kids to ski. Or that I force myself to smile while renting moving trucks and trailers. And that I am a glutton for punishment when it comes to making peopleís yards look pretty.

Every job in some way is providing a service, but the value I place on my service is different from some people I spent talking to on my recent days off.

Cathy Cowles, executive director for the Regional Substance Abuse Prevention Partners, sparked my little community adventure as a part of AmeriCorps week. The annual appreciation held every March offers people a chance to shadow AmeriCorps members in the field who are making an effect on critical community issues. I hardly knew where I was going until I got there, and each time, I left with a simple feeling of good.

Born and raised in Cortez, M.B. McAfee never forgot the sight of the frozen travelers who died during the cold winter nights on the median of Montezuma Avenue across from her childhood home. After spending 40 years away, pursuing her academic career, she returned in 1998 and said she immediately saw a volunteer opportunity to go back to the trenches, as homeless people were still dying on the streets.

McAfee, who believes there will always be human compassion for the human condition, helped organize other volunteers trying to provide shelter for the homeless, and by 2006 had acquired the use of the old jail building. Her relentless efforts collaborating with key stakeholders in Cortez got the shelter incorporated in 2009, and the city just added the shelter to its proposed budget for 2014.

At the shelter, I met Kristen Tworek and Christy Janiszewski. Neither AmeriCorps member had ever set foot in Cortez before accepting their positions. But both Tworek, 22, and Janiszewski, 28, are satisfied with their choice.

Itís about the experience, says Tworek, who spoke about making paper flowers with tattoo-covered guys who just got out of jail. These men, she said, would get upset if the flowers werenít just right.

Jankiszewski, who left her accounting job in Michigan to pursue a career sheís passionate about, says she wants to work in a place that makes a difference, and be able to look back and know that she actually did something meaningful.

I learned how the shelter operates: Once cleared for drugs or weapons, guests are assigned a room based on a Breathalyzer test. I watched the young women help them get settled with hugs and laughter. As I helped serve the leftover beef stroganoff brought from the soup kitchen, I noticed some familiar faces. I actually knew four of the guests from Durango, and they recognized me.

We chatted as if we had just bumped into each other at the local coffee shop rather than in an old jail set up as a homeless shelter. It helped me realize that the shelter really is there for anyone, and that life can crumble at any time.

My AmeriCorps tour took me elsewhere, too. I attended the School Community Youth Collaborative planning meeting on the upcoming Teen Maze event. Last yearís Teen Maze brought 458 students, 250 volunteers and 30 organizations, said Cindy Lou Houston, program coordinator and AmeriCorps leader. The passion this group of adults had to make this event memorable for the students motivated me to want to volunteer.

Back in Durango, I had the opportunity to learn about another program I knew nothing about. Erica Keter is in charge of mapping all the resources and social services in a database accessible on www.swconnect.org. This is part of a nationwide information-sharing program called 2-1-1. Keterís devotion to establishing the community connections that make the program a successful resource inspired me once again.

My next stop introduced me to Susy Raleigh, whose work with the Student Wellness Initiatives at Fort Lewis College is aimed at making the campus smoke-free. This task is no joke and can get caught up in some pretty heated debates. But Raleigh loves her job so much she will pick up hundreds of cigarette butts, glue them to butcher paper and wrap the mass around a trash can on campus.

While on campus, I continued talking to people who were helping at the recent Youth Expo and started to realize that I had to draw the line on my service tour for this go around.

Stacy Falk is a freelance journalist with a circulating average of four additional jobs in Durango. Reach her atsacef99@hotmail.com.